“If you are emotionally attached to your tribe, religion, or political leaning to the point that truth and justice become secondary considerations, your education is useless. Your exposure is useless. If you cannot reason beyond petty sentiments, you are a liability to mankind” - Dr Chuba Okadigbo.
The people of the hill and the valley co-existed harmoniously for thousands of years. The conversion of the majority of the Meitei and the tribal to Hinduism and Christianity respectively; and the “Divide and Rule Policy” of the British progressively divided the people in the hill and the valley. The problem was inadvertently aggravated after the merger of the Kingdom with India. In 1950-51, the Naga and the Kuki were included in the list of Scheduled Tribe (ST) and subsequently, the Government of India declared 90% of the geographical area of the State as “Hill Areas”. However, the Meitei was excluded from the list as the local political leaders at the time improperly identified themselves as belonging to advanced Aryan society.
Many tribals are influenced by the propaganda of the proponents of Nagalim/South Nagalim, Kukiland, Zogam/Zalengam etc. (Hereafter referred as “Divisive Forces”). The Divisive Forces have been working relentlessly to divide completely not only the people of the hill and the valley, but also among the people of the hill. Many tribal youths are misguided to the extent that a few of them emailed me last year and objected to the name of the State “Manipur” and stated that no State in India is named after one community. They have been told that “Manipur” means “the land of Manipuri (Meitei)” and they did not know that “Mani” and “pur” are two Sanskrit words, meaning “Land of Jewel”.
The literature of the Divisive forces spread ethnic supremacy of the respective community, hatred and discontentment. They circulate distorted history that the hill districts came under Manipur only after the British rule in 1891 to justify their objective of dividing the hill and the valley. Instead of the history circulated by the Divisive Forces, the tribals should rely on the renowned historians of Naga and Kuki like Gangmumei Kamei and Lal Dena, respectively.
The Nagas and Kukis know that the ancestors of Meitei were also one of the original native settlers and indigenous people of Manipur. The valley was originally submerged in the water and all the tribes, including Meitei, initially settled in the hills. As the water level receded, some tribes from the surrounding hills moved down to the dried portion of the fertile valley and settled there. These tribes were the forefather of the various clans of Meitei (Gangmumei 2015, p20-24). There is no doubt about the common origin of all the three ethnic communities and the same have been endorsed by many Naga, Kuki and Meitei scholars. The Meitei being the indigenous people of Manipur has the right to settle in the hill districts.
There are a large number of documents, including the British maps of the 18th century and the book “Statistical account of the native State of Manipur and the hill territory under its rule” written by the former Political Agent Dr R Brown in 1873. The book clearly recorded the hill areas of the Kingdom of Manipur along with the population. The tribal villages in Manipur came under the Meitei King during the reign of Garibniwaza Maharaja (1709-1751 AD) and “Lallup” was imposed on the tribes. During the invasion of Burma in 1723 AD, about 4000 hill tribes joined the Manipuri forces under the King (Gangmumei 2015, p307). The office of Khunbu, Khunllakpa and Luplakpa were officially introduced in 1736 AD. In 1905, the boundary papers of the tribal villages were issued by the Political Agent, J Shakespeare in the name of the Maharaja of Manipur. In 1933, the British allotted additional territory along the Jeeree and the Western bank of Barak River in the name of the Maharaja and the boundary were always demarcated in the name of the Kingdom. Manipur, including the hill districts, became a part of India due to the merger agreement signed by Maharaja Budhachandra in 1949.
90% of the population of Nagaland is ST and all the land in the State is owned by the individual/community and the State Government only maintains the record. However, Manipur is a multi-ethnic State and the STs constitute only 41% of the population. The area of the hill districts is about nine times the area of the valley inhabited by the Meitei and the other communities. In addition, the Nagas and the Kukis continue to buy land in the valley, while the Meiteis and Pangals are restricted by law to buy land from the STs.
In the last 70 years, Manipur valley had changed drastically. Various buildings have come up not only in the vacant wetlands like Lamphelpat, Takyel, Porompat etc. but also in paddy fields. Many new tribal settlements have been established in the valley and as a result, the total geographical areas occupied by the Meitei (53.3% of the population in 2011) have reduced to less than 7% of the total geographical area of the State. The Meiteis do not object to the shifting of the tribals to the valley as it promotes integrity and improves the mutual trust among various ethnic communities. However, the land areas for the Meiteis in the valley would further reduce every year as more tribals shift from the hill to the valley. The increasing number of Meitei would become landless every year unless remedial measures are initiated. Once the Meiteis become landless, they would not be in a position to preserve their ethnic identity.
The Meiteis are heading to a precarious situation and immediate remedial measures are required to be initiated to preserve their cultural identity. Most of them felt that ST status for the Meitei/Meetei is the only Constitutional safeguard available to save the extinction of their ethnic identity. They want to rectify the mistake committed by their local political leaders in 1950-51 and avail the other facilities of the ST. According to the Scheduled Tribe Demand Committee of Manipur (STDCM), Meitei/Meetei, fulfils all the criteria laid down by the Lokur Committee for inclusion in the list of ST.
