By- Dr. Thangjam Ranjit
Indigenous or indigenous people, according to a common definition, are those who inhabited a country or a geographical region at the time when people of different cultures or ethnic origins arrived. The new arrivals later become dominant through occupation, settlement or other. The term indigenous has prevailed as a generic term for many years. In many countries, the term is synonymously used as tribes, first peoples/nations, aboriginals, ethnic groups, Adivasis or Janajati.
According to the Supreme Court of India, in one of its landmarks judgments, it has been stated that the present STs are the descendants of the original, first settlers’ aborigines or adivashi of the country.
Meetei is one of the Principal indigenous tribes of Manipur and N.E. India. When Meetei community returns to its original fold/tribal status by enlisting in the scheduled tribe list of the country, the land and reservation quota of the present scheduled tribes of the state will never affect at all. Many people, including the well known leaders of prominent civil societies/organization as well as individuals, both in the valley and hill districts of the state, who do not know much about Scheduled Tribe’ and Human Migration Theory’ are circulating malicious rumours to the simple and innocent people, particularly of the Hill Districts that the land and reservation quota of hill tribes (scheduled tribes) will be grabbed once Meetei community is included in the scheduled tribe list under Article 342(1) of the Indian Constitution. It is unfortunate that some organizations based, both in the valley and hill, are instigating people to counter this popular demand of the Meetei community. Many people, both in the valley and hill districts of the state believe in this canard being spread by pseudo scholars, pseudo leaders, or hypocrites. In reality, the rumours are unfounded and are engineered by some who have vested interests, and some who want to throw the seeds of mistrust, disunity and disharmony among the consanguineous ethnic communities, who have been living in love, understanding and harmony since time immemorial.
The very theory that the land and reservation quota of our brethren in the highlands will be grabbed by Meetei is out of the question. After inclusion of Meetei tribe in the ST list of the country, the state will have two separate reservation quotas under two different names/nomenclatures. Meetei ST will be known as Plain ST, New ST, Backward ST, Advanced ST or any other name; whereas, the present STs as Hill ST, Old ST, Backward ST, Advanced ST or any other name suitable to make distinction between the two STs. The existence of reservation quotas within quota in a state or union Territory UT is empowered by the constitution of India under Article 16 (4). In a new and pragrmatic approach to quotas within quota of ST in the state, bigger STs like Tangkhul, Rongmei, Mao, Paite, Hmar, etc, may have separate quota and the smaller STs like Koireng, Kom, Monsang, Chothe, etc. in another quota, in the way Nagaland State is doing, for uniform growth and development of the indigenous communities in the state. Under the same Article, in Assam state, Scheduled Tribes are categorized as Plain Tribes and Hill Tribes with corresponding reservation quota of 10% and 5%. Similarly, in Meghalaya state, different ethnic tribes have separate quota based on their population. Thus Khasi and Jayantia, 40% Garo, 40% and others, 5%. In Nagaland state, there are three different categories of Scheduled Tribes (i.e . quotas within quota). Chang, Khiamungan, Konyak, Phom, Sangtam and Yimchunger with 25% Chakeshang Puchury, Zeliang and Sums of the Tuensang, Man, Longleng and Kiphire districts as backward tribes with 12% reservation quota. The remaining ST quota goes to the remaining tribes under unreserved quota in the name of Advanced Tribes (Ao, Angami, Lotha & Sema). Thus when indigenous Meetei community is enlisted in the scheduled tribe list, and consequently, when Manipur becomes a tribal Hill State, there will be no question of grabbing the existing ST quota of the state by the Meetei community in any manner. Therefore, there should not be unnecessary apprehension about this reality guaranteed by Indian Constitution by our brethren in the hills rather they should welcome this paradigm shift, to take place in respect of indigenous Meetei community, in the light of a prosperous and peaceful Manipur in near future.
Regarding the fear of losing lands of our brethren in the hills in the hands of Meetei, when the latter is included in the ST list of the country, people should not believe in such rumour as it is unfounded, malicious and misleading without any iota of truth. Simply it is fuss about nothing. When settlement in villages in the hills are under strict control and management of vigilant village chiefs in Kuki areas, and village authorities in Naga areas, Then, why there should be un-necessary apprehension in the minds of our brethren in the highlands of their lands being encroached upon or grabbed by Meetei STs?
Again, Meeteis will not turn their face towards hills, except foothills and low hills for settlement, as there is scarcity of water as compared to that of valley districts, where water is plenty and almost perennial. In reality, Meetei community having been embraced Hinduism during the reign of King Pamheiba (1709-1748) , about three hundred years ago, have the practice of taking bath on daily basis and therefore, would prefer to settle in valley area where water is abound. Therefore, settlement of Meetei in the hill areas of the state in colonies, leikais, or villages, is far from possibility. If may be noted that Meetei do not settle even in the hills located in Imphal valley except the foot hills and low hills, let alone settlement in remote hill districts of the state. This may be because of the fact that Meetei worships mountains as abodes of gods and goddesses of the forests and hills. The proof is that Koubru, Thangjing, Marjing, Wangbren, Khoriphaba, etc. are all located in mountains/hills of the state and people have their veneration and high regards of these deities. Meitei, the important indigenous tribe of the state, who was nestling in the hills in the early times, do not feel to return to its old habitat but to old fold/tribal status to be with other indigenous and related 36 or more tribes in the state and live in the fertile land areas of the valley districts, mingling with other communities as before, once again.
The demand for ST tag by Meetei community of the state is fundamentally banked on the following hard realities.
Firstly, to save the Meetei, one of the important and dominant indigenous people of the state, which is showing signs of its gradual degeneration in the last few centuries and rapid downfall in the last few decades in population, land, culture, language, economy, social status, etc. in his natural habitat under the Article 342(1) of the Constitution of India?
Secondly, to save the fertile lands and wetlands in the valley which are producing maximum food grains, vegetables, fishes, etc. for the people, both in the valley and hills, from being owned by more skilled, hardworking, strong, advanced and united non-indigenous people i.e. to save the indigenous people in their natural habitat.
Thirdly, to foster a harmonious, peaceful, united and progressive Manipuri society based on ethnic equality (as ST) among the indigenous communities of consanguineous relation who have been living together since time immemorial.
Fourthly, to enable Meetei community, like other indigenous people in the state, to compete confidently well with other communities of India having similar social status (i.e. scheduled tribe) in the field of education, service sectors of Central Govt. etc, to earn more laurels, medals, positions, awards, privileges, etc, for better economic, social, educational, cultural and political status of Meetei in particular and Manipur in general, by discarding and discontinuing decades long practice of competing with highly advanced educated and organized communities wrongly in General Category/OBC of other states in the country.
In fine, the demand for restoration of ST status is to save Meetei from being extinct in its own habitat and to bring harmony, progress and peace among the indigenous people in the state, and hence, the indigenous people in the state should see this great historic event of Meetei’s returning to its original/tribal fold to be in equal footing with other ethnic tribes as home coming and should extent warm and hearty welcome by all the indigenous people of the state, without any reservation. We all need to remember the very well known proverbs – “blood is thicker than water” and “birds of the same feathers flock together” at least in the context of present Manipur.