Manipur Burns Over Question of ST Status For Meiteis

The Centre also dispatched the Rapid Action Force (RAF) in violence-hit areas. The Army and Assam Rifles carried out flag marches in the areas hit by the violence.

Manipur
Image Source: https://indianexpress.com/article/india/manipur-violence-shoot-at-sight-orders-8591940/

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A ‘shoot at sight’ order in Manipur on Thursday in light of the growing violence across the state since yesterday. Signed by Commissioner (Home) of Manipur T Ranjit Singh, the order was issued under provisions of the criminal procedure code, 1973, and allows all magistrates to issue the order when “ all forms of persuasion, warning [and] reasonable force” have been exhausted.

The violence followed soon after a massive ‘Tribal Solidarity March’ held the day before by the All Tribal Students’ Union of Manipur Students’ Union of Manipur (ATSUM) against the inclusion of the Meitei community into the list of the state’s Scheduled Tribes (ST). 

Fifty five columns of the Army and Assam Rifles were deployed across the state and fourteen columns have been kept on standby. The Centre also dispatched the Rapid Action Force (RAF) in violence-hit areas. The Army and Assam Rifles carried out flag marches in the areas hit by the violence. 

On Wednesday, the government suspended mobile internet across the state for five days and Section 144 of the CrPC was imposed in eight districts: Bishnupur, Pherzawl, Jiribam, West Imphal, Thoubal, Tengnoupal, Kakching, and Kangpokpi. The carrying of stones, sticks, firearms and any objects that can be used as weapons has been prohibited. 

Currently over 9000 people have been displaced from their villages, some of whom were moved to shelters set up in open areas while others are moving to forested areas or neighbouring villages. The army is evacuating whole villages in violence-hit parts of Imphal district, Churachandpur, and other regions.

As reported by East Mojo, eighty people were brought in to the Churachandpur District Hospital of whom thirty three are still admitted and three passed away. The deceased were all young men who suffered from bullet injuries to the abdomen, chest and arm. The available hospital staff may not be able to handle the situation if it continues to remain tense. 

East Mojo further reported that the violence has led to entire villages being burnt down with hundreds of people coming in from outside to attack the villagers. One can hear cylinders bursting in the background. Sources claim that local police stations have distributed guns to civilians in the name of protecting their villages. Other videos circulating online depict trucks full of men carrying guns, bodies littered across the highways, and sounds of bullets going off in the distance. 

Read also: Manipur: Violence Breaks Out in Churachandpur as Protests Against BJP Survey Continue

Understanding What Meitei ST Status Means To Different Groups In Manipur

Since 2012, the Scheduled Tribes Demand Committee of Manipur (STDCM) has been leading an organised campaign for the inclusion of the Meitei community into the state’s Scheduled Tribe list. They argued that they lost their tribal status when the Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order, 1950 was drafted and that ST status was needed to “preserve” the community, “and save the ancestral land, tradition, culture and language” of the Meiteis, who’s population percentage has declined from 59% in 1951 to 44% in 2011. 

ST recognition provides access to affirmative measures such as reservations in government offices and colleges, etc., and ST status within a tribal area would further grant reserved seats in a “tribal council”, special land and inheritance rights, etc. In light of the marginalisation that Northeastern states like Manipur face within India and with growing foreign investment under the ‘look east’ policy, there is a sense of insecurity among the people regardless of ethnicity. Given that ST status has become the most tangible way to access legal entitlements, it has become a sensitive demand for the Meiteis, especially for non-Hindu Meiteis who identify as tribal. 

On March 27, the Manipur High Court, while hearing a petition filed by members of the Meitei Tribe Union, directed the state government to consider the request within four weeks and send a recommendation to the Union government for its consideration. This directive was opposed by several hill tribal groups, such as the United Naga Council and the Kuki Inpi Manipur, as Meiteis are a dominant community that have control over the state apparatus, as 40 out of 60 constituencies are in the valley and the Meiteis are the largest population within the state. They also already have access to affirmative action through inclusion in the Other Backwards Classes and Scheduled Caste categories. The hill tribes fear that if Meiteis are given ST status, they will enter the hill region, further dispossessing the hill tribes and displacing them from their land.

Manipur: Tribal Solidarity March
Image Source: https://www.eastmojo.com/manipur/2023/05/03/thousands-participate-in-tribal-solidarity-march-in-manipur/

The timing of the directive coincides with a period already fraught with anxieties around land loss following the issuance of notices to 38 villages in the Churachandpur-Khoupum Protected Forest area by the Manipur government under the claim that they are “illegal settlements”. As the state pushes for a land and revenue survey to be carried out in the so-called Protected Area, people fear that more land will be snatched from them under the pretext of environmental protection. 

While the media has painted the hill tribes as being opposed to environmental protection measures, indigenous and tribal groups across India have spoken out against the extractive practices of the conservation nexus. The rhetoric of conservation is employed to grab indigenous land, however, the land is diverted towards tourism projects and other market-based programs for which forests are beautified and eco-engineered with no care for the environment. The same has been carried out at Kaziranga National Park in the neighbouring state of Assam. Once declared forest land, it is increasingly common for land to be diverted towards mining operations. 

Given that Chief Minister N Biren is himself Meitei, both these moves together are seen as ways to dispossess the Zo communities of the hill regions. As a culmination of the above issues, thousands attended the Tribal Solidarity Rally on Wednesday. With tensions on the rise, violence broke out hours after.

Read also: Network of indigenous communities on padyatra for rights in Nagarhole Tiger Reserve

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