The prevailing demand of the dominant Meitei community of Manipur to grant them Scheduled Tribe (ST) status has just got a fresh stir ahead of election season in the country. Manipur’s Imphal Valley saw a 30-hour long shutdown called in by the Scheduled Tribe Demand Committee which ended on Monday morning as reported by Scroll.in.
Dhiraj Yumnam, the vice-president of the committee, is reported to have said that if the demands of the committee are not met and if the government doesn’t take necessary steps, the committee will intensify protests and campaign against the political parties and candidates who are against the demand, signifying the state’s susceptibility to intense identity politics in the next few days.
It has been documented that the Meitei community’s demand for the status of scheduled caste is a result of various situations and circumstances. Heigrujam Nabashyam, the president of the Pan Meitei Convention, a platform that maintains the position of representing Meiteis from across India is stated to have asserted the “precarious situation” of the Meitei community and that their population has steadily declined since 1971.
Yumnam also pointed out that the Imphal Valley which is dominated by the Meitei community is only about 10% of Manipur’s land area but has almost 60% of the state’s population. He also states that the Meitei cannot own land in the hills even though the Valley land can be legally accessed by all.
A big bone of contention between the Meitei community and Manipur’s tribal group is in regards to the Inner Line Permit for the state. The Inner Line Permit is an official document that any outsider needs to have to travel to places deemed “protected areas”. The tribal communities allege that the permit will allow Meiteis to encroach on tribal lands.
In 2015, under the Congress rule, the Assembly passed three bills to introduce a system similar to the Inner Line Permit in Manipur but the bills caused violent protests which resulted in the death of several tribal protesters. The bills were finally shelved.
In July, however, the Assembly, under now ruling BJP, passed another bill which will effectively restrict the free movement of non-manipuris in the state. But the Meiteis feel the bill will not see the light of day which is why getting the scheduled tribe status is of prime importance to them. The scheduled tribe status will ensure reassuring rights to the Meiteis in terms of land ownership and political representation as reported to be mentioned by Yambem Laba, advisor to the Scheduled Tribe Demand Committee.
As the long-standing demand has resurfaced ahead of elections, chief minister N Biren Singh has, reportedly promised to look into the matter.
However, the state’s tribal communities are vehemently expressing their disapproval and stand against the demand. Vareiyo Shatsang, the president of the All Tribal Students’ Union Manipur is reportedly of the opinion that the Meitei community are no longer primitive or backward and if they get the Scheduled Tribe status, the lands of the economically insufficient tribals will run the risk of being encroached by Meitei millionaires on a large scale.
Shatsang also asserted that if the Meiteis are given ST status, then the state’s tribals will in turn ask for a separate state.
The tribal communities are unwavering from their insistence that the Meiteis demand for ST status is for the need to attain control and provisions in the state.
Seilin Haokip, the spokesperson of the Kuki National Organisation, an umbrella group of Kuki groups in the state, mentioned that the Meitei community have always opposed to the idea of being identified as tribals because they consider themselves to be of a superior status, reports say. Haokip said that the Meiteis, are now, quite possibly, asking for ST status as a result of economic pressure on them.