A Way Forward: Redefining The Idea Of Manipur - Eastern Mirror
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A Way Forward: Redefining the Idea of Manipur

By EMN Updated: Apr 27, 2024 11:42 pm

Manipur has been evolving as an entity through the ages under different rulers with varying degrees of administrative and political control over hill areas. Dramatic changes in the Meitei society took place during the reign of Maharaj Pamheiba when Shantidas Gosai, a Hindu priest came to Kangleipak. He renamed the Maharaj as ‘Garib Niwaz’, and the kingdom as ‘Manipur’ alluding to the epic and the Aryan race. A new religion and culture was transplanted and Manipur witnessed a period of social and cultural influence that modified their traditional religion and culture. Manipur then went through a period of invasion and rule by Burmese kingdom at various point of time before it became a protectorate of the British East India Company from 1824, and a princely state of British Raj in 1891 till it experienced a very brief period of independence in 1947-49 after which it was merged into the union of India. The different communities of Manipur existed peacefully in their own shell of exclusivity without assimilating the culture of dominant community during the chequered history of Manipur.  The idea of a superior culture linked to the epic is still discernible among the Meiteis, but this perception is undergoing a sea change evident in the search by Meitei community to become ST (Scheduled Tribes) by distancing themselves from their link with the epic. The Manipur of yore and Manipur now are not the same anymore.

Through the ages, Manipur has seen minimal cultural and social bonding among the three major communities namely, Meiteis, Nagas and Kukis. Meiteis have not mingled with others on account of the superiority complex and their distain for lowly tribal. The major tribes have kept themselves away from Imphal valley and remained ensconced in the hill areas. The difference in culture and social values of the major communities have kept them apart and entrenched in exclusivity. It is not a secret that the Nagas and Kukis despise each other and their hatred is mutual. The majority Meiteis have always been aloft and has looked down at the heathen tribals derogatorily referred to as “Hao” with whom they have minimal social and cultural interaction. In fact, even to this day, after the conversion of tribals into Christianity in early 1900s, the three major communities still live in isolation of each other bereft of social bonding with few instances of inter-marriages. Settlements of tribal people in Imphal, the capital of Manipur, took place when tribals started participating in the government. Tribal settlements in Imphal and settlements of Meiteis in Churachandpur, Moreh, etc. are recent phenomenon where properties belonging to the Meiteis and Kuki-Zomi have been destroyed in the ongoing ethnic conflict. There is still no rapprochement between the two warring communities as the first anniversary approaches. Overcoming exclusivity by communities living in their own space of isolated comfort is the biggest challenge faced by Manipur as a state. With blood of innocent people spilt in the streets and hatred for each other still at its height the question that begs answer is who should be the first to extend the hand of friendship for reconciliation. The Meiteis are the majority community in terms of population and they have the upper hand as the land in Imphal valley, where the capital of Manipur is established, belongs to them. They cannot shirk responsibility as the elder brother and take the first initiative if they honestly want Manipur to remain as a state. The estrangement does not benefit anyone and could degenerate in the balkanisation of Manipur. The citizens of the state are in a crucial period in time for entering into a conversation for ‘Redefining the Idea of Manipur’ where the three major communities can coexist under a single administrative unit and foster inclusive growth and development.

