Manipur’s likely future and resolving ST issue through democratic process

LB Singh
Contd from previous issue
Meitei realized much later the importance of inclusion in the ST list for the existence of the community and Constitutional safeguard for the protection of social practices, culture, and identity and demanded inclusion of Meitei in the ST list in 2012.
On 29 May 2013, the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs requested the Government of Manipur to forward specific recommendations along with the latest socio-economic survey and the ethnographic report. Prominent tribal leaders warned they would break away or opt out from Manipur if Meitei became an ST. The State Government has been intimidated by the above warning and has avoided the contentious issue for over 10 years, even though most Meitei MLAs individually promised their support for including Meitei in the ST list. On 27 March 2023, the High Court of Manipur directed the State Government, among others:
* To send a recommendation in reply to the letter dated 29 May 2013 of the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs (Still operative).
* Consider the case for inclusion of the Meetei/Meitei community in the ST list expeditiously, preferably within a period of four weeks from the date of receipt of this order (Manipur HC revoked and deleted this part on 21 February 2024).
The Nagas and Kukis were alarmed that if Meiteis were included in the ST list, they would lose their exclusive land rights in the hill districts of Manipur. Meitei could then settle in the hill districts of the State, and the other tribes would have to share the special privileges of STs with the Meiteis. The Manipur High Court’s order brought the Nagas and Kukis together, and the All Tribal Students’ Union, Manipur, arranged a solidarity march in various places on 03 May 2023.
After the rally, the Kukis started attacking the Meiteis, burning down their homes at Churachandpur which soon spread to Kangpokpi districts and Moreh. On hearing the news, angry Meitei mobs reacted against the Kukis in the valley and indiscriminately burned or destroyed their properties. However, the solidarity march ended peacefully in the Naga-dominated areas, indicating that the Kukis had objectives other than protesting against the Manipur High Court directives.
Even if the State Government forwards the recommendations, the Meiteis can’t become ST if they don’t fulfill all the criteria. The recommendation will be reviewed by the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs and sent to the Registrar General of India for approval. After that, the National Commission of Scheduled Tribes must approve it before forwarding it to the Union Cabinet for the final decision.
It would be against natural justice to deny the competent authority’s consideration of the demand to include Meiteis in the ST list. Therefore, it is unethical and undemocratic for any tribal organization to deny the demand from being forwarded for consideration by intimidation and other violent means. Nagas and Kukis would not sacrifice the Constitutional safeguards of the STs for any reason. Therefore, the Meiteis should not sacrifice the opportunity to be considered for inclusion in the ST list. However, it would be a highly challenging task for the State Government to forward the recommendation for the following reasons:
* Most Kuki and Naga MLAs opposing the inclusion of Meitei in the STs list are from the ruling BJP and the coalition parties.
* The State Government is already in a delicate position due to the present crisis, and the ethnic cleansing of Meiteis from the Kuki-dominated areas has been completed.
* If the State Government forwards the recommendation, the divisive forces may also start disturbances in the Naga-dominated areas. It would be excellent if the State Government could bring a consensus among the tribes about including Meiteis in the ST list.
However, considering the progress of the case in the last 12 years and the opposition to the demand even by a section of Meiteis, it would be prudent to follow the regular democratic procedure to resolve the contentious issue.
The inclusion of Meiteis in the ST list can be discussed and voted on during the forthcoming monsoon season of Manipur’s State Assembly. MLAs may be permitted to vote freely across the party line to find the mandate for including Meitei in the ST list. Every vote in the Legislative Assembly would be crucial, as some Meiteis, almost all the Nagas, and Kukis MLAs do not support the demand. Z+ security and helicopter services may be provided to the Kuki MLAs, as their vote would be critical.
If the majority vote does not favour the inclusion of Meitei in the ST list, the Meiteis can wrap up their campaign of demand for ST status. However, if the majority vote favours the inclusion of Meitei in the ST list, the State Government should forward specific recommendations along with necessary documents without further delay. If Meitei becomes an ST, the possible balkanization of Manipur into Territorial Councils may be prevented, and it would, in the long run, promote Manipur’s integrity in all respects.

The writer is a retired Captain of the Indian Navy.