PRICE OF INDIGENEITY: Meiteis’ demand for Scheduled Tribe Status(Republished from kanglaonline)

Seram Neken, Imphal based Freelance Journalist

Simply speaking, groups with indigenous character are termed as ‘Scheduled Tribes’ in India. The word ‘Indigenous’ as used by the international community, is not used in Indian constitution as it refers to some sense of political self-determination. Perhaps, the framers of the Constitution gave room for cultural self-determinism of some specific groups in the form of Scheduled Tribe and Scheduled Caste under Clause 1 of Articles 341 and 342. Besides their primitive nature and geographical isolation; the Scheduled Tribes are identified with their social, educational and economic backwardness. Taking into account the presumed sufferings from extreme backwardness on account of the primitive agricultural practices, lack of infrastructural facilities and geographical isolation, the Constitution made provisions for safeguarding the interests and for accelerating the socio-economic development of the scheduled communities.

Indigenous peoples are peoples defined in international or national legislation as having a set of specific rights based on their historical ties to a particular territory, and their cultural or historical distinctiveness from other politically and socially dominant populations. They are determined to preserve, develop and transmit to future generations their ancestral territories, identity, cultural patterns, social institutions and legal systems. A special set of political rights for the indigenous peoples have been set by international organizations like the United Nations, the International Labour Organization and the World Bank in accordance international law. The United Nations have issued a Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to guide national policies of various countries to collective rights of indigenous peoples—such as culture, identity, language and access to employment, health, education and natural resources. India has the most substantial population of indigenous communities which are recognized as Scheduled Tribes in its Constitution. In Himachal Pradesh, Rajputs and Brahmans are schedule Tribes. In Tripura, the descendents of the Kings are scheduled tribes. In Sikkim, the Bhutias are scheduled Tribes, so on and so forth.

Numerous government policies aim at promotion of tribal communities inhabiting all over India. The central and state governments have made sustained efforts to provide opportunities to these communities for their economic development by eradicating poverty and health problems and developing communication for removal of isolation of their habitats. Although Article 14 provides for equality before law and equal protection of law to all people, Article 15(4) allows the States to make special provisions for the advancement of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes. In matters of employment or appointment to any office, Article 16(4) mentions that the State should make provisions for reservation in favour of any backward class citizen who is not adequately represented in the services. Article 16 (4A) and 16(4B) empower the States to make provisions for promotion in the services in favour of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes. Article 46 directs the States to promote the educational and economic interests of the weaker sections particularly the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Article 275(1) makes provisions for grants-in-aid from the Consolidated Fund of India for promoting the welfare of the Scheduled Tribes and administration of Scheduled Areas. Reservation of seats for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes in Parliament, state Legislature and in Panchayats is provided under Article 330, Article 332 and Article 243(D) respectively.

Even though the Meiteis in Manipur valley have fulfilled the criteria for being listed in Scheduled Tribes list, they have long been denied these opportunities due to non-inclusion in the list. After Manipur’s merger to Indian Union, Meiteis were given the status of the General Category. In spite of the Meiteis’ belongingness to the Mongoloid stock, a few influential people of that time introduced Meiteis as the descendents of the Aryans to the government of India. People of hill areas were given the status of Scheduled Tribe, while Lois and Yaithibis were categorized as Scheduled Castes. Meiteis have lagged behind other communities of Manipur in matters of appointments to various jobs and promotion to higher ranks due to its being in the general category. Now, Meiteis may also be given the opportunity to preserve and protect its unique culture and tradition under the Constitution. Moreover, in order to being balanced development of the various communities and to narrow down the apparent disparity among communities in Manipur, Meiteis should be accorded Scheduled Tribe status by declaring the whole state of Manipur as hill state. Recognition of Meiteis as a Scheduled Tribe will minimize the apprehension created by onslaught of outsiders from within or without the country. It will help preserve the composite identity and territory of the land.

Recognizing certain religions as religious minority under National Commission of Minorities Act 1992, the Government of India provides assistance in the education of children belonging to these religious minorities. Although National and State commissions have been set up to protect the people of religious communities, Sanamahi religion is yet to be recognized under this category. As Meiteis are adopting all the age-old indigenous traditions, the community can well be categorized as tribal. Meiteis worship Sanamahi deity and follow their age-old traditions during various ceremonies. Even after adopting Hinduism, Meiteis are still following the primitive culture and heritage of the forefathers. Meiteis particularly those following Sanamahi faith are fit to be recognized as Scheduled Tribe under the Constitution of India. Sanamahi faith may also be recognized as a religious minority. Non-inclusion of Meiteis in Scheduled Tribe list is a historical blunder. As an indigenous group, Meiteis need to protect and preserve its age-old customs, traditions and territory under the provisions of Indian Constitution. Right thinking individuals of the state should support the move for recognition of Meiteis as a Scheduled Tribe, even though it is a bit delayed.

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