Quest for ST status : Majoritarian approach of ‘By hook or by crook’ has its risk

Ngaranmi Shimray
A disturbing trend has emerged since 2022 in the push by Meitei organisations spearheading the demand for ST (Scheduled Tribe) status. It has become a relay race with the first runner, STDCM (Scheduled Tribe Demand Committee of Manipur), carrying out awareness campaign in 2022-23. The second runner, MMTU (Meetei/Meitei Tribe Union), took the ST demand to the Manipur High Court in March 2023 and got a favourable order dated 27.03.2023, which was modified by Court’s order dated 21.02.2024. The third runner, WMC (World Meetei Council), is currently exerting pressure on the State Government to send the reports “by hook or by crook” in total disregard to the Court’s order and advice of the Government of India which their sister organisation sought and got from the Manipur High Court.
Interestingly, STDCM, MMTU and WMC are no longer asking the State Government for carrying out a “latest socio-economic survey and ethnographic study” as directed by the Manipur High Court and initially stressed by them. Instead, it is now urging the State Government to send socio-economic survey and ethnographic study reports to the Government of India without carrying out the requisite formalities.
It is common knowledge that there is no latest socio-economic survey and ethno- graphic study; and whatever is there is out-dated and out-of-context. Sending to Government of India out-dated and out-of-context  reports would be foolhardy as it has the risk of being mis-interpreted by both parties; the Meitei masses believing ST status is within grasp while the tribes feel infuriated and concluding that they are losing their lands to the ST Meiteis in hill areas. Half-baked proposal based on out-dated and out-of-context documents can potentially spark a wider conflict between the non-tribal and tribal and doom the prospect of redefining the idea of an inclusive Manipur.
A huge trust deficit already existed between the tribes and the State Government including the legal fraternity on account of the surreptitious machination employed in obtaining the High Court order dated 27.03.2023. Sadly, the ill-conceived litigation of MMTU resulting in order dated 27.03.2023 is widely believed to have triggered the 3rd May 2023 conflict. The modified Court’s order dated 21.02.2024 in revision case has left only one operative para which reads as, “The first respondent is directed to submit the recommendation in reply to the letter dated 29.5.2013 of the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Government of India.” This has rendered the entire legal exercise of MMTU seeking the Court’s intervention an exercise in futility, but tragically its impact has divided communities and it can be felt even today with the ongoing ethnic conflict still remaining unresolved.
The direction given by the Manipur High Court to the State Government is clear without any ambiguity. It states specifically-to submit the recommendation in reply to the letter dated 29.5.2013 of the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Government of India. With the baton changing hands, it appears that WMC has been given the task of pressuring the State Government as it is not a party in the Manipur High Court cases. It is urging the State Government to send the proposal without carrying out requisite established formalities in total violation of the Court’s direction and the advice of Government of India. From the manner the State Government is responding to one crisis after another, it appears that it is often swayed by majoritarian politics in total disregard to sentiments of minorities. This is a dangerous approach and the risk of adversarial reaction is high in case the State Government decides to violate the advice of the Court and Government of India by skipping established processes in an already vitiated atmosphere of ongoing ethnic conflict.
The Sangai Express on 28th and 30th April 2024 and also on 5th May 2024 reported that the WMC has urged “the State Government to send the socio-economic and ethnographic reports of Meetei/Meitei to the Centre to enlist the ethnic group in the ST list of the Constitution”. The WMC admitted that the Meiteis had rejected the idea of becoming ST in 1951, 1956 and in 1981. Now they want to be ST after missing opportunities from 1951 onwards. The Meitei society should realise that sea-change of social, educational, economic and political advancements have taken place in the Meitei society since Manipur became a full fledged State in 1972. They are the most populous community in Manipur and control the political and administrative machinery. They know that they do not fulfil the five criteria laid down by Lokur Committee for identification to be ST namely, primitive traits, distinct culture, geographical isolation, shyness of contact with the community at large, and backwardness. Under any stretch of imagination the Meiteis are not primitive, isolated, shy to contact or backward. The Meiteis need to understand and appreciate that their ST demand has to go through the tests laid down by the Lokur Committee and to carry out the direction of the Manipur High Court the State Government would require latest socio-economic data and ethnographic study to examine and consider the matter. Avoiding carrying out a latest socio-economic survey and ethnographic study shows lack of confidence of the ST demand organisations for fear that it may reveal the advanced status of the Meitei community.
The tribals suspect that there could be a secret understanding between the Meitei ST demand pressure groups and the State Government/Assembly (dominated by Meiteis) to send out-dated socio-economic survey and out-of- context ethnographic reports to the Centre with or without any specific recommendation and shift the onus of “belling the cat” to the Central Government. The tribals feel that the Govt of India has been biased and partial by not offering any comments or seeking time to obtain comments in the first Manipur High Court case thereby resulting in an order favouring the petitioners.
