By Paul Hangsing
There seems to be no sign of a let up in the upsurge of tribals’ sentiment, since the past several weeks, against the demand for Scheduled Tribe (ST) status by the majority Meitei community in the northeast Indian state of Manipur.
Spearheaded by the Scheduled Tribe Demand Committee of Manipur (STDCM), the callous demand of the STDCM has heckled the sensitivity of tribals in the state, and for good reasons.
Tribals, cutting across ethnic lines, have denounced the Meiteis’ demand as preposterous and an attempt to deepen the widening socio-economic and political cleavage between the valley-based caste Hindu Meiteis’ and the hill tribes’ of the state.
Much of the tribal denouement springs from a feeling of complete socio-cultural marginalization and politico-economic exclusion sustained and reinforced by an utterly disproportionate system of representative governance.
Apparently, the pitiable conditions of the tribals even after 65 years of India’s independence speak volumes of a trust deficit simmering in the minds of the hill tribals for whom the system of democratic governance is but a subterfuge for continued domination by the numerical majority.
In light of the acute misgivings, the government would do well to consider the tribal apprehensions first hand, before giving in to the demands of political expediencies in an election year.
Leaders, representing various hill tribes in the state, have voiced identical fears should the government capitulate to the demand, which includes: loss of reservation benefits in education and employment, throwing open existing parliamentary and assembly constituencies hitherto reserved for tribals, annulment of autonomous district councils, usurpation of traditionally held tribal land in the hills, and coercive assimilation or total isolation of tribals as a final push.
Ideology of Indigenism
The basic underpinning of the Meitei community’s new found fondness for tribal identity, after about three centuries of renunciation, is self-evident from a broad continuum of discreet step-by-step responses, patterned on “orthodox caste oriented attitude towards the hill tribes.” A notion that is consistent with the popular nuances of an ideological construct called “indigenism.”
Apparently, the ideology of “indigenism” worked effectively, albeit sub-consciously during the early phase marked by formation of statehood apparatus post September 1949. The “…cleavage between the hill tribes and Meitei plainsmen that became inevitable “…following the conversion of the ruling families and the people to Hinduism in the 18th century” which sowed the seed of exclusivist ideology, invoked in the process of consolidation of power structures and institutionalization of developmental initiatives exclusively within the valley during mid-20th century.
The next phase commenced with the assertion of Meitei nationalism during the latter part of the 20th century, an idea that pandered well with the ideology of indigenism- around which was constructed a tradition projected as essentially opposed to other cultures and societies. This in essence intensified the concept of ‘we’ against ‘them’, an astute consciousness expressed in various “forms of ‘proto-nationalism’ and ‘infra-nationalism’ also vividly observable among other tribes in Manipur” (Akhup, 2011).
The tribal ethnic minorities, therefore, have to contend with the competing political space and obvious “inescapable privilege to the majority” as evident through popularization and use of majority Meitei dialect as the official lingua-franca in public institutions, symbolic of the complete marginalization of ethnic minorities in the state.
Reversion to ST and Caste Dimensions
Regardless of the real or imaginary apprehension, the recent STDCM assertion does suffer from a fundamental disconnect with popular identity perception of ordinary Meitei citizenry. Caste identities today are so strongly entrenched that classification and division of any society into distinct castes is irreversible.
Further, the general perception regarding interchangeability of caste or tribe is inconsistent, borne out of etymological confusion between castes as class (social status) vis-à-vis caste as caste (Verna). Caste (as class) is determined by the nature of profession, trade or calling, and is therefore, amenable to change. But caste (as tribe) is pre-ordained by birth and cannot conceptually be changed by conversion.
Even so, such caste rigidity does not always seem to have been the rule but an exception since historical times. Consequently, the rigors of caste (Verna) have been the ever widening structural dynamics resulting from integration of numerous sub-castes (Jatis) into the caste hierarchy.
Upward revision of fringe Jatis into the caste hierarchy through occupational mobility was acceptable since the system determines socio-cultural distance between castes in terms of purity and pollution. Higher the castes, greater is the purity in their occupation, dietary habits and lifestyles, while the reverse is also true.
The basic paradox, in the context of STDCM’s assertion of tribal identity, is the reversion from orthodox caste Hindu order to the status of ST. The proposition does not envisage mass denunciation of caste regimented Hindu religion. Assuming, for a moment, that Meiteis demand for ST status is purely out of economic necessity, such a hypothesis again sounds hollow by centuries of socio-economic and political domination in a state where existing power structures have been designed to sub-serve their interests to the exclusion of others.
