Meitei’s Demand for Scheduled Tribe Status
Given the level of socio-economic development of the majority Meitei community and their political domination of the state of Manipur, their demand to be classified as a scheduled tribe is absurd. It is inconsistent with the very idea of scheduling of tribes as envisaged in the constitution and the principle of positive discrimination.
The calling attention motion moved by the opposition leader, Irengbam Ibohalbi of Trinamool Congress, in the Manipur state assembly on February 2014 to consider the demand of Meiteis ‒a dominant community of the state‒ for scheduled tribe staus, is quite surprising.
Of course, Ibohalbi merely was echoing the demand of the Scheduled Tribes Demand Committee of Manipur Valley (STDCM). In fact, the Meitei demand for scheduled tribe status began with the STDCM submitting a memorandum on 30 November 2012 to Governor Gurbacharan, who had reportedly “assured to lend assistance towards their realization of their demand”. The committee further met the Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh on 18 December 2012, and on 10 July 2013 the committee along with T Meinya, the Inner Manipur constituency MP, met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who reportedly asked the STDCM to first discuss the case in the state cabinet.
The Meitei, a Hindu community, comprises both scheduled castes as well as the dwija castes (twice-born). It is surprising that it is the dwija castes, or the dominant upper castes, who are demanding the scheduled tribes status, which is given only to groups which exhibit primitive traits, have a distinctive culture, are geographically isolated and are extremely backward. In other words, it is the forward classes which are demanding the status of backward classes.
In their memorandum, the STDCM mentioned that if their demand is granted, it “will certainly help [bring] about integration of hill and plain people”. This is rather illogical, as development gap between the valley and hill people cannot be bridged by merely changing the social category of the dominant caste group, residing in the plains, to that of marginalised hill tribes. Instead, it would be ideal, if we could raise the hill tribes’ level of development to that of dominant caste groups and help the hill people to get rid of their stigmatised tribal identity.
Reasons Put Forward for Inclusion
The STDCM in their memorandum to the governor argued that the Meitei, even though having converted to Hinduism, have not entirely given up animistic practices. In fact, religion was never a criterion for inclusion in the Constitution’s scheduled tribes list. The 1901 census, classified people as tribals if they practiced “animism”. But this was no longer a criterion for successive censuses.
All communities specified as tribes by the colonial administration were considered for inclusion in the list of scheduled tribes according to the Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order, 1950 issued by the president. The Meiteis were not included in this list.
According to the First Backward Class Commission“Scheduled Tribes may belong to any religion.” Religion, therefore, is no longer considered to be a criterion for inclusion in the Constitution’s scheduled tribes list in independent India. The tribals may practice animism, but this is not a ground enough for inclusion in the list; rather it is just a criterion that the government has adopted from time to time.
The tribal status has also been claimed on the ground that the Meitei are also part of the same linguistic as well as racial group (mongoloid) to which hill tribes belong. It is a fact that they do belong to the same stock as the hill tribes ‒ racially as well as linguistically. However, race and language are not grounds for inclusion in the scheduled tribes list. In fact, the Meitei language has a well developed script (mayek) and has been included in the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution.
Other features pointed out by STDCM to claim the scheduled tribes status, such as food habits (non-vegetarianism), observance of certain practices belonging to their old religion, etc., have nothing to do with the criteria adopted by the government of India since the First Backward Classes Commission (1953).
In principle, the demand is inconsistent with the idea of compensatory discrimination. Scheduling of tribes has been basically done so that the state can uplift the backward classes or weaker sections within the population by adopting preferential discrimination. This demand by the forward classes is not likely to promote harmony and bring about integration between the hill and the valley people, as the STDCM suggests. Rather, it would further aggravate the already existing tension between them. In fact, the hill tribes would be further marginalised in their own ancestral territory.
The President of India, by using the power vested in him under Article 342 of the Indian Constitution, issued the Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order in 1950 for Part A & B states and for Part C States in 1951. This order specified tribes who were categorised as “depressed classes” before independence as scheduled tribes.
