Why The Meitei Community In Manipur Is Demanding The Scheduled Tribe Status?

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File photo: World Meetei Council stage sit-in-protest at Jantar Mantar for ST demand

(This message was sent by Sagolsem Biramani to the forum of the European Manipuri Association on the 9th May 2023).

Respected EMA Members,

Last night I was pondering upon the situation back home and to be honest I couldn’t sleep for hours thinking about the tragedies that thousands of innocent people are going through, on top of the precious lives lost and the current state of our beloved homeland! I feel that we are afraid of taking some responsibility and running away from the real issues we face back home instead of trying to understand each others’ feelings and opinions. We are in western countries where people care about each other’s views and issues are discussed and debated constructively and we all take part in these exercises in our workplaces and daily life. Then why don’t we do the same here, at least among ourselves, if we are unable to do a constructive discussion here where we have people from both the communities then what can we expect from our people back home who are fighting against each other! So far we avoided this sort of discussion in the EMA forum because of the following reasons, briefly:

EMA was founded with a constitution not to get involved in political issues back home. EMA should not be affiliated to any political party, underground or overground. EMA will work for the welfare of all the Manipuris in Europe irrespective of their community affiliation, socially as well as culturally.

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But we are under unprecedented times and we feel that it would be only fair for us to have a healthy and constructive discussion empathetically as a family. Having said that, we don’t like to get into issues such as ‘who started the firing or burning or killing etc.’ but the long term grievances facing the two sides. Please be polite and respect each other’s views and present your views respectfully, none of us are experts but common people so please don’t shy away from expressing your views.

I will start presenting my views of why Meiteis (Meitei and Meetei are used interchangeably but I will use Meitei as it is more convenient for me).

Background: Meitei community was in the ST list according to the 1881, 1901, 1931 census but had been removed from the list starting in 1951. Please see below. This was because of the opinions of just three people, without consulting the wider people! https://www.ifp.co.in/opinion/why-meiteimeetei-demand-for-st.

Ever since the delisting, a section of the society started demanding for the Meiteis to be re-listed in ST status and thus it is a decades long issue. Until very recently, relatively, this was never a major issue but why have the Meiteis started taking this issue so seriously in the last few years? The following is an opinion, mine and only mine, nothing to do with EMA.

Please feel free to skip this Para. There is a noise, inside and outside the Meitei community that they are privileged or cream of the Manipuri society! Yes, in the Manipuri context they may be. But how privileged are they? I like to put myself on the plate to show how advanced the community is! I was born and brought up in a village called Yurembam, 7km or about 5 miles from the Imphal centre towards the national highway 53 to Tamenglong/Giri. My father was a farmer and his father was a farmer too. My father used to farm on others’ land and he used to go to Assam Jungles to work in manual sawmills during the off-season from his agricultural work. He used to tell me incidents when he came face to face with wild elephants at his workplace! Later on he became a Nata Sangkritana singer in ritual ceremonies.

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I went to a primary school where I used to carry a jute rice bag to sit on during winter. I went to a fairly large high secondary that covered many villages within at least 2/3 miles radius. In my 10th standard exam I was the only student who cleared from the school in my batch (plz don’t ask me my grade!) in the mid 80s, just to give you how privileged the society was (far from being proud to say). My family was still one of the respected ones in the village! I later went to DM Science then MU before coming out to Delhi to face the real life challenge in the middle of the 90s. When I was in the MU, I probably would have been eligible for OBC benefits but I never felt the need for it so never bothered. Because of my upbringing, educational background and lack of exposure to the world outside Manipur I did have a seriously difficult task at hand to overcome, still do, it took me quite some time to get my first job as a school teacher in Delhi, then in a college then to step on to my IT Software career before coming to the UK. I believe in the saying “The harder the battle, the sweeter the victory”! I respect and admire my late father so much more when I look back and realise the efforts he put in to let us continue in our study. Did I ever think that I would have benefited if I were in the ST status, absolutely not.

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There is a genuine concern among our Naga/Kuki brethren that Meiteis will take away slices of the ST benefits if Meiteis are again listed in the ST status. I feel that the only benefit that Meiteis will take away from our Kuki/Naga brethren when they are re-listed in the ST status are in the central govt job and education sectors, that too is very marginal in the overall context, in my opinion. Assuming Meitei community has ST status, in the Manipuri context there won’t be any plausible change because there will have to be a new reservation system for Manipur with Meitei as majority and the Kuki/Naga communities as minorities, like in Nagaland or other tribal states. The Meitei population of roughly about 1.75 millions or 17.5 lakhs is negligible when compared to the existing ST population of about 10.43 crores in the Indian context. Yes there is that genuine worry but I feel that it is small enough that the leaders of our communities can sit together and empathetically understand each other and resolve among themselves. But the restless nature of the Meiteis demand to be re-listed in the ST status is not for Jobs nor Education, in my humble opinion. Please see below. I believe wholeheartedly that the one single biggest worry that rang the recent alarm bells are coming from the land, the valley land! I also believe that Meiteis are definitely not looking to grab land in the hills. In the last few years the demography of Manipur, particularly in the valley area, has completely changed! The price of land in the outskirts of Imphal town has skyrocketed to about Rs 5000/per square foot, beyond the reach of the common people. We should remember that the valley is not only for Meiteis but it also belongs to the Kukis and Nagas, the indigenous people of Manipur. If you have not visited Manipur in the last 2/3 years, I can assure you that you will get astonished or even will not recognise parts of the Imphal valley, if you go now! There are many areas where you hardly see the indigenous people, with alien locality names! The loudest alarm bell is the arrival of the train head to Imphal, being constructed in my village Yurembam in Imphal West.

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The Meiteis fear that the largest influx from mainland India will arrive along with the train, they often take the Tripura example where the original Tripuris are now a tiny minority! Meiteis still feel that the valley is big enough for the indigenous people if we can protect it using the ST provision. With regards to the argument that Meiteis like to get ST status back to grab tribal land, in my opinion, is not true. Please take the example of why the Kuki/Naga people who are able can afford to buy land are coming to live in the valley then why would Meiteis take the hard route to settle down up in the Hills? The more developed a society is, the less they depend on land, as we see in the developed countries. There are not enough people to work in the agricultural industry even in the valley itself nowadays so I would not think that Meiteis would like to go to hills to work in that sector, at least not many if any.

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If you look at another way, protecting the valley is in the interest for all the indigenous people of Manipur not only for the Meiteis! As Manipur is becoming commercialised and with the arrival of the train connection it is only imperative to think that multinational companies will follow and that means the indigenous people won’t have much power to protect their valley. With Meiteis included in ST, the whole state will be classified as Hill State and fully protected for all the indigenous people. The more I think about the pros and cons, the more I feel that reaching a compromise shouldn’t be difficult in the common interest for all the indigenous people, again it is my opinion, I would be happy to learn any deficit in my understanding! Sorry it has gone a bit longer then anticipated. Thank you for your time.
Best regards,

(Sagolsem Biramani is a resident of London, UK. He can be contacted at sagolb@proton.me)

Courtesy: The Frontier Manipur

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