India will celebrate its 75th Independence Day tomorrow and it has proven its success as a nation by demonstrating its commitment to democracy and fraternity. When India got its Independence from the British, there were the many speculations that it will disintegrate within a decade owing to primordial and regional identities. Its success has to be first attributed to the territorial integration of various regional states, and then the political, economic, social and scientific progresses it has made over the decades. However, one challenge that has remained constant in our democracy is that people from schedule castes and tribes continue to be the most deprived communities in postcolonial India.
One may counter and argue that the new honorable President of India, Droupadi Murmu, is an Adivasi and thus we have progressed and assimilated well. Now this is not to dismiss her credentials. But here it is important to note that the president is just a nominal head of the state and the presidential election is not decided by the people but by the members of the state legislative assembly and the parliament. As the Indian historian Romila Thapar puts it in the recent interview in The Wire conducted by Karan Thapar, that such act can be constituted as tokenism to merely appease the backward communities rather ameliorate them. The plight of the tribal people in the state of Manipur is a classic example of how the tribals continue to be vulnerable in free India.
Manipur is a multiethnic state and it is also a hotbed of ethnicity. Often the different tribes have clashed against each other--the Naga-Kuki conflict of 1993 and the Kuki-Paite conflict 1997 are some of the instances. The reasons could be attributed to sub-national consciousness and claims of territory. The turn of the twenty-first century has witness a phenomenon called ‘negative solidarity’ coined by the Indian social scientist Tanka B. Subbha. The term refers to instances where opposing groups or parties form a common forum to combat another group or party. In the twenty-first century, the erstwhile divisive tribes of Manipur have often forged a negative solidarity against the dominant Meitei community of Manipur. The Anti-tribal Bills Movement in 2017 and the opposition to the demand of the Meiteis to be scheduled as a tribe are few instance of such solidarity.
Manipur was a princely state in British India, and its monarchal rule dates back the eleventh century going by the royal chronicle. This particular kingdom constituted of the Meitei community who in the eighteenth century adopted Vaishnaism, a sect of Hinduism. Due to this social and religious change, the concept of caste permeated into the society. As a result, today a section of Meitei population is categorized as scheduled caste and backward caste. And this bring us to the paradox of Indian democracy, where the tribals are considered as beloved members of the state but are not treated as equals, and where the tribals could be denied of their rights owing to the politics of the dominant community.
As India is preparing to celebrate Independence Day, the regional state of Manipur has undergone another episode of ethnic tension. The tension goes back to 2021 when a bill called the Manipur (Hill Areas) Autonomous District Council Bill was recommended by the Hill Areas Committee (M.L.As elected from the hills of the state). The bill sought greater financial and administrative autonomy for the hill districts of Manipur where the tribes inhabit. But in August 2022, the state government instead of introducing the bill in the assembly introduced two other bills: the Manipur (Hill Areas) District Council 6th and 7th Amendment Bills. Dismayed by the action of the government, the All Tribal Students’ Union Manipur (ATSUM) called for an economic blockade in the hill areas to protest against the state government’s action. The blockade would mean the curtailment of economic lifeline, since all the commercial goods that enter Manipur have to pass through the hill areas first. This technique of protest is an effective method, and it has been repeatedly deployed by the hill people to assert pressure on the state government, whom the tribal perceive to perpetuate the interests of the dominant Meitei community. However, such technique of protest also provokes equal reaction in the plain districts inhabited by the dominant community. And it did not take long for the atmosphere to turn violent as a vehicle was burned in Bishnupur, a plain district. The bone of contention is with regard to autonomy.
The rationale of ATSUM is that the proposed Manipur (Hill Areas) Autonomous District Council Bill would give development and financial equity with the plain districts of the state. In contrast, the bills introduced by the state government would not fulfill the aspirations of the tribals. The counter argument of the state government is that the demand for a separate chief secretary for the administration of the autonomous hill districts as mentioned in the Autonomous District Council Bill would create a state within the state and it has the potential to bifurcate it into two. The state’s argument emerges from the demands of the various sub-national tribal insurgent groups who are either demanding greater autonomy or the creation of separate state on ethnic lines. The conundrum this month ended with the arrest of five tribal students’ leaders after which mass protest ensued in the state and their subsequent release for want of evidence for conspiring bandh and blockade. Following the release of the students leaders, a memorandum was signed in which it was agreed that the Manipur (Hill Areas) District Council 6th and 7th Amendment Bills introduced by the state government would be referred to the Hill Areas Committee for further consideration.
This episode is another demonstration of the fact that ethnic problems are yet to be resolved. The state assembly of Manipur has sixty seats of which eighteen seats, which constitute the Hill Areas Committee, are reserved for the tribes. These eighteen MLAs even if they protested and walked out, the chances that the bills introduced by the state would be passed are more. In other words, the structure of the state puts the tribal in a permanent of state of dependent syndrome where the tribes cannot decide for themselves. Though the state may be right to disapprove the Autonomous District Council Bill because of its assumed separatist potentiality, the fact remains the language of rights of the tribes continues to be under state government prerogative right.
About the author: Boniface G Kamei belongs to the Rongmei Naga tribe of Manipur, India. He is currently a research scholar at the University of Hyderabad.