Which one should precede - ILPS or ST status demand ?

Samarjit Kambam *

Now that the Manipur State Commission for Scheduled Tribe (MSCST) is in the process of examining, conduct studies and submit recommendations to the Ministry of Tribal Affairs on the grant of ST status to Meiteis, the Scheduled Tribe Demand Committee of Manipur (STDCM) has achieved one milestone thereby rekindling the people’s hope.

Many experts have voiced their opinions many a times that the Meiteis meet the criterion for inclusion in ST category. Thanks to STDCM for their visionary approach and their “never back down” movement. Now the people in the valley i.e the Meiteis are seeing a silver lining, a ray of light at the end of the long and dark tunnel.

Well, lets keep our fingers crossed and hope for the best. It is a known fact that in unofficial figures, the number of people from outside the state comprising of migrants both legal and illegal have far exceeded the number of indigenous people residing in valley areas of Manipur.

To save the indigenous people especially valley inhabited Meiteis from getting sidelined or engulfed by the sea of migrants, two big issues viz, movements for implementation of ILPS in the state and demand for ST status to the Meiteis are being pursued by Joint Committee on Inner Line Permit System (JCILPS), STDCM and various other civil society organisations. Even though the demand of ILPS and demand for ST status for the Meiteis seems a little late, I give my heartfelt thanks to the JCILPS & STDCM and other civil society organisations for their relentless pursuit for the core goal.

It is also a known fact that, around 200 to 300 migrants are coming to Manipur from outside the state everyday. Once they reach here, most of them stay in the houses rented or otherwise of their relatives and friends. After a few months, they will be possessing Voter IDs and Aadhaar Cards with their birthplace as Manipur, God knows how. Thanks to the bureaucrats and big shots.

If this trend of influx continues, imagine the polarisation of population and unwanted change in demographic pattern after four-five years. We, the Meiteis residing in the valley will become the minority and will be completely sidelined, drowned in the sea of ever non-ending of influx of outsiders. So the demand for ILPS and ST status, though a bit late can be termed as quite a visionary approach, for a better future of the indigenous people, for a better future of our children and their children.

Both the issues are very genuine and reasonable but a thorough deliberation is required as to which one should be more appropriate to pursue first. Many people voice their opinion with some saying that ILPS should be pursued first. Some others voice their vice-versa opinion that demand for ST status should given paramount importance.

Here, RCW gives its humble opinion that pursuing for ST demand for the status for the Meiteis by preceding ILPS movement would be more practical and a more viable option. It is a known fact that we the Meiteis led a tribal way of life until the Bengali preacher from Bangladesh thoroughly brainwashed King Pamheiba with his fancy chemical tricks with the ibid king turning the established norms and customs of the Meiteis topsy turvy by forcefully converting them to Hindu Vaisnavites.

Most are of the view that implementation of ST status to the Meiteis means reverting to tribal way of life - half naked, spear yielding and killing wild animals. That’s a big NO because in this world of technological marvel, there is no reverting back to that way. The main reason for pursuance is for the ‘tag’ of ST status to act as a firewall for the Meiteis to protect our indigenousness with the Sixth Schedule implemented in the valley areas.

The demand for ST for the Meiteis will bridge the ever widening socio-economic and political gap with the tribal hill brethrens contrary to what our hill brethrens perceive by denouncing the Meiteis’ demand as outlandish. The outcome of ST status to Meiteis will bring a sense of holistic approach or a sense of wholeness regardless of hill and valley which will act as an impetus for unity cutting across ethnic lines.

The demand for ST status spearheaded by STDCM instills a sense of apprehension to the tribals residing in the hills in terms of loss of reservation benefits in education and employment, throwing open existing parliamentary and assembly constituencies reserved for tribals, rescinding of autonomous district councils, usurpation of traditionally held tribal land in the hills and sidelining of hill people. The demand for ST status by STDCM runs divergently to what is being perceived by our hill brethren.

It is a well known as well as true to the bone fact that in the valley the number of outsiders has almost outnumbered the Meiteis. The future of the Meiteis is too bleak and grim as the Meiteis are deprived of their ethnicity with the economy controlled mostly by outsiders. The intention of STDCM is neither to weaken the socio-economic and political status of the tribals residing in the hills nor to push them to the brink but to protect the indigenousness, maintain our identity and protect ourselves from the verge of becoming an extinct group of people by looking from a broader prospective.

The movement in tandem with ILPS is sort of battle-cry to prevent the valley from becoming the stronghold of outsiders, so that in the near future we don’t face the music like the one being faced by indigenous Tripuris in their home state Tripura which is totally engulfed by Bengalis. In the long run, our hill brethrens will realise that ST status to the Meiteis will result in a unified Manipur with a renewed and strong sense of brotherhood and camaraderie among the hill and valley people.

Its more about standing together firmly on any issue that arises cutting across ethnic lines. In fact, the main aim of STDCM is strengthening the whole Manipur in various facets cutting across community lines.

