Make the right noise and extend your hand of friendship

Ze Mnui
File Photo: Asangle Disong/ Ze Mnui, where Tradition Overshadows Modernisation: A piece of History

(1) THERE IS RIGHT now a glamour amongst the Meitei people to be Scheduled Tribe ostensibly for jobs in government and seats in higher educational institutes of learning. But the veil that had hidden the agenda is now open for the people to see. The real agenda is to grab tribal land ! This is stated categorically by no less than a Meitei MLA in an interview with Karan Thapar. The fallacy of this line of thinking lies in the fact that the Meiteis think that if they are accepted as “tribals” they will get the “Scheduled” Tribe status under Article 342 of the Constitution of India. And once they become ST they will be able to buy tribal lands from the Hill Areas of Manipur from another tribal.

(2) This misconception among the Meitei society needs to be placed in its correct perspective. Being a “tribal” person does not automatically confer upon anyone the status of a “Scheduled” tribe. A person may be a “tribal” but not necessarily a “Scheduled” Tribe. In other words, not all tribal persons are “Scheduled Tribe”. Being a “tribe” is one thing and to be a “Scheduled Tribe” is totally another matter. They do not go hand in hand automatically.

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(3) For the good of Manipur to maintain its integrity, which is stridently echoed by all Meiteis across Imphal valley, it is important to correct the current narrative. Going back to history and fishing out documents to claim that the Meitei society is tribal is just the first step; there is another step to follow in consonance with Constitutional provisions. Every society has the liberty to search for their identity and make their claim. No one can deny them the right of being a “tribe” or a “caste”. But as stated above being “tribe” does not automatically confer upon any tribe the status of “Scheduled” Tribe under Article 342 of the Constitution of India. There are several processes that has to be followed to become a ST now. There has to be a recent socio-economic survey and study and an ethnographic study based on the criteria laid down by Lokur Committee before the processes of consideration and making the proposal into a law is finally initiated.

(4) The ethnographic study may perhaps show that the Meiteis were once a tribe or is a tribe and may still be having very strong tribal behaviour and mindset even today. They may fit the bill to be a tribe. But there is a dichotomy here which has perhaps emerged from “sanskritisation” of Meitei society. Sanskritisation is a term in sociology which refers to the process by which castes or tribes placed lower in the caste hierarchy seek ‘upward’ mobility by emulating the rituals and practices of the dominant castes or upper castes. This term was made popular by Indian sociologist M. N. Srinivas in the 1950s. In a broader sense, also called Brahmanisation, it is a historical process in which “local” Indian religious traditions become syncretised, or aligned to and absorbed within the Brahmanical religion, resulting in the pan-Indian religion of Hinduism. The process in Manipur can be said to have started in the 18th Century when Shanti Das Gossain converted Meitei to Hinduism during the reign of Maharaj Garib Nawaz. Gharib Nawaz was a Meitei ruler of Manipur Kingdom, ruling from C. 1709 until his death. He introduced Hinduism as the state religion of his kingdom and changed the name of the kingdom to the Sanskrit Manipur. He changed his royal name from his birth name Pamheipa to the persianate Gharib Nawaz. However, many Meiteis still trace their history to the great epic of Ved Vyas, Mahabharata (1000 BC to 400 AD) and consider themselves to be part of the Indo-Aryan stock of people and descendants of Arjuna. Ved Vyas is traditionally regarded as the author of the epic Mahabharata and is also regarded by many Hindus as a partial incarnation (aṃśa-avatāra) of the god Vishnu. He is the compiler of the mantras of the Vedas into four Vedas, as well as the author of the eighteen Puranas and the Brahma Sutras. The Meitei lineage traced to the days of Mahabharata is another dichotomy as it would mean that the Meiteis would have been Hindus before Shanti Das Gossain had an opportunity to convert the Maharaj and the Meitei people. If they were Hindus before Shanti Das came to Manipur they cannot fall in the categorisation of “tribes” but would fall under the categorisation of “castes” being Hindus. Perhaps it was in this backdrop of Meiteis being Hindus that some Meiteis were notified as SC in the 1950 Presidential Order.

