By Dr. Th Ranjit
The Meeteis settling in the central valley districts of the state and elsewhere are the aborigines or originals settlers of the state, like the Tankhuls, Kabuis, Maram, Mao, Kom, Vaiphei, etc., the recognized Scheduled Tribes of India, among the Mongoloids (Kirats) race of the North East India. This fact is proven by the Anthropologists and Historians – present and past, Indians and non-Indians, literates and illiterates alike, since a long time till date. There is no doubt about the Meeteis belonging to a tribe or indigenous people of the state. None can challenge the veracity of it. After the historical tragic incident of forced conversion of Meeteis into Hinduism during the reign of king Pamheiba/Garibniwaz (1709-1748), they have been treated as Hindus/Aryans instead of Mongoloids, because of the fact that only the Aryans can embrace Hinduism according to Swami Vivekananda.
In fact, Meeteis continued to be a major tribe in the official British records till Manipur merged into Indian Union in 1949. In 1891 census, Manipuris (Meeteis) were recorded as forest tribe; 1901 census, main tribe and 1931 census, Hindu Tribe but retaining their distinctive language and culture. But after the merger of Manipur into Indian Union and subsequent to the formation of new Republic of India on the 26th January 1950, the tribal status of the Meeteis was abruptly dropped and enlisted in the general caste/category without giving valid reasons to the Govt. of Manipur, owing to the unholy influence of some Manipuri Hindu fanatics / pseudo-Hindu and some political leaders having vested interests in the persons of Shri G Lalita Madhav Sharma,G Banka Bihari Sharma and Sinam Khrishnamohon Singh, the so called scholars of that time. Consequently, the social chasm/divide between valley people and hill people that was created in 18th century, when the former was converted to Hinduism ,was further deepened due to the categorization of the people of the State as General, ST and SC by the constitution of India, in addition to the British policy of divide and rule between hills and plains.
As the valley of Manipur was formed from a big lake in the geologic past ,due to the siltation of organic matters and sediments from the surrounding hill ranges, is very fertile and very suitable for agricultural activities for a long time. In fact, agricultural produces of this small fertile valley districts are largely contributing to the livelihood of the people of the state, both hill and plain, poor and rich, indigenous and non -indigenous and so on. But, this small portion of arable land, occupying 5% (approx.) of the total geographical area of the state, is giving shelters and foods to about 70% of the total population of the state. Unfortunately, this so important plain area of the state, peopled mostly by the Meeteis, is not protected by the Indian Constitution, that is, anybody in India can purchase or own land in this so precious land of the people of the state. In the hill districts, on the contrary, no people belonging to the general category/caste, (say,Meeteis, Biharis, Marwaris, Bengalis,etc.) can buy land and settle there as the lands are protected under Scheduled V of the Indian Constitution.
As we all know, the fertile land of the valley districts, very good for agricultural pursuits, are gradually dwindling due to the faulty policy of the government, procurement of lands by rich people and businessmen in the name of urbanization for construction of buildings, hotels, educational institutions, industrial establishments, stone crushing centres, brickfields, expansion of roads, airport, railway lines by the Govt. etc. If this trend is not checked, there will be hardly any land left for agricultural activities to meet the growing food grains demands, employment avenues of our people in the fields in rural and sub-urban areas of the state and the like in near future. The situation will be grimmer when Indian railway reaches Imphal and Trans- Asia Highway passes through the State in the next few years and that the land owned by poverty-stricken and money-poor majority Meetei populace will fall prey to the land hungry business sharks and multimillionaires when they wanted to establish their business centres. In this way, constitutionally unprotected lands of the state, peopled by Meeteis mostly, but producing the maximum agricultural yields of the state will be in the hands of the outsiders or non-indigenous people and as a result of which Meeteis, in particular and other indigenous people in general, will face unprecedented problems in terms of food,water,shelter, employment avenues, business opportunities, demographic patterns, social harmony, etc. If the government and people are sensible and sincere enough to utilize our small fertile lands in the valley areas of the state judiciously and properly, we can save our land, identity, culture, and future generations from being exploited by various greedy, rich, hard working, skilled and organised non-indigenous people coming from outside the state in large measures.
Therefore, in order to save the Meeteis and other indigenous people of the state or sons of the soil from possible food crisis or mass starvation for want of agricultural produces or from possible exploitation by ever increasing influx of people coming from outside the state , the fertile and productive areas of valley districts should be protected under the Indian Constitution, as is done in the hill districts of the State. Restoration of ST status to Meeteis will save our fertile valley, which is producing foods for the total population of state, on one hand and the Meetei tribe from gradual extinction in the next 3-4 decades in his natural habitat, on the other. Not only this, Meeteis can live on generation after generation in his ancestral land with his brethren in the hills and valley in harmony, ethnic equality and peace once again as one tribal society or tribal state as before in the past. Over and above this, Meetei can compete well with the rest of the country in central sectors-educations, jobs, etc. in proper platforms for its rights and opportunities as guaranteed by the Indian Constitution and bring more laurels for the people of the state.
Finally, the realization of Meeteis that they were in higher social status because of their being in general category was nothing but a false pride will be paving a great step forward in fostering peace, development and unity among the indigenous people of the state. The historic comeback of Meeteis’ to tribal status or old fold, as guaranteed by Indian Constitution, should be seen as ‘home-coming’ and should be given warm welcome by other indigenous people of the state and prove to the world that ‘blood is thicker than water and justify that “the birds of the same feathers flock together.”