ST status: Renewed campaign and Govt’s silence

The campaign for inclusion of Meitei/Meetei in the Scheduled Tribe list under the Constitution of India is being pursued with renewed vigour when the five-year tenure of the incumbent Government is about to end in the next couple of months. It has been quite some time that several civil society organisations particularly the Scheduled Tribe Demand Committee Manipur (STDCM) and the World Meetei Council (WMC) have been prodding the State Government to send the necessary recommendation to the Central Government along with a report on the ethnography and socio-economic status of the Meetei/Meitei community. The WMC has even threatened to impose a 72 hours general strike across the State from November 25 onward if the State Government does not send the ethnography and socio-economic report by the next couple of days. So far, the State Government has not said a single word regarding the renewed push for ST status. Yet, the State Government’s reluctance, if not total unwillingness, to send the particular report to the Central Government is understandable given the stiff opposition raised by some sections of hill people to the same demand earlier. In March 2019, Chief Minister N Biren stated on the floor of the Manipur Legislative Assembly that the growing fear among Meitei community of possible complete marginalization in near future was genuine and their demand for granting Scheduled Tribe status was quite reasonable. The Chief Minister also announced that the State Government would act soon and positively. At the same time, he underscored the need for thorough deliberation on the issue with all CSOs, intellectuals and stake holders. But we cannot see any follow-up action to the Chief Minister’s announcement two years down the line. Many were/are hoping that it would be a win-win situation if the Chief Minister or the State Government can somehow bring a consensus among all stake holders on the issue. One may like it or not, a debate has been already going on the propriety or impropriety of bringing Meitei community within the pool of ST communities.
The basic arguments which are driving the campaign for inclusion of Meitei community in ST list are; the community constitutes a microscopic minority of the vast multitude of Indian population and their tiny living space has been shrinking day by day in the absence of a constitutional safeguard. The counter argument of the other camp is built on the edifice that the Meiteis are a relatively advanced community, there was a glorious Meitei kingdom and they have a refined culture with a language and script of their own. Apparently, both the argument in favour of granting ST status to Meitei and the counter arguments appear to be sound enough. However, a deeper study reveals that relative advancement of Meitei community over fellow indigenous communities of the State is a rather misplaced notion in this age of globalization. As for the glorious Meitei kingdom, it is a thing of the past. If we must talk about the so called refined Meitei culture, it is being bombarded by foreign cultural elements from all directions. Upholding one’s culture and identity becomes a serious challenge when a community is degraded economically and politically. It becomes impossible to protect one’s identity if his/her community’s living space is shrinking. This is exactly what is happening to the Meitei community who inhabits the Manipur Valley which is just around 2300 Sq Kms. Had Manipur been isolated from the rest of the world and the indigenous communities lived together aloof from other States or countries, perhaps Meitei community would have never demanded ST status. But this is not the case and that is why many CSOs have been lobbying hard for inclusion of Meetei/Meitei in the ST category. Instead of making the particular demand a bone of contention, all the stake holders need to negotiate directly with open minds with active participation of the State Government and work out a win-win formula under which the existing quota system of hill people are protected and at the same time, the interests of the advocates of ST status are served.