KEWAL KRISHAN SETHI
There is trouble in manipur and the tribals are protesting against the proposals to declare Meitei as tribals. It is a natural reaction. They have enjoyed the privileges for a very long time and do not like to share that privilege with anyone else.
Minister of State for Home Affairs, Kipgen once asked me in 1995, how the conflict in Manipur can be sorted out. I was then the Chief Secretary of the State. My answer was the best way will be to declare Meitei as tribals. They had all the attributes which tribal society has. But they have been denied this status only because they are Hindus. There was (and even is) a view that Hindus cannot be tribals. They are considered to be advanced and hence should be denied recognition of any other attribute which they share with other tribals. In this context, they have even gone to the extent of finding out Scheduled Castes from among Meitei because how can a Hindu community be without caste-based society. All members of the Committee headed by Kaka Kalelkar were from the parts of India where caste system was entrenched and they had no idea about Manipur and its culture. And yet they must find Scheduled Castes from among them. So, what did they do? There was a custom in Manipur where the punishment of desh nikala – exile – was given. But where to send them where they would not feel totally out of place. Some villages in the foothills were identified and such persons were asked to stay there. Once even the brother of the King was sent to such a village. After a while he was pardoned and was allowed to return. So were many others. It was not a permanent exile. Now it happened that, denied the normal modes of livelihood, they adopted other professions. This was seized upon by the Kaka Kalelkar Committee and the residents of these villages were termed as Scheduled Castes.
However, this is just to illustrate the pre-conceived ideas of the people from other parts of India to view their compatriots in areas with which they were not familiar. They applied their yardstick and did not delve into niceties of the areas and its culture which they visited and the tribal status was denied to Meiteis. This led to lot of heartburning because privileges were attached to this class of tribals. To start with, there was the reservation system. They could find employment which Meities had to earn in a hard competition. They were given exemption from Income Tax. They had other avenues of loans and welfare schemes. They were as prosperous as Meitieis and could buy land in the plains while the Meities were denied permission to buy their lands. It was one way traffic.
Obviously Meiteis disliked this and were agitated about it. It found expression in various movements and formation of extremist groups. It was a disturbed area and still is. That is why I suggested the solution as I did. But I did not make a formal proposal about this. The Chief Minister then was a tribal.
Now the proposal is there and my view is “better late than never”. The opposition is, as I said before, natural but I hope the government with a new outlook for the entire country will listen to reason and act accordingly.
KK Sethi, a 1963 batch IAS officer. He was borne on the Madhya Pradesh cadre and has had an illustrious career. He was Chairman Board of Revenue Madhya Pradesh, Chief Secretary Manipur, and head of the National Commission for Linguistic Minorities (NCLM).