Manipur’s Likely Future and Resolving Meitei ST Issue Through Democratic Process

L B Singh *

Over 220 people have lost their lives in the ethnic clash since 03 May 2023, and thousands lost their homes and livelihoods and are still living in the relief camps. Everyone’s lives in Manipur have been adversely affected, and the State’s economic activities have been paralyzed.

However, fighting continues as if the Meiteis and the Kukis want to avenge the deaths of each person killed in the clash, increasing the number of casualties and misery of the people. The hatred between the two ethnic communities is deepening by the day.

The security forces have successfully established a buffer zone between the Central Valley and the hill districts. The armed Kukis and the Meiteis guard their respective areas from the bunkers. It is unlikely that the Government of India (GoI) had planned for such measures before the present crisis. However, its success might have given some ideas for solving the protracted peace talks with the Nagas and the Kukis.

Manipur’s Likely Future.

Only the GoI may know what is planned for Manipur’s future, and no one in the State knows about it. However, considering the present crisis, efforts by the GoI to find solutions to the problem of insurgency in the region, and the protracted peace talks with the Nagas and the Kukis, Manipur’s likely future is outlined below:

o Since the ethnic clash erupted, the Kukis have stated they cannot live with the Meiteis anymore and demand a separate administration. However, the GoI is likely to honour its commitment to preserving the integrity of Manipur, and the Union Government demonstrated it by turning down the Nagas’ demand to integrate the Naga-inhabited areas of Manipur to form Greater Nagaland or Nagalim.

o It is believed that the GoI is making serious efforts in the peace talks to resolve the problems between the Nagas and the Kukis, including the overlapping claims in the hill districts, and to establish separate Territorial Councils for them. There are many problems currently, and these are expected to be resolved in a few years. The chance of balkanizing Manipur into “Territorial Councils” is very high in the peace process.

o Though Manipur’s integrity is maintained, the level of emotional integration among the ethnic communities will be low. Most Nagas’ and Kukis’ interests would be restricted in their respective “Territorial Councils.” Very few of them would be able to consider the resources and development of the State as a whole.

Breaking Down Emotional Integration.

Numerous factors have adversely affected emotional integration among the Meitei, Naga, and Kuki after the merger with the Union of India in 1949. However, only a few critical factors are highlighted below:

o Unfortunately, till the 1950s, some Meiteis had a superiority complex and did not treat the other tribes with mutual respect. The problem was compounded by the Hindu orthodox Meiteis who practiced untouchability then.

o The prominent Meitei social and political leaders of that time lacked foresight and knowledge of the modern world. They were puff-up with pride with the false belief that they were Aryans and descendants of Arjuna of the epic Mahabharat. Meiteis were not included in the list of Scheduled Tribes (STs) based on their statement, even though Meithei (Meetei/Meitei) was classified as a “Hill Tribe” in the censuses conducted by the British from 1891 to 1931.

o As a result, when the Nagas and the Kukis were included in the STs list in 1951, Meiteis were isolated by law. Meitei, not being STs, has since been restricted by law from settling in the hill districts of Manipur, which is 90% of the State’s area.

o Many Nagas and Kukis are influenced by the propaganda of the divisive forces, namely proponents of Nagalim or South Nagalin and Kukiland or Zalengam or Zogam, respectively. The divisive forces have been trying to divide the people of the hill and the valley by spreading hatred and discontent and circulating the fabricated history of Manipur.

o Reacting to the divisive forces, some Meiteis started spreading hatred, especially against the Kukis, in the last few years. The emotional integration between the Kukis and Meiteis is almost snapped during the present crisis.

Military operations can check militant activities. However, emotional integration can only be maintained and revived by compassion and empathy for other ethnic communities. Peace and normalcy will return to Manipur when the dormant sections of Meitei and Kuki, desirous of peaceful coexistence, can stop the vociferous and violent sections of their people or organizations from spreading hatred between the two ethnic groups.

Inclusion of Meiteis in the STs List.

The composition of the Meitei population (excluding Meitei Pangal (Muslim) in Manipur decreased from 58.9% in 1951 to 44.9% in the 2011 census. Meitei’s annual population growth rate is the lowest among the ethnic communities in Manipur.

The childbirth rate or Total Fertility Rate (TFR) of Meitei as per the 5th National Family Health Survey (2019-2021) was 1.77, below the critical minimum TFR value of 2.11 required by a community to sustain its survival.

