Scheduled tribe status in the NE is tending to become the new caste system


By Pradip Phanjoubam

My column last week on the shift of the definition of “tribal” from the anthropological sense of the term, to how it is defined by the Indian constitution, therefore dependent on the many pulls and pushes of the peculiar expediencies of India’s multi party political environment, understandably evoked a lot engaged responses. As is the wont of Manipur however, not many chose to put up their opinions on public spaces, a sad characteristic of a people not too keen on the virtues of open debating, considering democracy is often defined as a rule by debate.

Let me first outline what I mean by “engaged responses”. These are opinions which closely and unsparingly scrutinise the postulates put forward by a writer with the objective of provoking a healthy dialectical exchange amongst all who share the concerns raised by the article, but done without egocentric malice and more importantly, cynicism.  Unfortunately, there were some opinions of this latter category too, and I personally would dismiss them as belonging to the realm of the omnipresent asinine noise makers, or as the bard once sang: “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

The healthy opinions, supplementary thoughts, queries etc, many of which landed in my email inboxes, on the other hand basically had to do with the definition of understanding “tribe”, and the rather nebulous boundaries separating it from those considered not belonging to the category. This ambiguity is further compounded by related challenges of defining relatively new concept of “indigenous peoples”. As for instance, in Nepal, none of the communities, however small and remote, do not want to be called a “tribe” and would rather be referred to as “indigenous peoples”, because of what they consider as derogatory in the general understanding the term “tribe” in the Indian sub-continent. In Tibet, the Tibetans want to be referred to only as Tibetan people and not as “tribe” or even as “indigenous people”. Christian Erni’s book “Indigenous Peoples in Asia” gives a pretty intriguing picture of the ambiguity as well as certainty of who would qualify to be “indigenous”, and needless to add, the term “indigenous” is not necessarily synonymous with the term “tribe”. Though a “tribe” would generally qualify to be called “indigenous” it does not mean all those who chose not to be a “tribe” are excluded from the category. Without even referring to Manipur, the cases of Nepal and Tibet should underscore this contention adequately. The Tamang and Bhutia, or the Rai and Limbu, though not “tribals” would still qualify to be “indigenous”.

My contention in my column last week was that the Indian constitution’s incentive structuring has over time radically altered these equations between various ethnic communities, and the term “tribe” has come to be constitutional rather than anthropological. This is why many communities today want to be classified as tribes, just as many communities have remained stuck as tribes. Sections of the latter would even go about protecting what they now consider as their exclusive turfs and oppose new aspirants from entering their ranks. In many ways, the paradigms of the Indian caste system, where there are virtually no avenues for inter-caste mobility, has come be absorbed into what may now be called the Indian “tribe-system” as well. Caste is destiny, and somebody’s caste is defined by birth alone. This obviously is to the benefit of the upper castes, for they, by the rules of what they define as destiny, or divine order, will continue to be on the top for all times to come, so long as nobody challenges this order. Indeed, the “tribe-system” is beginning to look very much like this.

Personally, as a Meitei, in spiritual terms, I would love to be called a tribe. It would make me one with the essentially tribal Northeast. The Meiteis would cease to be an island of “constitutional” non-tribals in the state’s sea of tribal realm. I sense, and know, many in mainland India would see my ethnicity and Northeast-ness as essentially tribal. Their looks, unguarded remarks, attitudes, with all of the silent aggressions associated with them, betray this. One defining remark often is: “you people are spared of the burden filing income tax returns so you don’t have to worry about many things we do”. I don’t even bother to explain.

The supreme irony is, both the section of the Meiteis who want the tribal classification as well as the sections of the other communities already in the tribal category opposing their demand, have in the least the spiritual fraternity of the peoples of the land in mind. All they eye are the incentives guaranteed by the constitution to the status. One group wants it, the others are adamant on denying them this. Both are selfish in equal measures. Probably, even if a provision were to be introduced in a hypothetical situation in which the Meiteis come to be classified as tribals, whereby the size of the incentives pie is increased so that the new entrants would not encroach on the quotas of existing beneficiaries, the opposition would still be there. It is also tragic that the beautiful myths and legends of ethnic fraternity can be so easily punctured by promises of material benefits.

One other contention in support of the demand for inclusion of the Meitei’s in the tribal category is that their land needs to be protected. They point out that while the Meiteis are prohibited to settle anywhere outside their traditional land, everybody is allowed to settle in theirs, thereby continually depleting their living space. This problem, and the resultant insecurity amongst the Meiteis, I would agree is genuine and therefore needs to be addressed urgently. But this can be done without resorting to demands for tribal status. Lawmakers in the state can put their heads together and work out an equitable law that can resolve this issue. Land laws of Himachal Pradesh for instance can be a model. Resolving this issue, nobody probably would disagree, is also vital, for we have all seen, leaving any community with a sense of injustice and thereby insecurity, can never in the larger interest of peace and harmony of the entire state, or region for that matter. Our lawmakers must also shoulder the responsibility of convincing their respective constituencies and spheres of influence, of the need for such a happy condition for everybody.