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(5) A socio-economic survey, if carried out now, would have data and information covering all requisite parameters for analysis as to whether the Meitei community fulfil the indices of being primitive, backward, low social status, low educational attainments, inadequate representation in government service and remoteness of villages etc. benchmarks for being designated as “Scheduled Tribe” under the Constitution. The availability of recent socio-economic survey report and the ethnographic study report of the Meitei community would make it possible for starting the processes of administrative examination and political level consideration of the proposal in the State of Manipur. With specific recommendations of the Manipur government the Central government would be able to initiate their own processes and arrive at a conclusion. If there are no hitches in the administrative consideration at the Central government it would be taken to the level of political consideration with specific recommendations for Parliament to enact a law and the President to notify an Order for designating the Meitei community as Scheduled Tribe, or otherwise. All these processes are yet to be carried out and will start only after a socio-economic survey and study report and an ethnographic study report are available. The Meitei community should not be over-excited based on the recommendation of Manipur High Court. In this context it is important to juxtaposition the judicial consideration that is going on in the Manipur High Court about the jurisdiction and competence of any High Court to make recommendations pertaining to claims for being SC or ST in the context of their judgment. Without going into specifics of the case it is important to state that the Supreme Court has already made some adverse oral observations against the Manipur High Court judgment which is circulating widely in the social media.

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(6) The first Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1950 were notified Presidential Orders under Article 342(1) of the Constitution. These Orders were based on the list of depressed classes framed by Dr. J.H. Hutton in his Census Report 1931. The list of Scheduled Tribes in the State of Manipur was first notified through the Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) (Part C States) Order, 1951. The Meitei claimed that they were left out in the ST notification under President’s Constitution (STs) Order, 1950. To look into various grievances across the country, etc. a Backward Classes Commission (BCC) was constituted on 29th January 1953 with KaKa Kalelkar as the Chairman. The Commission was directed to determine the criteria to be adopted in considering whether any section of people should be treated as socially and educationally backward. The Commission was also directed to investigate the conditions of all such socially and educationally backward classes and the difficulties which they encountered in carrying out their work and prepare a list of such classes. The following criteria were suggested for determining backwardness:

  1. Low social position in the caste hierarchy
  2. Lack of educational progress
  3. Inadequate representation in government service
  4. Inadequate representation in the fields of trade, commerce and industry. Caste was taken as the key factor in making a list of backward classes.

    A questionnaire was circulated by the Kalelkar Committee to all the states and union territories and it included questions like: “Do you think that the lists of SCs and STs issued under the Presidential Orders need any revisions? If so, what castes or communities do you suggest for inclusion or exclusion from the above mentioned two lists (SCs & STs list)? Please state reasons… Have your state government recommended the inclusion in or exclusion from the existing lists of any tribe, caste, or community?”

(7) The questionnaire gave an opportunity to the Manipur government to recommend for inclusion of the Meitei either as SC or ST, which they did not do. KaKa Kalelkar report stated that the Meiteis were given an opportunity to be ST, but they did not include themselves. Rather, it was the Meitei who chose not to be included. When the BCC requested a list of tribes to be included in the Scheduled Tribes (modification) list from each state and union territory, again the Meiteis did not include themselves. The Kalelkar report further mentioned about advanced communities in each State who it stated do not require any positive discrimination. It stated that along with their educational advancement they have also begun sharing effectively in politics, governmental posts and other spheres of life and do not suffer any more from the inferiority complex common to the Shudras and the Meiteis were designated as an advanced community.

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(8) Given these facts, it is indeed sad that the organisations and personalities leading the Meitei ST status demand campaign did not carry out a serious research and study of available information for their ST tag demand. Had they done so a reading of the Kalelkar Commission report would have made them understand what had transpired in the past and that their case for SC or ST status, even if they had demanded then in 1953-56, would not have been acceptable as they were designated as an advanced community. Considering the factual positions revealed by the Kaka Kalelkar report of 1956 which had designated the Meiteis as advanced community, the question of designating now would not arise at all as the Meiteis have become even more advanced today by wielding political power, administrative dominance, educational advancements, professional occupations, overseas employment and accumulation of wealth. Lack of proper research resulted in false narrative and the wrong conclusion could have been avoided. Proper analysis and transparent discussion with all stakeholders including the current STs of Manipur would have made it clear that their ST demand would definitely not be acceptable in the present time. The false narrative and mis-guided expectations has torn the society apart and set the State in flames. All these were avoidable.