Meitei realized much later the importance of inclusion in the STs list for the existence of the community and constitutional safeguard for the protection of social practices, culture, and identity and demanded inclusion of Meitei in the STs list in 2012.

On 29 May 2013, the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs requested the Government of Manipur to forward specific recommendations along with the latest socioeconomic survey and the ethnographic report. Prominent tribal leaders warned they would break away or opt out from Manipur if Meitei became an ST.

The State Government has been intimidated by the above warning and has avoided the contentious issue for over 10 years, even though most Meitei MLAs individually promised their support for including Meitei in the STs list. On 27 March 2023, the High Court of Manipur directed the State Government, among others:

o To send a recommendation in reply to the letter dated 29 May 2013 of the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs (Still operative).

o Consider the case for inclusion of the Meetei/Meitei community in the STs list expeditiously, preferably within a period of four weeks from the date of receipt of this order (Manipur HC revoked and deleted this part on 21 February 2024).

The Nagas and Kukis were alarmed that if Meiteis were included in the STs list, they would lose their exclusive land rights in the hill districts of Manipur. Meitei could then settle in the hill districts of the State, and the other tribes would have to share the special privileges of STs with the Meiteis.

The Manipur High Court’s order brought the Nagas and Kukis together, and the All Tribal Students’ Union, Manipur, arranged a solidarity march in various places on 03 May 2023.

After the rally, the Kukis started attacking the Meiteis, burning down their homes at Churachandpur and spreading to Kangpokpi districts and Moreh. On hearing the news, angry Meitei mobs reacted against the Kukis in the valley and indiscriminately burned or destroyed their properties.

However, the solidarity march ended peacefully in the Naga-dominated areas, indicating that the Kukis have objectives other than protesting against the Manipur High Court directives.

Even if the State Government forwards the recommendations, the Meiteis can’t become ST if they don’t fulfill all the criteria. The recommendation will be reviewed by the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs and sent to the Registrar General of India for approval. After that, the National Commission of Schedule Tribes must approve it before forwarding it to the Union Cabinet for the final decision.

It would be against natural justice to deny the competent authority’s consideration of the demand to include Meitei in the STs list. Therefore, it is unethical and undemocratic for any tribal organization to deny the demand from being forwarded for consideration by intimidation and other violent means.

Nagas and Kukis would not sacrifice the constitutional safeguards of the STs for any reason. Therefore, the Meiteis should not sacrifice the opportunity to be considered for inclusion in the STs list. However, it would be a highly challenging task for the State Government to forward the recommendation for the following reasons:

o Most Kuki and Naga MLAs opposing the inclusion of Meitei in the STs list are from the ruling BJP and the collation parties.

o The State Government is already in a delicate position due to the present crisis, and the ethnic cleansing of Meiteis from the Kuki-dominated areas has been completed.

o If the State Government forwards the recommendation, the divisive forces may also start disturbances in the Naga-dominated areas.

It would be in the best interest of the people of Manipur if the State Government could bring a consensus among various tribes about including Meitei in the STs list. However, considering the case’s progress in the last 12 years and the opposition to the demand even by a section of Meitei, it would be prudent to follow the regular democratic procedure to resolve the contentious issue.

The inclusion of Meiteis in the STs list can be discussed and voted on during the forthcoming monsoon season of Manipur’s State Assembly. MLAs may be permitted to vote freely across the party line to find the mandate for including Meitei in the STs list.

Every vote in the Legislative Assembly would be crucial, as some Meiteis, almost all the Nagas, and Kukis MLAs do not support the demand. Z+ security and helicopter services may be provided to the Kuki MLAs, as their vote would be critical.

If the majority vote does not favour the inclusion of Meitei in the STs list, the Meiteis can wrap up their campaign of demand for ST status. However, if the majority vote favours the inclusion of Meitei in the STs list, the State Government should forward specific recommendations along with necessary documents without further delay.

If Meitei becomes an ST, the possible balkanization of Manipur into Territorial Councils may be prevented, and it would, in the long run, promote Manipur’s integrity in all respects.

* L B Singh wrote this article for
The writer is a retired Captain of the Indian Navy
and can be contacted at bimollaishram(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was webcasted on May 08 2024.

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