The tribals believe that the hill areas have been meted out step motherly treatment and deprived of their fair share of government developmental funds, services and employment. The historical social and cultural disconnect of the three major communities of Manipur without any bonding to hold them together further got accentuated post-statehood with development mainly concentrated in Imphal. Constitutional provisions incorporated in 1972 under Article 371-C, providing special safeguards for development funds, separate budget for hill areas and a Hill Areas Committee (HAC) mechanism to ensure equity and inclusive development failed to function as envisaged for the hill areas. In the current second term of BJP government in the state, Meitei-centric majoritarianism, sidelining the concerns of minorities with Kuki-Zomi tribes rendered voiceless has become the new normal for governance. The partisan and bias attitude of the state government with scant regard to concerns of tribal communities has encouraged the MMTU (Meetei/Meitei Tribes Union) to seek a favourable order from the Manipur High Court to recommend the demand of Meitei community to be classified as one of the Scheduled Tribes  under the Constitution. The majoritarian strategy adopted by the ST demand groups including the STDCM (Scheduled Tribe Demand Committee of Manipur) and WMC (World Meitei Council) in its recent push to become a ST, by hook or by crook, is distressing as the tribals are pushed towards the precipice for deciding to stay or opt out of Manipur. The Manipur High Court order dated 27.3.2023 has already triggered clashes between the Meiteis and Kuki-Zomi and the one year old conflict is still unresolved. Its order dated 27.3.2023 has been modified by a revised order dated 21.02.2024, but it is being ignored and disregarded by the STDCM, MMTU and WMC. Instead the state government is pressurised to send a proposal recommending ST status for Meitei community without carrying out an ethnographic study and latest socio-economic survey as advised by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Government of India and endorsed by the Manipur High Court. It appears that the pressure groups and state government, dominated by Meiteis, are working together in tandem have realised that the ethnographic study and latest socio-economic survey will only expose the advanced status of the Meitei community and not help their cause. Pressurising the state government to recommend the Meitei ST proposal without following established criteria does not portent well for Manipur as it will ‘push’ the tribes to break away from the state to escape from being part of it and lose their tribal lands. It will also divide and polarise the state between tribals and non-tribals, the hills and valley with disastrous consequences.

Manipur is a complex state with ‘push and pull factors’ tearing the state apart. The Nagas started a freedom movement during the rule of British Raj on the eve of India’s independence. Peace negotiations after hostility started resulted in the creation of a new state called Nagaland in 1963. However, peace has eluded the Naga hills and many Naga issues still remain unresolved which the ongoing 27 years old Indo-Naga peace talks started in 1997 is trying to resolve. The pull factor of Naga nationalism mainly over the Naga tribes of Manipur to be part of a single Naga administration has made the Meitei community raise the slogan of maintaining the integrity of Manipur. The Lushai hills of Assam was given a state called Mizoram in 1987, but calls for a greater Mizoram seems to have resonated in the recently concluded Mizoram assembly elections in 2023 and in Manipur Kuki-Zomi inhabited areas pushed by the unresolved ethnic conflict which erupted in May 2023. Under these circumstances, when different forces are trying to ‘pull’ the state apart, belligerent pressure groups among the Meitei community tacitly backed by the state government are ‘pushing’ the tribes away with their unjustifiable desire to usurp tribal lands in the “Hill Areas” of Manipur. There is a risk that the pressures from Meitei ST movement groups and ill-conceived ideas of amending Article 371-C of some politicians could push the tribals into concluding that they have no alternative under the onslaught of majoritarian rule, but to opt out of the present entity called Manipur. The tribes are already unhappy and frustrated that their demand for power sharing through an empowered local self government for the district councils under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution since the late 1970s has been repeatedly thwarted by the state government dominated by the Meiteis. To add salt to injury, the dominant Meitei community is now making concerted efforts to become ST by hook or by crook blatantly ignoring the procedure pointed out by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Government of India and endorsed by the Manipur High Court without intent to carry out ethnographic study and a socio-economic survey. No one doubts that the ST demand, in the guise of availing reservation under the ST category, would serve as a permit for Meiteis to buy tribal lands in the “Hill Areas” of Manipur. The STs of Manipur has not opposed the demand of the Meitei community to become ST and has only pointed out that it should be done in the manner stated by the Manipur High Court by responding to the letter from Government of India and sending specific recommendations along with recent ethnographic study and latest socio-economic survey. It is suspected that the Meitei ST demand organisations have realised that the ethnographic study and a socio-economic survey will reveal the truth that the Meiteis are an advanced community and cannot be classified as ST. In the recent UPSC exam result of 2023 four Meiteis have made into the merit list debunking the claim that the Meiteis are a backward community and need to be included in the ST list. They are indeed an advanced community and are already enjoying reservation under the SC (Scheduled Castes) and OBC (Other Backward Classes) categories. The demand for ST status for Meiteis with the objective of usurping tribal lands in the “Hill Areas” is becoming unbearable and can trigger a conflict between the Meiteis and tribals if the perception of threat becomes real. The sooner this fact is realised a major irritant, for conflict to erupt between the Meiteis and tribals, would be removed.

