Renewed campaign for ST status
With the railway link likely to be materialised by December next year, the Scheduled Tribe Demand Committee Manipur (STDCM) has geared up to launch a series of agitation to exert pressure and if possible, persuade the State Government to send a recommendation to the Government of India in favour of listing Meitei/Meetei in the Scheduled Tribe category under the Constitution of India. And this time, there is a tone of urgency in the STDCM’s renewed demand for ST status. Their tone of urgency is based on the assumption that the inflow of immigrants is bound to multiply manifold once Imphal is linked with other parts of the country by railways. This assumption is understandable given the fact that immigration of non-local people has been going on in sizeable volume since many decades back even in the absence of railway link and the Inner Line Permit System or ILPS has achieved very little in checking this largely unidirectional migration. It has been quite some time that several civil society organisations particularly the 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 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.
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 arguments 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. 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. As this is not the case, many CSOs feel ST status can protect Meitei/Meetei to some extent and that is why they have been lobbying hard towards this end.