A proposal on the inclusion of the Meitei community in the Scheduled Tribes list has been examined and rejected twice over the last four decades, according to documents seen by The Hindu: once, in 1982, by the Office of the Registrar General of India; and again, in 2001, by the Government of Manipur. The Union and Manipur governments have not made this information public during the ongoing ethnic conflict in the State, nor presented these records in the Manipur High Court court case on the Meitei petition for inclusion.
In fact, officials of the Tribal Affairs Ministry fished out these historical documents in late April this year, just days after the controversial Manipur High Court order to send a recommendation on ST status to Meiteis was made public. Officials in Delhi were recording these findings in files related to the Meiteis’ demand, even as the Hill Areas Committee in Manipur passed a resolution against the order amidst growing opposition by tribal groups.
On May 3, a protest rally against the HC order triggered the eruption of violence between the valley-based Meitei community and the hills-based Scheduled Tribe Kuki-Zo communities, with nearly 180 people killed in the conflict over the next five months.
The records, accessed by The Hindu under the Right to Information Act, 2005, showed that the Office of the RGI had looked into the Meiteis’ inclusion in the ST list on a request from the Ministry of Home Affairs in 1982. It found that, based on “available information”, the Meitei community “does not appear to possess tribal characteristics”, and said it was not in favour of inclusion. It noted that historically, the term had been used to describe the “non-tribal population in the Manipur valley”.
Almost 20 years later, when the erstwhile Ministry of Social Justice was revising the SC/ST lists of States and Union Territories, it had sought recommendations from the Manipur government. In response, the Tribal Development Department of Manipur on January 3, 2001, told the Centre that it agreed with the 1982 opinion of the Office of the RGI on the status of Meiteis.
The Manipur government, then headed by Chief Minister W. Napamacha Singh, had said that the Meitei community was the “dominant group in Manipur” and need not be included in the ST list. It noted that Meitei people were Hindus and “assumed the status of Kshatriya Caste in the ladder of Hindu Castes”, adding that they had already been listed as Other Backward Classes.
Not submitted in court
The Union government, however, did not submit any of these records before the Single-Judge Bench of Acting Chief Justice M.V. Muralidharan, which was hearing the Meiteis’ petition.
In the controversial order, the Acting CJ had said, “By consent, the main writ petition is taken up for final disposal at the admission stage,” issuing notice to the State and Union governments in the same order of March 27 through which it also decided the writ petition filed by members of the Meitei Tribe Union.
In the review and appeal matters pending before the Manipur High Court, the State and Union governments are yet to file any written submissions on ST status for Meiteis.
The modalities for inclusion of tribes allow only proposals initiated by the State government to be processed, with primacy given to the opinion of the Office of the RGI. The Constitution allows only Parliament to finalise the inclusion by passing the required amendments to the Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order, 1950.
The criteria followed by the Office of the RGI to decide inclusion in ST list were set in 1965 by the Lokur Committee: indications of primitive traits, distinctive culture, geographical isolation, shyness of contact with the community at large, and backwardness. The same criteria are used to this day.
A proposal to change the criteria for defining Scheduled Tribes, based on an internal committee’s report, was floated in the Ministry of Tribal Affairs in 2014, soon after the Narendra Modi-led government came to power. After mulling it for almost eight years, the Ministry said in 2022 that it had put the proposal on hold, with officials saying there were no plans to tinker with the decades-old criteria.
Among several recommendations made by the internal committee to keep up with changing tribal societies, one was to not discount a community’s plea for inclusion in the ST list solely based on the fact that they were followers of Hinduism.