From a purely legal perspective also, conversion to a lower caste for personal gains invite strict penalties. Law only recognizes caste determined by the birth, religious conversion (as in the case of Scheduled Caste) or purely economic necessity owing to extreme backwardness or marginalization in a given socio-political construct. None of these conditions are fulfilled in the instant case.
Ethnicity and Land
The apprehension of a covert STDCM’s attempt at transgressing age-old natural frontiers between the valley and the hills is at the root of the hill tribals’ recent misgivings. Such fears may not be wholly imaginary or without basis. This brings us to the question of ethnicity and the geo-demographic framework over which competing traditions resonates discordant notes.
It is now common knowledge that the history of origin and settlement of the indigenous people of Manipur lays trapped for over centuries in the domain of myth and conjectures noshed by folklores and folk ballads. It has always been the stuff of such legends (traditions) that nurtured and reinforced the belief that Meiteis and other tribal communities, broadly classified as Nagas and Kukis, in the state migrated from China.
These traditions, therefore, constitute a vital treasure trove of information on the history, polity and economy of the people with faint glimpses of the geopolitical space (land) of each tribe or community since time immemorial. Tribal traditions postulate hill areas of the state as their homeland even as Meitei traditions speak of the valley proper as the cradle of Meitei kingdom.
These traditions interestingly find resonance with rare accounts of the past which recounts that the “area of the state is about 8500 square miles, comprising a central valley, the traditional home of the Meetei’s (Meitei’s), which is surrounded by ranges of hills inhabited by tribal peoples” (Parratt, 2005). It, therefore, goes to show without any scope of disagreement that the notion of traditional ownership of land by the Meiteis does not extend beyond fringes of the hills, demarcating the valley proper since historical times.
It is common knowledge that in any ethnic discursive the only point of convergence is the complex divergence of interest among contra identities. For a state with myriad ethnic groups like Manipur, contestation and conflicts for equitable distribution (read domination) of power and resources are inevitable.
The fundamental problem lies in ignoring such discourses rather than articulating and addressing the sensitively. Geopolitical reality of the state being such that it does not afford any specific ethnic conglomerate the right of riding rough shod over their counterparts. Mutual co-existence for the people of Manipur is not a luxury but a necessity pre-determined by history.
Pre-emptive response to 6th Schedule of the Constitution
The STDCM’s demand is widely seen as a sign of desperation for a dominant community that perceives a possible let down by the Indian central government on its opposition to the longstanding demand of the tribals for up-gradation of existing Autonomous District Councils (ADCs) in the hill districts of the state.
Tribals, cutting across ethnic lines, had joined issue with the government since 1980s, pressing for elevated ADCs as envisaged under the provisions of the sixth schedule of the constitution of India. This line of argument proceeds from a hypothesis that the dominant community is determined to stymie any further augmentation of power structures for the tribals that may effectively hinder the majority Meiteis from getting access to the surplus land of the tribals that still remains thinly inhabited.
The spectacle of a dominant community, constituting 75% of the state’s population, sandwiched in the valley that accounts for just 10% of the total landmass of the state, says it all. Pressure of increasing population explosion in an area that had long reached a tipping point was bound to create fissure. Following the aforesaid premise, Meitei community has everything to gain by running with the hare and hunting with the hound.
The reversion to ST community status will eliminate the very raison d’être for continued existence of ADC’s since the state would then be a predominantly ST state. It could also drain off all reserved quotas in the state without least moral compunction. Last and most importantly, the existing restriction on the acquisition of tribal lands by non-tribal would then have dissipated for good, thus opening new frontiers in hitherto tribal areas for an expanded Meitei homeland.
Be that as it may, the demand considered preposterous by many could force a temporary alignment between two estranged tribal conglomerations, the Nagas and Kukis, against a perceived common threat – an overarching ST Meitei majority.
Even as voices of dissent in the state gets more vociferous by the day, the current stalemate has the potential of unleashing fresh round of ethnic tensions and resultant political instability without a fine balancing of perceived rights and privileges, national interest and universal brotherhood of man.
(The writer is founding president of Kuki Inpi Meghalaya and founding secretary of the Kuki Students’ Organization, Delhi. He can be reached at [email protected])