Meiteis | Clash of clans in Manipur 

The valley-dwellers, who make up 53% of Manipur’s population, demand ST status for protecting their ‘ancestral land, traditions, culture and language’, while existing tribal groups say the Meiteis enjoy demographic and political advantages

May 14, 2023 01:42 am | Updated May 15, 2023 10:11 am IST

Multiple factors led to the ethnic conflict that erupted in Manipur on May 3 that left more than 60 dead, 231 injured, and 1,700 houses, many belonging to tribes of the Kuki group, destroyed. The most recent was a ‘Tribal Solidarity March’, spurred by the Manipur High Court’s March 27 order (issued on April 19) that revived a decade-old demand of a section of the Meitei people that they be granted the Scheduled Tribe status for protecting their “ancestral land, traditions, culture and language”. New Delhi rushed thousands of Central forces to the State as violence spread. An uneasy calm has prevailed over the State ever since, but the equations between communities remain tense.

Manipur, one of the eight northeastern States, covers an area of 22,327 sq. km and has a rich cultural, literary and administrative history. The State’s territory, according to British-era maps in the 1850s, once extended up to the Ningthee or Chindwin river beyond the Kabaw or Kubo Valley in Myanmar. The present-day Manipur can be broadly divided into two valleys that account for a little more than 10% of the landmass and the hills covering the rest.

About 60% of Manipur’s population, largely the non-tribal Meitei, live in the 1,864.44 Imphal Valley, comprising five districts, almost at the centre of the State. The remaining 40% inhabit the surrounding hills divided into 10 districts besides the 232 valley of Jiribam, also a district, adjoining southern Assam’s Cachar. Jiribam is the access point of one of the two major National Highways and a railway (partially completed) linking the State’s capital Imphal. The other arterial highway is via Nagaland to the north. Extremism-related and ethnic conflicts have often disrupted vehicular movement on these highways largely through tribal areas, resulting in a fuel, food and medicine scarcity in the Imphal Valley and elsewhere in Manipur. Meiteis, the largest community in Manipur, account for about 53% of the State’s total population of 2.85 million(2011 census). Also known as Meetei or Manipuri, the community is spread across the other northeastern States, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. Their language, Meiteilon, is one of 22 recognised tongues that has been included in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution. Their ancient script, Meitei Mayek, of the sixth-century vintage, is undergoing a process of revival after King Pamheiba made the Vaishnav form of Hinduism the official language of the Manipuri kingdom and Bengali the official script in the early 18th century.

More than 83% of the Meitei people are associated with Hinduism, followed by the Meitei Pangals or Manipuri Muslims (8.4%) and Christians (above 1%). The rest adhere to Sanamahi, an indigenous faith first mentioned in the Cheitharol Kumbaba, the royal chronicle of Kangleipak — the old name of Manipur — from 33-154 CE. The Manipuri dance, one of India’s principal classical dance forms, has its roots in the Lai Haraoba, a festival associated with pleasing the Sanamahi deities. The royal patronage also yielded Thang-ta, a Manipuri martial art involving fighting with swords and spears and gave the world Sagoj Kangjei, which evolved into the modern polo.

Four eras, seven clans

The history of the Meities, broadly divided into four eras from the ancient to the modern, is chronicled in Puyas or texts such as Cheitharol Kumbaba, Ninghthou Kangbalon, Ningthourol Lambuba, Poireiton Khunthokpa and Panthoibi Khongkul. According to the chronicles, the Meiteis are divided into seven Salai or clans — Mangang, Luwang, Khuman, Angom, Moirang Kha, Ngangba, and Sarang Leishangthem. The Meitei kingdom, called Kangleipak, traces its origin to Pakhangba (1445-1405 BCE), who came from present-day China and settled in the Koubru hills, about 35 km northwest of Imphal.

Pakhangba founded the Ningthouja dynasty belonging to the Mangang clan, which exercised some clout until Manipur’s merger with the Indian Union in 1949. Pakhangba is also represented as the presiding deity of both Hindu and pre-Hindu Meitei people and is symbolised as a dragon-like serpent with its tail in its mouth. The symbol is ubiquitous across the areas dominated by the Meiteis. Hinduism penetrated the Meitei kingdom in the late 15th century but large-scale adoption of the religion is attributed to the influence of Vaishnav monks and adherents from Bengal who fled persecution under the sultans of Bengal. The indigenous deities such as Panthoibi were gradually given a Hindu makeover.

Caste entered Manipur via Hinduism. The Meitei community can be broadly divided into three castes — the Bamons or Brahmins, the Kshatriyas, and the Scheduled Castes. The Bamons are believed to have settled from elsewhere in India after marrying locally and are primarily the priests who perform rituals or cook during festivals and other religious functions. The Kshatriyas adopted Singh as the surname but are subtly different from the RKs — Rajkumars and Rajkumaris — who have the royal lineage. The third category of Meitei comprises the Lois and Chakpas, who can be both Hindu and Sanamahi.

While the Sanamahi followers are not SC, those following Hinduism account for the bulk of the State’s 3.8% SC population. A section of the Bamons and Kshatriyas are against the ST status, as are the SCs who feel they will lose out if they compete with Meiteis and existing tribes if they are granted the ST status, first demanded by the Scheduled Tribe Demand Committee of Manipur in 2012.

ST status

The committee claimed the existence of the Meitei community was under threat from outsiders, primarily the Kuki-Chin people allegedly settling in Manipur from Myanmar illegally. It said the space for the Meitei people is shrinking as the ST people are allowed to buy land in the Imphal Valley while the Meiteis, without the ST tag, are kept away from the hills. The demand was later taken up by the Meetei (Meitei) Tribe Union, which filed a petition in the Manipur High Court. The petitioners claimed the Meiteis were recognised as a tribe before the merger of Manipur with the Union of India, in 1949, although many contest this theory. Citing a May 2013 letter from the Tribal Affairs Ministry to the Manipur government seeking a specific recommendation along with the latest socio-economic survey and ethnographic report, the court directed the State government to propose the inclusion of the Meitei community in the ST list to the Centre.

The court order led to the ‘Tribal Solidarity March’ organised by the All Tribal Students’ Union of Manipur (ATSUM), representing the State’s 33 tribes divided unequally into Kuki and Naga groups. The union said the Meiteis enjoy a demographic and political advantage (Imphal and Jiribam valleys send 40 MLAs to the 60-member Assembly, while the tribal hills send 20) and are more advanced in every spheres. Pointing out that the Meiteis already have access to benefits associated with the SC, OBC, or Economically Weaker Section status, the union said the demand was a strategy of the valley dwellers to acquire land in the hills and push the tribals out. What followed the march were violent clashes.

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