Sunday, June 4, 2023

Sparking conflicts in Manipur

A directive issued by Manipur High Court’s chief justice M.V.Murilidharan on April 19, on the state government to submit the recommendation to the union tribal affairs ministry, to include Meitei community in the Scheduled Tribe list, let the genie out of the bottle. The Manipur High Court directive, has been stymied by the Supreme Court when chief justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud pointed out that the high court has no power to direct changes in the ST list as upheld by a 23-year-old Constitution Bench judgment. Chandrachud pointed out that the Manipur high court should have been shown the judgement which maintained that no state has power to “add, subtract or modify’ the ST list. All hell broke loose as simmering ethnic conflict plunged Manipur into an orgy of killings, arson and plunder leaving 60 dead, 231 injured and 1700 houses burned and displacing 35,655 people across the state. The Meitei community, a largely Hindu ethnic group account for about 50% of the state’s population, Pangals around 7.2% and others around 7.4% while the tribal community in Manipur which include 34 recognised tribes, are roughly grouped into “Any Kuki Tribes” and “Any Naga Tribes,” and who make up about 35.4% of the state’s population. The Meiteis inhabit the Manipur valley, which constitute about ten per cent of the area while various ethnic tribes live in around 90% of the land. Interestingly, Meities and tribals have different views about the demand for ST status for Meiteis. One one hand, Meiteis claim the demand for ST status, being pursued since 2012, was meant to provide them with constitutional safeguards to preserve their culture, language, and identity. While it may be noted the as far as language is involved, Meitei language is recognised as one of the languages in India and included in the 8th schedule by the 71st amendment of the constitution in 1992. Some sections of the Meitei community are already classified under Scheduled Castes (SC) or Other Backward Classes (OBC), which gives them access to certain opportunities. Also Meitei culture is deeply rooted and thus preserved as it is practised by the community which forms the largest component (50%) of the state population. Further, Meiteis say inclusion as ST will accord them constitutional protection of their lands from immigrants from Bangladesh and Myanmar. On the other hand, the tribals of Manipur say that Meitei community is already dominant in terms of population and political representation, as 40 out of the 60 assembly constituencies and 90% of development funds are in the valley where the Meiteis live. Tribals also fear that the demand for ST status is a way for the dominant Meitei community from the valley area getting more jobs, gain political influence and control over the hill areas and enabling them to possess land in the hill areas and diverting attention from the political demands of tribal groups. This was strengthened when the Manipur government, since August 2022, bypassed the hill autonomous council, by claiming that 38 villages in the Churachandpur-Khoupum Protected Forest area- are “illegal settlements” and its residents are “encroachers”. Clearly, there is need to address the fears and concerns of the communities and ensure justice for all.

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