A demand for granting Scheduled Tribe (ST) status to the Meiteis has found no takers among the political parties in poll-bound Manipur.
The Meiteis are the dominant community in 40 of the 60 Assembly seats straddling the Imphal and Jiribam Valleys. A majority follow Hinduism while more than 8% are Muslims, locally known as Pangals.
A pro-ST status movement ahead of the two-phase elections was expected to have been a poll issue. But it found no place in the manifestos of either the national or the regional parties.
This has not deterred the Scheduled Tribe Demand Committee, Manipur from carrying on the fight for the community that it claimed was recorded in official documents as ST till 1935. It said representatives of India had sought the opinion of Meiteis on the ST status when the Constitution was drafted in 1949-50.
‘Still follow old system’
“Some upper caste Meiteis, including two Brahmins, said they were a superior community and rejected the ST status. But we still follow the old tribal system although most of us are Hindus,” Yambem Laba, the committee’s chairman and former head of the Manipur Human Rights Commission, told The Hindu.
Barring a little more than 3% enjoying the Scheduled Caste status, the Meiteis were declared OBC (other backward class) in 1991.
Mr. Laba said the ST status would go a long way in protecting the land of the Meiteis, now confined to 8% of Manipur’s geographical areas, and open up job opportunities in the central sector.
There is a perception among a section of the Meiteis that the tribals who prospered due to reservation have been buying up land in the Imphal Valley while they cannot acquire land in the ST-dominated hills.
The Pangals too see merit in the ST tag. “Ours is a backward community politically, economically, educationally and socially. We need ST status for job quota and protection of our land,” said Md. Chingiz Khan, a scholar.
Organisations such as the All Tribal Students’ Union of Manipur representing the State’s 36 tribes are against Meiteis being granted the ST status. “This will defeat the very purpose of protecting the tribal people through the reservation,” a union leader said.
Many among the Meiteis are also opposed to the demand for ST status. They include Rajkumar Meghen, former chief of the extremist United National Liberation Front, who feel the status would undo the rich martial history of the community.