Another phenomenon of social churning is becoming evident in the Meitei society and needs to be understood in its proper perspective. In the days when Shantidas Gosai came in early 1700s, Manipur was an independent kingdom known as Kangleipak with its own unique script and religion. All these changed with a Hindu priest converting the Maharaj to Hinduism, gave him a new name, renamed Kangleipak as Manipur, burned and destroyed Meitei script as impure and imposed Bengali script. The unique indigenous Meitei community culture and identity was suppressed and eclipsed by Hinduism and its culture for three centuries till revivalist Meiteis promoted the old religion called ‘Sanamahi’ and rediscovered the original Meitei script called ‘Meitei mayek’. The Meitei revivalist trend is discernible in the post 3rd May 2023 ethnic conflict wherein Meitei language protest posters were displayed in “Roman script” and “Bengali script” shunned. Interestingly, no posters were displayed in “ Meitei Mayek” as it is yet to be popularised even among the Meiteis. Abandonment of Bengali script coincided with the Meitei community clamouring to be classified as ST (Scheduled Tribes). Overtly, the objective of the ST demand for Meiteis is to avail the benefits of reservation under the ST category, but scepticism prevails among the ST communities suspecting “land grab” of tribal lands in the “Hill Areas” of Manipur as the real motive behind the Meitei ST demand. Alas, much water has flowed under the bridge for over 300 years! Clinging on to the past and applying the past situation to the present time can only be termed as disillusion. Abandoning Bengali script, which is the script embedded in the Eight Schedule of the constitution and replacing it with Roman script could be termed as an emotional outburst, but may not have any impact as the newly rediscovered “Meitei mayek” would be preferred to replace “Manipuri” (Bengali) script in the Eighth Schedule.

Nationhood or statehood is another tricky factor impinging on the unity of Manipur. The demand for nationhood in the north eastern India was first ignited by some educated Naga youth and Naga labourers (Labour Corps) who returned to their native land after their exposure to western civilisation in Europe during WW-I. Other communities from the north eastern region have taken a leaf from the Naga freedom movement and have raised banners of nationhood for their own communities. In Manipur the Meitei and Kuki-Zomi too have aspiration for a nation of their own. Meitei insurgency is rooted in its history of re-establishing the glory of the past Manipur kingdom. The Kukis scattered in every district of Manipur, with highest concentration in Churachandpur district (including the new district), dream of a Kukiland in Manipur bringing them in direct confrontation with the Nagas over land ownership. The society in Manipur has always been fractured on ethnic lines. The chasm is widening in the aftermath of May 2023 incident and exasperated by Meiteis pushing for becoming ST with intention to grab tribal land. The emerging and developing situation begs for intervention by the Central government before matters worsen and become irreconcilable between the two major groups in the state.

The Naga tribes have a large presence in the Imphal valley. The Zeliangrong tribe, mainly the Kabui/Rongmei, have hundreds of villages/hamlets in the valley living alongside Meitei villages for centuries. Besides this, there are several smaller tribes that live among the Meiteis within the valley and its periphery. The Zeliangrong tribe is concentrated mainly in Tamenglong district, they have a large presence in Nagaland and Assam too. The Kukis are present in every district of Manipur and scattered in every state in the north eastern region. The Meiteis too, called Bishnupriya Manipuris or Bishnupriya Meiteis in Assam and Tripura, are scattered in most states of the region. The geo-political dynamics of the spread of ethnic groups in the north eastern region render the preposition for segregation or delineation of territories based on tribal or ethnic lines an uphill task.

