“In the case of the Meitei community which are also one of the major/principal tribe of Manipur are not recommended by the State Government. This Court finds some force in the submission made by the learned counsel for the petitioners, as the petitioners and other Unions are fighting long years for inclusion of Meetei/Meitei community in the tribe list of Manipur” —Guwahati High Court, while delivering a judgement on Mutum Churamani Meetei v. The State of Manipur, Writ Petition (Civil) No. 229 of 2023, on March 27, 2023
One decision by the High Court to include the Meitei community of Manipur in the Scheduled Tribe list resulted in large-scale violence, destruction of property, displacement of people and killings. Why is this court decision facing violent opposition, especially when most of the communities in the North East have a tribal status? To get the answer, we need to understand the historical and socio-economic dimensions among the various communities in Manipur.
The present-day Manipur was among the few areas the British could not completely annexe. Thanks to the courage and conviction of the patriots like Bir Tikendrajit Singh. The Manipur kingdom, nurtured by the Bhakti tradition popularised by Rajarshi Bhagyachandra, remained a kingdom with a distinct religious-cultural identity, despite the indirect control of the British, till its merger with the Bharatiya Union in 1949. But, the British systematically created divisions in the surrounding areas and communities on the hills and plains, tribals and non-tribals lines.
These areas had a majority of the tribal population with their distinct cultural traditions, but most of them were nature worshipers. While isolating them from the rest of Bharat, the British gave a free hand to foreign missionaries to destroy the local cultures, exploit their resources and subsequently convert the people. The idea of a crown colony, carving out a separate Christian State in Asia was the ultimate plan of the British, which the Church did not give up even after the end of the British Raj.
Unfortunately, after the merger of the Manipur kingdom in Bharat, the same policies continued in Manipur and the entire North East. The result was that Nagas and Kukis, having linkages in the North Western province of present-day Myanmar and residing in Manipur hill areas, got the Scheduled Tribe status. At the same time, Meiteis, the original inhabitants of Manipur, still need to get the ST status despite their unique community traditions. The Land Reforms Act of Manipur in 1960, forbidding them to buy any land in the hills, further perpetuated the discrimination against Meiteis. When the historical wrongs are corrected with the due process of law, the Church-instigated groups resort to violence.
In the 1970s, another game of poppy fields and drug trafficking started in the hills. Illegal migration of Chin Kukis from Myanmar increased after the liberation of Bangladesh. The recent decisions by the N Biren Singh Government, with the support of the Union Home Ministry, to end the poppy culture and identification of Government land through the Revenue Department are other reasons behind vehemence in the name of tribal status to Meiteis.
Most notably, North East is no longer seen with the tyranny of distance prism. The infrastructural, cultural and emotional connection with the rest of Bharat has increased significantly. All sections of society realise the fruits of peace and development. Many individuals and groups have signed peace agreements with the Union Government. State Governments of the region are trying their best to resolve the boundary issues. Naturally, subversive forces that used to run parallel Governments and insurgency-based industries are unhappy with these developments. Manipur violence is their message of derailing the peace. We need to counter it with cementing initiatives.
Freedom fighters like Bir Tikendrajit, Rani Ma Gaidinliu and many others did not fight or sacrifice their lives to fight among themselves but to save the land, culture, people and nation from colonial aggression. The colonial construct of dividing people on hills vs plains line is the root cause of the current situation in Manipur. While retaining our unique traditions, we can realise our national selfhood when we learn to accommodate each other’s concerns and claims. The recent violence reminds us of the uphill task we must undertake to decolonise our approach towards all issues, including the North East.