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Ethnic Riots in Manipur Escalate Amidst Meitei ST Status Controversy


ST Status Controversy in Manipur

Manipur: In recent news, the ongoing ethnic riots in Manipur have reached a critical point on May 3, 2023, coinciding with the tribal 'Solidarity March' held in the hill areas. The riots were triggered by the Manipur high court's order, which directed the state government to submit a recommendation to the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs regarding the inclusion of Meiteis in the Scheduled Tribes (ST) list. The situation suggests a possible pre-planned escalation, as the violence has predominantly targeted the Kuki-Zomi tribes.


While opposition to the ST status for Meiteis may be a contributing factor, it is not the sole motive behind the violence. The issue of land has also been emphasized by the Meitei community. The Meiteis claim that they were excluded from the President's Constitution (STs) Order of 1950. However, the focus should be on the modification list of 1956, based on the recommendations of the Backward Classes Commission (BCC) chaired by KaKa Kalelkar.


Contrary to their claims, the Meitei community was not denied or excluded from the STs list; rather, they chose not to be included. When the first BCC requested a list of tribes to be included in the Scheduled Tribes (modification) list from each state and union territory, the Meiteis did not include themselves. It is worth noting that certain sections of the Meitei community were listed as Scheduled Castes (SCs) based on the commission's recommendation.


The recent riots have exposed a deep-rooted dichotomy between the Meitei community and the tribals, as evidenced by the derogatory term "Hao thu" used by the Meiteis against the hill tribes, including the Nagas. The demand for ST status by the dominant Meitei community raises questions about their motivations. Some speculate that it may not be solely for reservation benefits, as sections of the community already avail themselves of Other Backward Classes (OBC), economically weaker sections (EWS), and Scheduled Castes quotas. Meitei MLA Nishikant Sapam highlighted that land is a crucial factor, emphasizing its significance in an interview with Karan Thapar for The Wire.


The hill tribes are protesting against the Meitei demand for ST status due to their concerns over potential hidden motives. The issue became more complex when the Manipur high court ordered the state government to consider the inclusion of the Meitei community in the ST list. Chief Justice of India (CJI) D.Y. Chandrachud criticized the high court's direction as "completely factually wrong," citing the clear procedure for inclusion in the ST list defined in the constitution.


Although the constitution does not provide specific criteria for inclusion in the ST list, Article 365(25) states that Scheduled tribes are those tribes or tribal communities deemed to be Scheduled Tribes for the purposes of the Constitution under Article 342. Article 342 empowers the president, in consultation with the governor, to specify any tribe as ST through a public notification in any state or union territory.


The first BCC adopted a single criterion for scheduled castes, focusing on untouchability. Regarding tribes or groups identified as ST, the BCC outlined criteria such as living apart in the hills and leading a separate existence, even if residing in plains, without complete assimilation into the main body of the people. Scheduled tribes can belong to any religion and are listed as such based on their distinct way of life.


The Meiteis' exclusion from the ST list was a choice made by their community, as the Kalelkar commission left the decision to the state.

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