Manipur is not homogenous like other tribal states of Nagaland, Meghalaya, Arunachal and Mizoram in the sense they are predominantly inhabited by tribals. Manipur has a mixed population of roughly 40% tribals, 53% non-tribal Meiteis and the rest belong to other communities. The tribals are predominantly Christians while the non-tribal Meiteis are predominantly Hindus. The heterogenous composition of society in Manipur entails upon the state government to manage administration and law and order situation in a very careful, tactful and calibrated manner by avoiding being accused of biased, partisan and unjust decision making.

Administrating Manipur state requires astute leadership which is becoming rare with money and muscle power in elections throwing up leaders with questionable calibre. The electorate are partly to be blamed for electing leaders who are not able to rise above circumstances. The challenge is for more qualified and educated youth with vision for a new Manipur to join politics and bring about better administrative functioning for fostering inclusive development across the state and keeping the state together as an entity.

The tendency on the part of the state government, dominated by Meiteis, to resort to decisions based on majoritarian rule needs to be curbed. Consensus building through elaborate consultative process and unanimity in decision making should be the norm. Accusations that the state administration and its machineries have been discharging its duties in a Meitei-centric manner should not be uttered again. The virtues of consultation, dialogue and decision making through consensus building should be promoted and followed strictly. Inclusive administration and development resulting in harmonious relationship between different communities have stood the state in good stead in the past and should be cultivated. The time to impose the ‘Will” and ‘Aim’ of a single community, majority or otherwise, over other communities should not be allowed to happen. Pluralistic society needs to be encouraged and parochial thinking discarded by the citizens.

Bringing about a more inclusive system of administration and development in Manipur can be achieved if the provisions of Article 371-C enshrined in the Constitution of India for the “Hill Areas” is allowed to be implemented as envisaged in letter and spirit. Here the Hon’ble Governor, Chief Minister and Speaker have onerous responsibilities. The assault by the Meitei leaders on Article 371-C and demand for becoming a member of Scheduled Tribes  both of which are aimed at usurping tribals lands in the “Hill Areas” of Manipur as suspected by tribals should be abandoned. With the right attitude of promoting inclusive development a new line of magnanimous thinking to share land resources in the hill areas could emerge. Scarcity of land primarily for establishment of institutions and government projects could be considered in the “Hill Areas” in consultation with the HAC and the tribes of the area concerned. With improvements in road connectivity the hill district headquarters are  becoming easily accessible in a few hours and could be considered as alternative locations for setting up state and central level institutions and major infrastructures to take off pressure on lands in the valley. Power sharing for empowered district councils under the Sixth Schedule in the hill areas should be facilitated. The HAC, as provided in the Presidential notification dated 20th June 1972 should be allowed to frame laws that will link the administration of empowered district councils with the Manipur (Village Authorities in Hill Areas) Act, 1956 to facilitate a symbiotic governance at grass root level. A new land use law for lands in the “Hill Areas” could be framed by the HAC aimed at easing pressure on land in the valley for setting up institutions and major infrastructures besides facilitating promotion of a pluralistic and inclusive society in the hill district headquarters could be evolved. Several dynamic ideas could be explored and implemented through properly conceived and comprehensive legislations initiated and drafted by the HAC with active support of the state government through a consultative process of consensus building.

The idea of a new Manipur can only work if the walls of separation between the people of the valley and hills is torn down and pluralistic society is promoted with focus on tolerance, forward thinking, non-violence, communal harmony, peaceful coexistence and brotherhood of men.

Ngaranmi Shimray

New Delhi

 The writer is a New Delhi-based social activist and tweets @Aran Shimray.


By EMN Updated: Apr 27, 2024 11:42:34 pm
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