By: Thangjam Ranjit
Meetei Community is one of the main tribes of Manipur and North East India and possesses all the characteristics of becoming a tribe living in a permanent society. Though, the majority of Meetei population embraces Hinduism/Vaishnavism, they do not give up their age-old traditions, language, cultures, way of life, etc, of their fore fathers. They have been following the rituals of birth, marriage, death etc, in the way their fore-fathers were practising, even before the time of their conversion into Hinduism during the reign of King Pamheiba (I709-1748). This is again confirmed by the census of India 1931, vol-I page-430, it records “Manipuris” as wholly “Hindu Tribe” but retaining their distinctive language and culture”. “Followers of Sanamahism/Meeteism which constitute over two lakhs population also have been strictly following traditions and cultures of their forefathers till date similar to other Meetei Hindus.
The fact that Meeteis are living in a permanent tribal society are borne out by the historic resolution of the International Labour Organizational (ILO), a specialized agency of UNO, which adopted its Convention No. 169 in 1989, based on general attitude of respect for the cultures and way of life of indigenous and tribal people, and the fundamental assumption that indigenous and tribal people constitute permanent societies. This landmark resolution, however, contradicts ILO convention No. 107 of 1957 which is based on temporary tribal societies but obsolete now.
The fact that Meetei (Manipuri) is tribe/Principal tribe of Manipur and N.E. India is authenticated by many official records, gazetteers, publications, memoirs, books, etc. Mention may be made of Census of India 1891, 1901 and 1931; Imperial Gazetteer of Bengal and Assam (1909); Gazetteer of Manipur by Caption EW Dunn (1886); Gazetteer of Bengal and N.E. India (1909); Statistical Accounts of the Native State of Manipur, the Hill Territory; under its Rules by Dr. R. Brown, Political Agent in Manipur (1873); the New Encyclopedia Britannica; Ethnicity and Social Change by Prof. Gangmumei Kamei, among others. History of the Tangkhul Nagas written by A.S. W. Shimray mentions Tangkhuls and Meeteis are descendants of the same progenitor and that ancestors of the Tangkhuls and Meeteis are brothers. “The Meiteis” written by T.C. Hudson, late Political Agent of Manipur (1908) (an Anthropologist) mentions Meitei as a tribe, so on and so forth.
On the other hand, people in the hills, except few thousands Zeliangrongs, almost 99% of the population have embraced Christianity but have abandoned their traditional cultures and ways of life. In other words, the old rituals of birth, marriage, death, etc., of their forefathers which were in practice before embracing Christianity are no longer in use. They are living in the way true Christians of the West are living, forgetting and abandoning the old tradition and culture of their fore fathers. However, in the midst of strong influence of Christianity in the hills and Hinduism in the valley area of the state, sizeable population, of the Meetei and Zeliangrong are still following their all cultures and traditions of their forefathers, in the name of “Sanamahi” and Tingkao Rangwa. That, is why UNO describes such communities who have been following the old cultures, tradition and way of life of their ancestors as “Permanent Tribal Society”. Again, Meetei being a bonafide indigenous people of the state and following old cultures and traditions of their forefathers are scheduled tribe, according to the Supreme Court of India, the highest Court of the country, as per its judgment (Criminal Appeal No. 11/2011 (Special) Leave Petition No. 10367 of 2010) of 5th 2011, which states “Scheduled Tribes or Adivasis are the original inhabitants of India and constitutes about 8% of our total population”.
Again, Meetei qualifies the old and new criteria laid down by the Govt. of India/ Ministry of Tribal Affairs.
The old criteria are :
1. Indication of Primitive traits.
2. Distinctive culture.
3. Shyness of contact with the community at large.
4. Geographical isolation.
The new criteria (under consideration) proposed by Panda Committee 2014 are :
1. Autonomous religious practices, although practicing the Hindu way of life would not be a bar.
2. Marital relationship with other tribes (majority in the tribe should marry within the tribe or with other tribes not with non Tribals).
3. Distinctive culture.
4. Historical and Geographical isolation.
5. Socio-economic and educational backwardness.
6. Distinctive language.
Meeteis having been officially documented as a tribe or principal tribe earlier, qualify both the old and new criteria of being a tribe in the context of Article 343 (1) of the Indian Constitution and accordingly Meetei can be enlisted in the ST list of the state/country and receive constitutional safeguard for Manipur Valley where Meeties can inhabit in scheduled areas in the same manner as that of the hills areas of the state by our indigenous hill people. This way fertile Imphal valley area which is producing tasty and substantial food grains, vegetables, fishes, etc. can be saved for livelihood of both the people living in the hills and valley.
Had Meetei been enlisted in the ST list along with our brethren in the hills, the present situation of mistrust and seemingly hill-valley divide among the people in the state would not have been existed but a peaceful, progressive and harmonious tribal society of a hill state called Manipur/Meitrabak/Kangleipak. We can achieve this status of Manipuri society again in near future if the Meetei are given ST status by Government of India under Article 342(1) of the Indian constitution.
We should remember that the indigenous people in the state are looked upon as tribes by the people of India and world over except few immigrant STs. The indigenous Meetei should be included in the ST list at the earliest to save Meetei in particular and indigenous communities living in the state. For this Govt. of Manipur should send the necessary documents – socio-economic survey and ethnography reports of Meetei to the Govt. of India at an early date.
Among the indigenous people of Manipur Meetei bears more Tribal characters
By: Thangjam Ranjit