The Meitei economy is diverse, as I suggested in my earlier column, largely because they chose not to be in the cocoon of constitutional shields. Already, because of unimaginative employment generation programmes of the government, a lot of these traditional occupations are withering away. Tribal status will, I am certain, prove in the long run to be the death knell for this diversity. To be away from the shields would mean more difficult challenges, but remember also the words of one of the most iconic leaders of the modern times, Abraham Lincoln, in a letter to the teacher of his son, urging the latter not to be too soft on his son “for only the test of fire makes fine steel”. I reproduce the entire letter below for those interested:

“He will have to learn, I know, that all men are not just, all men are not true. But teach him also that for every scoundrel there is a hero: that for every selfish politician, there is a dedicated leader…

Teach him that for every enemy there is a friend. It will take time, I know a long time, but teach, if you can, that a dollar earned is of more value than five dollars found.

Teach him to learn to lose…And also to enjoy winning. Steer him away from envy, if you can, teach him the secret of quiet laughter.

Teach him, if you can, the wonder of books…

Teach him that it is far more honorable to fail him than to cheat…

Teach him to have faith in his own ideas, even if everyone else tells him he is wrong…

Teach him to listen to all men…But teach him also to filter all he hears on a screen of truth, and take only the good that comes through. Teach him, if you can, how to laugh when he is sad. Teach him there is no shame in tears.

Teach him to sell his brawn and brain to the highest bidder, but never to put a price tag on his heart and soul.

Teach him gently, but do not cuddle him, because only the test of fire makes fine steel.

Teach him always to have sublime faith in himself because then he will also have sublime faith in mankind.

This is a big order, but see what can you do… He is such a fine little fellow, my son!”

In other words, emotionally and perhaps even politically, I would love to be tribal. But my sense of long term economic vision is averse to be tribal under the Indian constitution’s 5th Schedule. Indeed, the difference between being tribal and being constitutionally classified as tribal could be broadly defined by the difference between a “tribe” and “scheduled tribe”. To be a “tribe” in the anthropological sense is about defining a worldview, marked by animistic religious practices, primitive hunting-gathering economy, strong clan affiliations, a lifestyle distinguished by a proximity to nature etc. To be a “scheduled tribe” is to be listed in the 5th Schedule of the Indian constitution. The anthropological “tribe” is also not a stagnant phenomenon, and instead is marked by constant movement away from the condition, which is why it is also often said everybody lived in a tribal economy once. It is indeed sad, the tribal status today has come to resemble the socially stagnant Indian caste system, where everything is decided by birth alone, and all senses of status mobility have been conveniently buried, thereby perpetuating a rigidly structured status quo and a depressing social ennui.

One other reality is, in Manipur, through the ages, the valley community has evolved as the more prosperous. This however has more to do with geography than the usual rhetoric of exploitation and suppression. One reason to believe this is so is that this phenomenon of tension between hills and valleys is widespread throughout the world. Yale professor, James Scott’s celebrated book “Art of Not Being Governed: A Chaotic History of Upland South East Asia” is a close study of this phenomenon. Robert Kaplan’s “Revenge of Geography” is another. Scott’s book is more pertinent to my argument here. The fertile river valleys always support the evolution of the state, because surplus agriculture necessitates the emergence of a bureaucracy to manage the surplus. This he contends is the genesis of the friction between the state and non-state communities in all such environments. He even provocatively and illustratively titled his London School of Economics lecture outlining his contentions in the book as: “Why Civilisations Cannot Climb Hills”. In the same vein, another western academic once also made the well known remark that the influence of Sanskrit ends at 500 meters above mean sea level. In other words, in the pre-democracy days, much of these regional differences were fostered by geography. Now we live in a democracy, where all issues should be and can be sorted out through healthy and well informed debates. Let us then strive to resort to these means to try and level out the difference resulting out of geography, rather than make all the inane claims of the hills and valley never having had any contacts in the past or of the current inequalities resulting solely out of the valley exploiting the hills. In the first place, how can people who have never had any contacts with each other exploit each other? What is more important is, either side must cooperate and understand each other’s insecurities and grievances empathetically, before the half way house of peace and prosperity can be built. We owe this to ourselves and to our children.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here