It is strongly felt by the people residing in the hills that they are neglected by the valley people especially the Meiteis. Course, lack of good transportation facilities, communication and hilly terrain are stumbling blocks to development in the hill areas. However, the Meiteis cannot be blamed for such predicaments. The leaders representing the hill people may be taken as the key reason for lack of development in the hill areas and trust deficit of hill people towards the valley people.

Most of the hill leaders reside in the valley in posh areas in the heart of Imphal city in the peak of materialism, thinking almost nothing for the hill areas they represent. Our hill brethrens may find it hard to digest, however, the fact and the ultimate ground reality is that the Meiteis residing in the valley are a disadvantaged lot. We may be considered more depressed than the depressed class. In the true sense, we are one of the most marginalised, neglected and exploited people in India.

The Meiteis, even though considered majority group in Manipur, however is included in the official percentage of people in the lowest strata of Indian society. Many experts have opined that as per Article 341 of the Indian constitution, the Meiteis meet the criteria for inclusion in Scheduled Tribe. A rich wealth of tradition and folklore exists which are evidences that Meiteis led the tribal way of life. So the need arises to identify and comprehensively document all traditional knowledge available so that effective steps for protecting the ‘common heritage’ of Meiteis are taken.

We can justify our claim using ethnographic information. Allocation of funds to the Meiteis in the valley areas is grossly inadequate so most of the welfare schemes in the valley areas remain like the dark side of the moon. However, Articles 341 and 342 empowers the President of India to draw up a list of castes and tribes.

Lastly, it comes down to the very survival of the Meiteis who reside in the valleys. Our movement for ST status is sort of a war cry against Indian mainland where, religion wise most of the Meiteis are Hindu Vaisnavaites but in mainland India, we are treated as the most backward and inferior kind of humans and weaker sections of people. So our movement is more inclined towards horizontal equality, not vertical equality.

The matrix of social dynamics of the Meiteis is filled with paradoxes. Grant of ST status to the Meiteis will result in a lot of positive outcome. Polarisation among the various ethnic groups in Manipur will also be reduced. We the Meiteis never think about hill people and valley people separately. We think of Manipur as a whole and its integrity. It may be further added that we have no intention to reside in the hills, nor do we have it in our blood. We are quite contented by residing in the valley.

The main reason for the ST status and ILPS movement is because we are cocooned by the fear that we may not have a foothold in our own birthplace if the present influx of outsiders continues unabated. Though the Meiteis are perceived by the hill people as privileged one, it is a distorted view of actual state of affairs being faced by the Meiteis.

An overwhelming majority of Meiteis live in rural areas and a substantial percentage of rural population depends on cultivation. Loss of Traditional Occupations and Inadequate Allocations for their Development and Welfare is a distant dream for serious gaps between policy declarations and ground reality persist.

We the Meiteis are one of the most vulnerable sections of society in India. There are many reasons for this - historical, cultural, economic and social, political and administrative, to name but a few. With many depending on agriculture, submergence of settlements due to creation of dams for hydro electric projects have rendered many in the valley homeless, making them a trivialised one, far worse than the most backward of backward classes which were unilaterally abrogated and abridged by the colonial government, an abrogation and abridgement continuing even after Independence.

Livelihood for a large percentage of the Meiteis is shrinking fast. Developmental assistance has been and is usually sporadic, patchy, truncated and inadequate. The problems faced by the Meiteis which is considered OBC engaged in traditional occupations faces the same fate of those sections of SCs and STs who are dependent on similar traditional occupations.

The Union cabinet has given its permission to include three communities in Tamil Nadu- Narikuravas, Kuruvikaran and Malayali gounders in the Scheduled Tribe list. The central government is committed to grant ST status to six communities in Assam viz, Moran, Muttock, Tai Ahom, Koch Rajbongshi, Sootea and Tea Tribes as announced by Union Minister Kiren Rajju.

Similarly, the communities that were found eligible for their inclusion in ST category from Jharkahnd are Bhogta, Deshwari, Ganjhu, Dautalbandi (Dwalbandi), Patbandi, Raut, Maajhia, Khairi (Kheri) and Puran. Why not the Meiteis also as we also meet the criterion for inclusion in ST status?

We the Meiteis face discrimination in Mainland India. The lifestyle of Meiteis includes indication of “primitive” traits, distinctive culture, geographical isolation, “shyness of connect” with the community at large, and “backwardness along with geographical isolation. We have to create awareness of the precarious and pathetic state of the Meitei community by coming up with transparent criteria and a clear definition of what makes groups eligible for ST status.

Developing such criteria with specific economic and social data that can help compare communities requesting ST status with other STs and to the Indian population at large would limit the precarious character of deciding who belongs to what group, thereby ensuring greater transparency and confidence in the process of awarding deserving communities to ST status.

My humble opinion is to vigorously pursue for the ST status of the Meiteis to materialise. With Sixth Schedule as our protective shield, it will be a cakewalk for implementation of ILPS. The readers may be thinking who the heck is the writer to give views and opinions when he is nowhere in the picture. Well, even though I am not able to take part in mass rallies and meetings, at least I am voicing my opinion as a way of encouragement to our brothers of MSTDM & JCILPS.

* Samarjit Kambam wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was posted on October 12, 2017.

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