The concerted pressure being built-up to refer the Meitei ST status demand to Government of India is fraught with the risk of being mis-interpreted by both sides and this path should be tread cautiously. The potential of errorneous assumptions could spark a wider conflict between the Meiteis (non-tribal) and the tribes (Nagas and Kukis) and spiral out of control. The pressure of sending the proposal “by hook or by crook” without following the orders of the Manipur High Court will only precipitate confrontation between the tribals and non-tribals. If a wider conflict is ignited it would forever bury the idea of redefining Manipur for inclusive growth and development.
This is the 21st century now and Meitei community has made remarkable advancements and progress since the time the British colonial officials may have mentioned Meiteis as a tribe in the 18th Century. The Kaka Kalelkar Report of 1956 has categorised Meiteis as an advanced community and since achieving full fledged Statehood they have made advancement in leaps and bounds leaving the tribes far behind. It is clear as daylight, right from the beginning of the ST status campaign, that Meiteis do not qualify the Lokur Committee backwardness criteria. The Meiteis of today are very advanced people that their youth are securing high positions in the Civil Services Examination (CSE) as General, OBC and SC candidates. Four Meitei youth succeeded in the CSE 2023. Many direct recruit IAS and IPS Meitei officers are in Manipur cadre holding senior positions disproving the claim that the desire for reservation of jobs under the ST category is not the real objective behind the Meitei ST demand. The ST demand narratives have been changing from being a tribe historically, to pressure on land for 53% population in 10% land vis-a-vis 41% tribes in 90% land, and now the latest that NRC, ILPS and border fencing are not enough but only ST status can secure Meiteis betraying the real objective of ST demand organisations of usurping tribal lands in the hill areas from the tribes.
Captain LB Singh (Retired Indian Navy) has stated in The Sangai Express on 7th May 2024 that the issue of ST status for Meiteis can be debated in the State Assembly and voted upon. Identification of ST status is based on certain criteria laid down by Lokur Committee. To determine eligibility a socio-economic survey and ethnographic study is required and this has already been pointed out by Government of India and reiterated by Manipur High Court. This is the first test that has to be applied to determine if a community is a tribe and if it satisfies the backwardness criteria. The composition of Manipur Assembly is in favour of the Meiteis and the outcome is obvious if it is put to vote. But majoritarianism is not the procedure and the process is scientific and objective. The Government of India and the Court has already advised for sending specific recommendation along with the latest socio-economic survey and ethnographic study report.
Do this. Why are the Meitei organisations and scholars avoiding and ignoring the advice of Government and Court?
It is high time that the State Government should catch the bull by the horns and order a socio-economic survey and ethnographic study of the Meitei community. This was initially what the ST demand organisations wanted the State Government to carry out. Dilly-dallying and allowing the ST demand to fester would spread the venom of hatred between the two largest communities and this is harmful for Manipur’s integrity. Expecting the tribals to remain quiet, as the crescendo for ST status demand picks up, would be inviting trouble as it will make the tribes protest in the hill areas thereby widening the chasm between the valley and the hill people of Manipur.
Allowing the WMC and other ST demand organisations to whip up frenzy by involving innocent school students and civilians in road processions raising false hope is irresponsible and will vitiate the tense communal environment further. Ponder for a moment on the divide that will be caused if anti-ST protest marches are taken up in the hill areas as the Meitei ST status demand is understood by the tribes as targeting tribal lands in the hill areas and not for jobs under ST quota. The ST status demand for Meiteis is not to be decided on the streets but on the latest relevant data and documents. The tribals are not naive anymore and will strongly resist the attempt of Meiteis to grab tribal land through the route of ST status. Land is always an emotive issue and has caused wars around the world. It will not be different for Manipur.
Demand based on Meitei majoritarianism approach and emotions will breed ill-will between the Meiteis and the tribes and will be detrimental to the idea of unified Manipur. The State Government is playing with fire by deterring and allowing the suspense to linger. It should have the courage to call the shots and not leave policy and decision making to disruptive elements to dictate terms to a democratically elected State Government. Chief Minister of Manipur has stated recently that a proper discussion is needed on the matter of ST status demand by Meiteis. This is the right step forward; State Government should lead and set the narrative for discussion with all stakeholders.
Therefore, the onus falls squarely on the shoulders of the State Government to bring about sanity. It requires the latest socio- economic study and ethnographic study and its availability will enable the State Government to analyse the latest data and information and take informed decisions for considering inclusion or otherwise of Meitei community in the list of ST. The challenge for the State Government and MLAs, both from the valley and hills, is to institute a socio-economic survey and ethno- graphic study without any delay through a credible independent third party with transparency and accountability and take control of the situation before it spirals out of control.