There is a need to distinguish between two emerging, distinct strains in the general understanding of the term tribal. One is the original that basically has to do with a socio-economical categorization of a community’s collective lifestyle and beliefs, and the other is a complication brought about through a system of statutory incentive structuring that has in the course of time overshadowed the former meaning. We bring this topic up, because in the complex, current Manipur scenario of political and economic tussles between various groups and communities, the often invoked image of tribal versus non-tribal duality, is extremely misleading. This is particularly so because the generally held notion of the duality in most of the Indian mainland is radically different from the reality in the northeast. In most of the rest of India, the difference between the two categories is among others racial, religious, sociological, economic and attitudinal. In most of the northeast, the difference is most prominent in terms of availing economic opportunities on the one hand, and the willingness or unwillingness to open up to the outside on the other, and nothing very much beyond. As for instance, in the Manipur context, replace the word “tribal” by the word “ethnic” in trying to have a grasp of the various inter-community friction, and the whole agenda would be recast in a totally different light. Here “tribal” and “non-tribal” alike hold traditional world views, share the love for mythology in interpreting their lives and origins, are open to the same benefits of education or its shortfalls, by and large follow religions that can hardly be called tribal etc. In fact, we would even go to the extent of saying that the only remaining true tribal are those who have stuck to their original religions and lifestyles. In sociological terms, we would say that the very embracing of major religions of the world, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism etc, must be treated as major points in the inevitable de-tribalizing process that all communities everywhere must go through at some time or the other.
If this changed perspective is agreed upon, or the rationale behind it is appreciated (academically at least), then the restructuring of incentive policies can also be reoriented in the most beneficial and fair way. The foremost criterion for such a new categorization could be in terms of economic zones. We know for instance that there can be no argument about the economic divide between the valley and the hills, so the hills must continue to enjoy the benefits of the policy of positive discrimination it has been until the playfields have been levelled out to make fair competition possible. But this policy must not be given a tribal tinge which has been known to have left far too much room for all kinds of vested interests to take unwarranted political advantage of. Moreover, as we have said, we do believe there are only very few tribal communities left in the true sense of the term. We know it for certain there are some amongst the Zeliangrongs and quite ironically the Meiteis: people who have stuck on zealously to their ancient worlds rejecting the superimposition of any universal worldviews by any universal religions. But even here, because the tribal category is not everything to do with religion, they are most unlikely to qualify on an absolute scale.
To underscore our point once again, let the term tribal not be given a racial definition, but be the indicator of a disadvantaged social condition. Let us give the idea of de-linking the concept tribal from the incentives it has come to be associated with, a serious thought, so that even if any ethnic group becomes de-tribalized, they do not necessarily have to forfeit the incentives. Already detribalized groups like the Meiteis must not think of a regression of their social status as they have partially done by their eagerness to be called backward classes. Let us realize, these are all derogatory classifications. It really is amazing what incentive can do to overturn even people’s basic sense of dignity.