Adhering to Article 340 of the Constitution of India, the First Backward Classes Commission was set up by a presidential order on 29 January 1953 under the chairmanship of Kaka Kalelkar. Based on the report of the commission, the scheduled tribes list was modified by an act of Parliament ‒The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Order (amendment) Act, 1956. One of the criteria laid down by the Backward Classes Commission for inclusion of a community in the scheduled tribe list was as follows:
The Scheduled Tribes can be generally ascertained by the fact that they live apart in hills, and even where they live on the plains, they lead a separate excluded existence and are not fully assimilated in the main body of the people. Scheduled Tribes may belong to any religion. They were listed as scheduled Tribes because of the kind of life led by them”. (Backward Classes Commission’s (1955) questionnaire).
It is important to note, besides the criteria, the methodology adopted by the commission to determine the eligibility whether a group can be included in the scheduled tribe list. The commission distributed a questionnaire with the above criterion mentioned in the preamble to each state and requested a list of groups who should be included in the scheduled tribe list. A list of 29 tribes was given by the Manipur state government to be included in the list. Thus, the whole process followed by the commission involved states, and it was in consultation with the states that the report was prepared.
Since 1956, the government of India set up various commissions from time to time to look into the affairs of SCs/STs. The inclusion criteria is not spelt out in the Constitution, but criteria presently adopted by the government is published in the website of Tribal Affairs Ministry:
The criterion followed for specification of a community, as scheduled tribes are indications of primitive traits, distinctive culture, geographical isolation, shyness of contact with the community at large, and backwardness. (www.tribal.nic.in/Content/DefinitionpRrofiles.aspx)
It is further mentioned that these criteria have become well established and subsume the definitions contained in 1931Census, the reports of First Backward Classes Commission 1955, the Advisory Committee (Kalelkar), Revision of SC/ST lists (Lokur Committee), 1965. (ibid)
Demand Examined by NCST
Any community has the right to demand its inclusion in the scheduled tribes list. However, it is the responsibility of the National Commission of Scheduled Tribes (NCST) to give technical inputs to the government of India for any representation received from individuals/ petitioners/associations and other forums for the inclusion of a community in the scheduled tribe list, or representation received from the Ministry of Tribal Affairs. Either way, the commission carefully examines the references, keeping in mind provisions under Article 342(1) and Article 342(2) and the various presidential orders from time to time.
The NCST, according to the guidelines, has to ascertain a proposal made on the basis of the criteria mentioned above. To accord the Meiteis the scheduled tribe status, the NCST has to look into aspects of the community’s way of living, social customs and religious practices, dialect, and educational and economic status.
In terms of the “way of living”, as per guidelines, the habitation of Meiteis is not geographically isolated. They inhabite a very fertile valley connected with the outside world by three national highways and with one airport. The Meitei have a rich cultural heritage, and a well developed sense of hygine. Their main occupations are wetland paddy cultivation, fishery, sericulture, etc. They are, of course, non-vegetarian except for some very religious individuals from higher castes; this is more of a personal choice. Among the Meitei only the scheduled caste brew alcoholic drinks.
As far as “social customs and religious practices” are concerned, the Meitei have indigenised Vaishnavite-Hinduism, and still practice some Sanamahi (the old religion of the Meitei)rites. However, they perform Hindu rituals and ceremonies for marriage. The Meitei, except the scheduled caste communities, worship all deities of the Vaishnavism along with Pakhangba, the deity of the old religion of the Meitei. They have a well developed culture of weaving. They are much more dictated by caste and its hierarchy rather than their clan. In fact, earlier, they were known to practice untouchability toward scheduled castes and the hill tribes, which they called ‘Hau’. Their language Meitei has a well developed script (mayek) and has been included in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution.
When it comes to their educational and economic status, the Meitei are not behind other advanced classes/castes in India. The districts inhabited by the Meitei have literacy rate between 76-87 %. The Meitei, as a community, live relatively well. They are well represented in the government and have largely occupied two-third seats in the state legislative assembly.
It is rather ironical that after more than 65 years of independence, the forward classes of society are demanding the status of “backward classes”. This undermines or disregards the work done by successive governments. Meeting such a demand would mean granting tribal status to the dominant dwija castes. This would be inconsistent with the idea of scheduling of tribes and the principle of positive discrimination and affirmative action.
L Lam Khan Piang (
) teaches at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
Source: Economic & Political Weekly.