Imphal - A controversial order was issued by a single-judge bench of Manipur High Court presided over by M.V. Muralidharan in March, in response to a petition filed by members of the Meitei Tribes Union. It directed the state government to send a recommendation to the Ministry of Tribal Affairs to recognize the Meiteis as a scheduled tribe. This marked the beginning of a violent uprising. Shortly thereafter, an ethnic clash between the Kuki-Zo and Meitei groups engulfed the state. The state's High Court has now granted permission for various tribal groups to file an appeal against this directive. Four tribal organizations have been instructed to do the same.
The All-Manipur Tribal Union, All Tribal Disabled Union, Joint Coordination Committee on Tribal Rights, and All Tribal Student's Union of Manipur have asserted that other tribes will be negatively affected if the Meitei community is granted ST status. According to various groups, Meiteis are the dominant tribe in the region and are in no way "aggrieved," a prerequisite for claiming the status of a scheduled tribe.
In a ruling issued on October 19, a division bench composed of Justices Ahanthem Bimol Singh and A. Guneshwar Sharma allowed the tribal organizations to file an appeal against the ruling. The division bench considered the nature of the grievances raised by the tribal bodies and the arguments presented by various parties. Consequently, the appeals by various tribal groups will be considered, and a full-fledged hearing will take place, with hopes of putting an end to the months-long violence.
Meanwhile, as per the latest available data, over 58,000 people, including 22,000 children and 300 elderly individuals, are currently in 351 relief camps in Manipur. The number of people in the camps were 38,000 in May. The camps are spread across 12 districts in the state. The majority of the inhabitants are from the Meitei and Kuki communities. Nearly 5,000 homes were destroyed in the violence, and efforts are being made to relocate families to pre-fabricated houses.
The All Manipur Tribal Union brought together a group of Manipur tribal bodies to the High Court to request permission to submit a third-party appeal against the aforementioned ruling on behalf of the aggrieved party. Acknowledging this, the court has been reported as saying, "Considering the nature of the arguments presented by the learned counsel representing the parties, which need to be examined and decided based on the materials available in the connected writ appeal and writ petition, and taking into account the nature of the grievances raised by the applicants, we are inclined to grant the leave sought by the applicants in the present application."
Senior advocate Colin Gonsalves represented the tribal bodies. He noted, "If the Meitei community is wrongly granted ST status, this will adversely affect the existing tribal STs in terms of employment and education, where reservations for STs exist. The Meitei community, being dominant and advanced politically, economically, and educationally, will grab the majority of the ST reserved seats." In contrast to his beliefs, State Additional Advocate General M. Devananda, representing the government, stated that the March 27th order "cannot in any way affect the rights of the tribals of Manipur, as the judgment and order merely directed the state to submit a recommendation for the inclusion of the Meitei community in the ST list."
As the verdict of March 27th became known to the public, an uproar ensued. On May 3rd, a violent clash began, primarily between the Meitei and Kuki-Zo communities, resulting in around 180 casualties to date. The conflict originated in Torbung, Churachandpur district of the state.
The protests, violent activities, and brutality by the armed forces captured the attention of the entire country. Civilians, as is typical in such violence, were at the receiving end, with many enduring physical and emotional trauma. A video showing two women from the Kuki-Zo community being paraded naked and sexually harassed brought the spotlight to Manipur, prompting widespread calls for justice. A few weeks later, photos of two young individuals from the Meitei community being kidnapped, held at gunpoint, and killed drew further attention to the dire situation. As numerous student bodies organized protests in support of the slain youth, they encountered abusive forces determined to quell the rallies. Internet access was suspended in many parts of the state initially, causing delays in the dissemination of pictures and videos.
Amid reports of fresh violence in certain areas, the Manipur government announced to extend the ban on internet services in the state for an additional five days. On Saturday, the state police issued an order, pushing the internet ban's duration until October 26. This extension is based on concerns related to maintaining law and order, as well as the potential for further outbreaks of violence. The state had initially imposed restrictions on internet services on May 5, and although a brief restoration was observed on September 23, the ban was reinstated just two days later. The trigger for this reinstatement was the widespread circulation of images showing the tragic fate of two missing students, which reignited protests and unrest in the region.
Just a week ago, Manipur's home ministry prohibited the sharing of any footage related to the ongoing ethnic conflict. According to Manipur Home Commissioner T. Ranjit Singh, this action is intended to restore normalcy to the state. The order reads, "Therefore, the Governor of Manipur is pleased to reiterate that nobody shall be allowed to circulate/spread such videos/images/pictures through various social media platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or on electronic equipment like tablets, computers, and mobile phones and sending bulk SMS. In case anybody is in possession of such videos/images/pictures, he/she may approach the nearest superintendent of police, irrespective of jurisdiction, and submit the same for taking appropriate legal action. They shall not, under any circumstances, circulate/spread such videos/images/pictures through any social media."
According to a report by The Hindu, this is not the first time that the call to recognize Meiteis as STs has reached the court. This action has occurred twice in the last few decades. The order was initially introduced in 1982 by the Office of the Registrar General of India, and then again in 2001 by the Government of Manipur.
Meiteis are the largest community in Manipur and there are 34 recognized tribes broadly classified as ‘Any Kuki Tribes’ and ‘Any Naga Tribes’. The Imphal valley in the state, at the centre of Manipur, accounts for about 10% of its landmass and is home primarily to the Meitei and Meitei Pangals who constitute roughly 64.6% of the state’s population.
The remaining 90% of the state’s geographical area comprises hills surrounding the valley, which are home to the recognized tribes, making up about 35.4% of the state’s population. While a majority of the Meiteis are Hindus followed by Muslims (8%), the 33 recognised tribes, broadly classified into ‘Any Naga tribes’ and ‘Any Kuki tribes’ are largely Christians. Manipur, along with Dimapur district of Nagaland, was brought under the purview of the ILP System in December 2019. ILP is a special permit obligatorily required by “outsiders” from other regions of the country to enter the notified states.