(9) It is also important to understand the extend of OBC coverage as far as Meiteis are concerned. As per the Central List of OBCs for the State of Manipur, 1995, the Meitei Pangals, Meiteis and Meeteis, including Meitei Brahmins, Meitei/Meetei Sanamahis and Rajkumars are recognized as OBCs. The aspect of job creation, social and educational advancement, if any, is sufficiently taken care of by the OBC reservation. The extend of reservation facility available to Meiteis under OBC category is more than 90% of their population.

(10) Over and above this, some Meiteis are SC under Article 241 in 1950 and they also enjoy the reservation benefits. What more can a single community have?

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(11) The ST demand raises the question about the Constitutional legality of a single community being allowed to enjoy all three categories of reservation namely SC, ST and OBC and this matter would need to be clarified by Constitutional pundits. Answering this question would be the first step and priority and would eliminate the false narrative circulating among the Meitei society. There is also the quagmire/awkward position the SC of Manipur would be faced as to whether they would still be SC or will become ST too like the rest of the Meiteis, if the demand is met, or because of their SC position the Meiteis cannot be both SC and ST and this question would need to be addressed too. This is another dichotomy.

(12) The dominant community is worried about the number game that if the population of the tribes surpass their population in the near future they stand to lose out politically along with its concomitant powers. There will be a delimitation exercise in 2026 across India and in Manipur too which could change the landscape of the electoral boundaries of Manipur especially between hills and valley. There is the fear that the immigrants from Myanmar may change the ratio of hill versus valley population. At best the Government of India will use 2021 census population figures for delimitation, if not an older figure, and there is no chance that the current immigrant population will be taken into account. The Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) have already expressed their concerns. The government has acted by evicting them from the forest. It is the job of the State government to implement forest laws and laws related to illegal immigrants. However, the government of Manipur is seen by the CSOs as weak and soft hence there is the tendency on the part of the CSOs to take laws into their own hands which undermine the State government’s authority. This tend of CSOs taking the initiative and law in their own hands need to be curbed. The State government has to be more authoritative and forceful. On the issue of the illegal immigrants the State government should hold the dominant position and not allow the CSOs to come in direct confrontation with any community and dictate terms. The CSOs should know their place and dis-engage from this issue and leave it to the State government to do their job and make them accountable if they fail.

(12) The irresponsible approach of dragging in the lumpen masses into the fight for ST tag by the organisers causing loss of lives, properties and irreparably tearing up the delicate fabric of Manipur society would need accountability. There is a feeling that the intellectuals of Manipur are complicit by their silence of not informing the correct positions to the organisations and leaders who are pressing the ST demand by misleading the people on false narrative and untenable hope. The Meitei leaders and intellectuals should tell the truth to the Meitei masses and not raise their hope and expectations by their silence thereby validating the current false narrative by their silence. Manipur is at a critical juncture and in the brink of civil war, as uttered by the chief of Meitei Leepun in an interview with Karan Thapar for The Wire, and only truth and rational thinking may save Manipur from splitting up. Arming oneself to the teeth and fight to the death has not worked anywhere. The end result is hardship, sufferings, poverty and deaths with no future for the coming generations. We have seen conflicts of ethnic cleansing proportions in Rwanda and the Balkan states and its outcomes. They do not glue people together. Rather they disintegrate nations and break them up in pieces.

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(13) If the stringent slogan of all Meiteis is to maintain the territorial integrity of the State of Manipur, they should introspect and consider whether it is wise to blindly pursue the ST demand, which appears to be untenable for reasons explained herein, and only exasperate an already ridiculously untenable situation or take a step backward to think and consider the ways and means available to repair the damage caused and strengthen the bonds among the different communities of the State to stay together as a single entity under Manipur State. National Register of Citizens (NRC) is not the job of CSOs. CSOs have raised their concerns and they should now leave it to the governments, State and Central, to do their job. If the State government fails to do it, make them accountable. The fight of the CSOs is with the State government for its failure and not with the Chin-Kuki/Mizo tribes. The era of jingoism, hegemony and imperialism is outdated in the modern world that we live in. It does not work anymore. The people in Manipur are peace loving and we have to bring back such ethos once again and unite the people.

(14) To each constituents of people I say, make the right noise and extend your hand of friendship. Let us live in peace and leave behind a better place for our children and their children.

Ngaranmi Shimray is an activist and political observer based in New Delhi. View are personal. Feedback/comment @Aran Shimray on X.

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