“Sham, you get scholarship ?” “No, what do you mean” I said. My friend from Spicer Memorial College, Poona who became the first Vice-Chancellor of Spicer Adventist University, Pune asked me during our usual conversation that we used to have sitting under the trees of the Humanities Department of Poona University in 1980/81. “Tribal scholarship” he continued. “No, I am a hindu”, I said. “Oh sorry” he said. “It’s ok”, I said.
In those days I was very ignorant of the hindu system of society and I thought a hindu cannot be a tribe and therefore Meitei, cannot be Scheduled Tribe. Maybe my ignorance is due to my science background or maybe Meitei usually do not talk or discuss religion or religious matters and normally they do not go to the temple or the mantop(temple hall) where religious discourse may take place.
I also, had the belief that since the Meitei are “Singh” meaning Lion, like the Lions of Punjab, we are Khetriyas and therefore Meetei cannot be a Sudra, a Harijan, a Dalit – the lowest caste in hindu hierarchy, who are classified as the Scheduled Caste. And for an ordinary Meitei like me, this is our knowledge of hinduism.
The conversion of the Meiteis into the hindu in the 18th century divided the Meetei into two. One, the mainstream Meitei and two, the ostracized Meetei – the “Loi” meaning — people who were ostracized and banished by the Meetei king who had embraced hindu faith and forced his subjects to follow suit. The “Loi” were the Meitei people who had opposed the dictate of the king to convert themselves into hindu.
The King did not allow the “Loi” to have any social interaction with the rest of the Meitei who had gone into the hindu fold. In fact they became “Meitei untouchables”, because of the fear of the King. And the practice was followed by successive Meitei kings.
After Manipur became part of India the “Loi” became scheduled caste because as we can also remember from our own childhood experience the culture of untouchability of the Hinduism seeped into the Meitei social mores and it became Meetei culture. And the Meitei elites whose voices and opinions were counted at that period of time, were proud hindus and they preferred the “Loi” —- the untouchables —- to remain segregated from the mainstream Meitei hindus even officially. And hence the Loi became confirmed SC.
On the contrary the same set of the Meetei elites who probably were ashamed of their Meitei identity took refuge into the Kshetriya fold of the hindu mythology. Accordingly they identified themselves as “Singh” — the kshetriya class or warrior class of the Hindu mythology which is unconnected with the Meetei genesis and Meitei mythology. And thus they could enlist the hindu Meiteis into the general category much to their contentment.
Now, coming back to Poona, I said, I could not be a tribal because I was a hindu. Sensing my ignorance of Hinduism my Hindu Maharastian friend interjected, “No Sham, a hindu can be a tribal, and I am also a tribal”, he said to my pleasant surprise and he continued to tell me about the hindu social hierarchy, which in practice is something like baptizing a child telling him “you are small, he is big”. Anyway that was my lesson on hindu culture from ground zero.
Coincidentally, in about a year or so, we got the news that the Manipur government under the leadership of Rishang Keishing had taken the initiative to include the Meiteis in the ST lists; that was during the period of Indira Gandhi. We discussed the matter among the few Meitei students who were studying in Poona and we could understand that the initiative of the government was logical and truly sensible and we welcomed it.
However after some time we got the information that a few members of some privileged Meeitei family in collaboration with some proud hindus started a move to oppose the government’s initiatives. Ultimately the government had to drop the idea. We knew, then, to gratify their false ego the prominent Meitei leaders had taken the ordinary Meitei on their whims again — Anyway that is the narrative of the Meetei.
The fact that Meeteis still carry their centuries old belief and myth that the “Umang lai” —- the deities of different clans take care of our lives and our future and therefore we have to perform certain rituals to please the “Umang lai” —- speaks volumes about how deep our tribal roots are, inspite of being hindu converts, donning titles and designations.
Now, we may understand that the history of Manipur since 33AD or maybe earlier, is the history of this land, —- our homeland shared by all of us. Our mythology and our anthropology as well, tell us that we have common genesis. We have lived for centuries together in this beautiful tiny Chingleipak. We know each other well, and we all know that among our three indigenous groups — Chin-Kuki, Meitei and Naga, the Meitei is the smallest group in the context of northeast India. Its entire population not only in India but in the world is less than the population of a MP(Member of Parliament) constituency, say of Rajasthan or Delhi or any other major Indian state.
Besides, Meeteis are not provided any protection by the Indian constitution vis-à-vis the 1.3 billion Indians, unlike our Chin-Kuki and Naga brothers who are well protected by the Indian constitution.
Today when globalization removes the barriers among the countries, even in America and Europe the dynamics of demography has become a serious matter. If somebody tries to change the demography that would spontaneously become the central issue. The Meeitei’s whose only natural habitat — the Manipur valley which is hardly 700 square miles, where all of us lived together face the threat to its demography. However despite all the challenges the Meeteis work hard for all of us —- Chin-Kuki, Meitei, Naga and the rest and for our children to live peacefully so that we can go forward .
On the contrary, the fear expressed by ATSUM that Meiteis would gobble up all the major shares for all the tribals spread across the length and breadth of India in case Meeteis are included in the ST list is truly touching.
I am afraid ATSUM have underestimated our hill brothers, who have already produced eminent political leaders, revolutionary figures, Ambassadors, Diplomats, top bureaucrats, etc. whereas for Meitei’s its almost nil.
The fact is, our hill brothers are as good as, if not better — any NE-India’s community including the Meitei, and they have already proved it. The Meetei may be better in Engineering and Medical sciences. But our hill brothers are better in social sciences, diplomacy and administration. Your social value of equality in the society which is the basis to build an egalitarian society is far better than the Meitei value of social hierarchy which is the root cause for indiscipline and cynicism that have evolved in the Meitei society. You have beautiful socio-religious platform where you have your social discourses etc. whereas Meiteis have clubs to organize Thabal Chongba, entertainment, sports, etc. And hence we see chaotic Meitei society. Most importantly, your sense of the value of time has no comparison with the Meitei’s sense of anytime — no value of time. We sincerely appreciate your remarkable achievements.
We believe ATSUM should never have underestimated our hill brothers, because in many areas hill brothers are far better than the valley brothers. And there is no valid reason why ATSUM should feel insecure about the Meitei’s asking for ST status.
Instead of planning to gang up the tribal population that spreads across the length and breadth of India on the Meetei, I appeal and beseech and plead with you to work hard so that we can live together peacefully and move forward.
ATSUM must not forget that our hill brothers have all the potential to compete with — forget the Meitei, any community in India. The only thing I would like to remind all of us without exception is that we only need to change our mindsets. That will do us wonders.
This article was sent by Nabashyam Heigrujam, who can be contacted at nheikrujua(at)gmail(dot)com.