Manipur Violence: The Puzzling Demand for Scheduled Tribe Status

12 May 2023

Manipur continues to be engulfed in turmoil. The recent eruption of communal violence in the state caught everyone off guard with its unexpected intensity and scale. The immediate tigger for the violent clashes was a tribal solidarity rally held in all hill districts, jointly organized by the Nagas and Kukis, two tribal communities residing in the hills. The rally was a response to the proposed inclusion of the plains residing Meiteis in the Scheduled Tribes (ST) list. But what does ST status mean for the Meiteis, and will it meet their concerns?

The hill regions of Manipur enjoy significant autonomy granted by Article 371C of the Constitution. These provisions are akin to those of the Sixth Schedule that apply to tribal regions across all other north-eastern states. Under 371C, autonomous district councils regulate the protection of hill lands and impose restrictions on non-hill people in Manipur from residing in and acquiring property in these areas. 

These restrictions lie at the core of the ongoing conflict. The Meiteis argue that while the hill people have the freedom to acquire land in the plains, they themselves are prohibited from purchasing land in the hills. This situation confines the Meiteis to a relatively small area of the plains, which is susceptible to outsider influx and could significantly alter the demographic composition. The Meiteis believe that obtaining ST status would address their worries, but this demand faces fierce opposition from the hill communities, who are resolute in preventing the Meiteis from accessing their lands.

The role of Scheduled Tribe (ST) status in this conflict is puzzling. The implications of granting ST status to the Meiteis, as suggested by them and feared by the hill tribes, remain uncertain. It is unclear how granting ST status to the Meiteis would result in protection of plains from outsiders and the right of Meiteis to expand into the hills. According to the Constitution, the designation of a community as a Scheduled Tribe (or Scheduled Caste) enables them to benefit from affirmative action measures such as reservations in legislatures and education to remove their social and economic backwardness. ST status does not imply that the land in which the community resides shall be autonomously governed by the community or be protected.  That would require provisions similar to the Sixth Schedule or the Article 371-C. 

Senapati district located in the hills of Manipur

Historically, special provisions for Manipur were primarily seen as necessary only for the tribal hill regions, aiming to safeguard their land, culture, and promote their social and economic empowerment. This is evident in the 1947 Manipur State Constitution Act, which governed an (briefly) independent Manipur. The Act granted greater administrative autonomy to the hill regions through the Manipur State Hill (Administration) Regulation 1947. It emphasised the responsibility of Manipur’s state legislature to ensure the welfare and effective administration of the hill communities, with necessary funding allocated for this purpose. The communities residing in the plains were not regarded in the same manner under these provisions.

It is plausible that contemporary political and social dynamics have changed, and the Meiteis residing in the plains may indeed have legitimate anxieties. However, granting Scheduled Tribe (ST) status to the Meiteis will not address their core concerns about land. It could instead potentially create a complex web of constitutional and legal confusion and further violence.

B.R. Ambedkar‘s response to Constituent Assembly members who felt that special protections for tribal regions would isolate them, speaks to the Manipur situation. He said that these areas are,

“…given certain autonomy for certain purposes and at the same time they have been bound together in the life of the province and in the life of the country as a whole. If these circumstances which are of a unifying character, do not bind, do not bring the tribal people with the rest of the plains people…then the cause for such an unfortunate event must be found in something else..”

Clearly, special protections for tribals in Manipur  have not brought the ‘tribal people with the rest of the plains people‘. Ambedkar’s further suggests that this failure cannot be solely attributed to the special protections. Instead, he hints that there are might underlying factors at play, indicating that constitutional and legal design alone may not be sufficient to effectively address such issues.

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