The All Tribal Students’ Union Manipur (ATSUM) has urged the CM not to send recommendations to the Central Government to include Meitei in the ST list. However, it may not be possible to suppress the demand for a prolonged duration, as the State Government is fully aware of the genuine problem of decreasing land of Meiteis and the requirement of land to preserve their cultural identity. The Union Cabinet had approved the ST status to six Assam communities, including Tai Ahom, in 2019. The Ahom Kingdom of the Brahmaputra valley was bigger than the Kingdom of Manipur. Therefore, it is a matter of time and the Meitei/Meetei would be included in the ST list.
The majority of the Meiteis also want Manipur to be declared as a “Hill State” as the valley is also a part of the Himalayan Mountain Range and accordingly amend Article 371C, and “The Manipur Legislative Assembly (Hill Area Committee) Order:1972. However, the nomination of the MLAs from the valley in the HAC without mutual discussion and necessary amendments to Article 371C has unnecessarily eroded some of the mutual trust and goodwill generated in the last few years. The State Government should take utmost care to strictly adhere to all the Constitutional provisions in letter and spirit with a sense of justice.
As per para (5) (b) of the above Presidential Order, the functioning of the Hill Area Committee (HAC) shall endeavour to promote unity between the people of the Hill Areas and the other areas of the State by aiming at an integrated and evenly based economic growth of those areas and augment the resources of the State as a whole. Therefore, it is the duty of the HAC to promote unity and foil the design of the Divisive Forces to divide the people of the hill and the valley.
Many tribal writers compare Meitei with the non-ST who live in the vast land of the other States of India and overlooked the fact that in Manipur STs occupy more than 90% of the land areas against about 7% by the Meiteis and it is also continuously decreasing. These writers assumed that all the land in the hill districts belongs to the STs and the tribals are the victims of land alienation. However, in Manipur, it is the opposite. The unique cultural identity of the Meitei is in danger of extinction due to ever-decreasing land for them in their native State. On the other hand, there is no scarcity of land for STs in Manipur. However, these writers only concentrated on the land rights of the tribal and disregarded the fact that the other ethnic communities also can’t survive without land. The STs have been provided with special provisions as the Constitution of India was framed with a sense of justice to give them an equal opportunity. A sense of justice is needed to provide the essential land to the Meiteis in the hill districts to preserve their cultural identity.
The population of Meitei in Manipur and the sub-continent in 2011 was 1.52 and 1.8 million, respectively. The population of the Naga and the Kuki in the sub-continent in 2011 was about 2.8 and above 4 million respectively. Out of the three, Meitei is the smallest community and, therefore, require Special Provision to safeguard their unique cultural identity. The extension of Inner Line Permit (ILP) in December 2019 to the State indicated that the majority community Meitei is comparable to the tribes of Nagaland, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh; and required to be protected.
The sense of truth and justice should prevail over the narrow ethnic politics for the peace and the prosperity of everyone and for the overall inclusive development of the State. In the last 70 years, the Meiteis have developed the attitude to compete with more advanced communities of the country and they should not vie for the quota of ST for jobs and higher studies. The tribals, on the other hand, should consider the genuine requirement of land by the indigenous non-ST (Meitei) to preserve their cultural identity. The demand for inclusion of the Meitei and Meetei in the list of ST may be considered only when there is no sense of truth and justice to provide the essential land to the Meiteis in the hill districts to preserve their cultural identity.
A “Land Commission” could examine the land area, including the forest area required in the hill districts for the long term sustenance of livelihood of the STs and the land area available for allotment to the indigenous non-ST people of Manipur. It would provide the required land to the Meiteis and at the same time, it would not affect the ST quota for jobs and higher studies. It would not only restore the old affinity and brotherhood between the various ethnic communities of the State but also promote the accelerated progress of the hill districts. It would also resolve the land problems between the Nagas and Kukis.
The “Land Commission” should give the first priority to the 100% land requirement for the long term sustenance of the livelihood of the STs and the land for the future expansion of the existing infrastructure, and then consider the requirement of land for the non-ST indigenous people in the hill districts. It is in the best interest of the STs, as it would ensure 100% land requirement, and it would also not affect the job and the other prospects. The peace and prosperity of the State depend on the survival of the cultural identity of all the ethnic communities.
The areas of the hill districts of Manipur and Nagaland are 20,089 and 16,579 sq km while the population in 2011 was 12.2 and 19.8 lakh, respectively. Therefore, there is no shortage of land and the “Land Commission” can recommend designated areas for the settlement of the indigenous non-ST people (Meitei) in the hill districts that would not have any adverse impact on the long term sustenance of the livelihood of the STs.
When Meitei, Naga and Kuki keep the truth and justice above the narrow ethnic and political interest, there would be righteousness in their heart. Former President APJ Abdul Kalam quoted Tamil Poet Kaniyan Pungundranar during his speech in the European Union. In conclusion, I am quoting the same as a prayer for the peaceful coexistence of all the ethnic communities of the State:
When there is righteousness in the heart, there is beauty in character,
When there is beauty in character, there is harmony in the hope,
When there is harmony in the hope, there is order in the Nation,
When there is order in the Nation, there is peace in the world.
The writer is a retired Captain, NM, Indian Navy. Email ID: [email protected]