TODAY -

The Politics of Scheduled Tribe Status in Manipur

Dr. Thongkholal Haokip *

Chagah Festival : Annual festival of Liangmai community celebrated at Taphou Liangmai village, Senapati :: Oct 30, 2012
Chagah Festival of Liangmai community at Taphou Liangmai village, Senapati in Oct, 2012 :: Pix - Popcha Yambem



Since independence the Indian government has categorised certain historically-disadvantaged communities into Scheduled Tribe (ST), Scheduled Caste (SC) and Other Backward Class (OBC). These categorisations were intended to bring advancement of such socially and economically backward people through special provisions of affirmative discrimination and thereby reduce the gap of socio-economic disparity with the more affluent communities. It is through the constitutional protective arrangement, affirmative action and provision of resources and benefits that the government intends to lift up such groups of people.

India's tribal policy

The term "tribal" is used in administrative sense to denote STs in India. The categorisation of certain communities as 'tribal' or 'indigenous peoples' by the Indian government is primarily based on their lived experiences of marginality and vulnerability in relation to their historical dependence on land and forest resources. They are minority in most of the states they reside, even though some of them later become a dominant group in certain states due to their political demands and the subsequent creation of news states.

India has a clear tribal policy which was formulated by the first Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1959. This is known as 'Panch Sheel' or five cardinal principles concerning the Government's attitude towards the tribals. This policy sought the protection of tribal rights in land and forests, non-interference of outsiders into tribal territory, their social and cultural institutions, and administration. It specifically denounced imposing of anything on them.

The Constitution specified 7.5 percent of vacancies in public sector and government-aided educational institutions as a quota reserved for the ST candidates. It was decided that this reservation system would be reviewed after a period of ten years, and the system has been extended every ten years for the past 60 years.

This percentage of reservation is still well below their population percentage of 8.1. In due course of time, apart from some groups who were newly given ST status, certain communities categorised as SCs were also later put into the ST category leading to a drastic increase in the number of ST population. However, the percentage of ST reservation has not been increased appropriately in proportion to the increase in ST population.

ST status for Meiteis

In the Northeastern state of Manipur the Scheduled Tribe Demand Committee of Manipur Valley (STDCMV) has been demanding ST status for the Meiteis since the latter part of 2012. Within a year the STDCMV was assured by the Indian Prime Minister, as reported in some Imphal dailies, for examining the demand provided the Manipur state cabinet takes a decision in favour of the committee's demand. There has never been such a hasty decision taken by the central government on any contentious demand made in the Northeastern region. This led to a series of protests by the hill tribes of Manipur in the form of press releases and threatening more intensive protests.

The STDCMV argued that the Meiteis Mongoloid physical features and the practice of animism (Sanamahi faith) by most of the population fulfill the criteria of being categorised as ST. It blamed the government of India for the present rift and misunderstanding between the hills and valley people, which is the result of the recognition of hills people as tribes by the Constitution of India in 1950, and the Meiteis as general category, emphasising the nonexistence of such atmosphere before Indian independence. They also emphasised the need to protect their endangered culture and identity by way of being recognised as ST.

The hills perspective

To the tribes of Manipur the main reason, as evident from their press releases, for the Meiteis seeking ST status is to avail the opportunity of reservation in jobs. However, when this apprehension is carefully examined, it can be found that the weaker sections of the Meiteis have already been given the SC and OBC statuses. If all sections of Meiteis need further reservations, they can either be club into SC or OBC. There is no logic when they enjoy the SC and OBC statuses which have more reservations for jobs in public sector and in educational institutions than ST, will seek for ST status. The Meiteis are dominant group controlling the state and its apparatuses. The state has been protecting their cultural, political, and economic rights, and they do not need ST status to protect their culture and identity.

When delved into this demand there are tacit objectives behind this. The hills-valley divide is so deep that it is almost disintegrating the state of Manipur. To the STDCMV, if ST status is given to the Meiteis the wedge between the hills and valley people could be reduced and the integrity of the state can be preserved.

For many decades the Meiteis, through the instrument of their dominated state legislative assembly, have been attempting to remove the restriction imposed on the Meiteis in purchasing lands in the hills without any success. The ST status to Meiteis will automatically remove this restriction and therefore be able to grab the lands in the hills with their sheer purchasing power. Through this they can expand their occupied territory beyond Imphal valley. This status will also exempt the whole valley from paying income tax.

To the hill tribal people of Manipur the demand for ST status by STDCMV is a ploy to attenuate the fervent political demands of the Kukis and Nagas, as well as a tacit strategy of the dominant valley dwellers to make inroads into the hill areas of the state.

The way out

Contemporary Manipur is filled with demands and counter-demands, protests and anti-protests, and bandhs and counter-bandhs. The three communities are intractably interwoven over different issues. What needs to be done is to pay attention into the apprehensions and misunderstanding among the state's people. Here arises the management of diversity. This key-issue has to be handled carefully by the state government. The best policy is to carefully and seriously manage this looming apprehension and misunderstanding among the people.


* Dr. Thongkholal Haokip wrote this article for Hueiyen Lanpao and for The Sangai Express
The writer is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the Presidency University, Kolkata
This article was posted on August 28, 2013.


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