Absence of a good census allows politicians to exploit aspirations, hopes, sentiments, language traditions and social identities of people in Manipur
There is no doubt that the human tragedy and social turmoil that Manipur faces in recent weeks is because of divisive politics. But the confusion of descriptive ethnographic terms, insufficient data on the origin of various communities and a lack of scientific census are also the elements that have contributed to the crisis.
The recent violent clashes and bloodshed arose out of the high court decision allowing the Manipur government to take forward the demand of Meitei community for a Scheduled Tribe (ST) status.
This demand—and the vociferous opposition to it by groups already designated as STs—has much to do with the hill-valley divide in the state and the confusion around who these Meitei communities are.
Meitei or Meiteyi is a term popularly used to describe the residents of Manipur. The language primarily spoken in the state is Manipuri, which is the official language of the state and is one of the Scheduled languages, recognised by the Eighth Schedule to the Constitution of India.
But the language is also spoken outside Manipur—in other northeastern states, such as Assam, Tripura and West Bengal, and in neighbouring countries like Myanmar and Bangladesh. This synonymy creates the impression that all Manipuri-speaking communities are Meitei.
According to the Introduction to The Languages of Manipur by the People’s Linguistic Survey of India, the state is multi-lingual, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural in nature.
The valley is divided into the four administrative districts of Bishnupur, Imphal East, Imphal West and Thoubal, while the hills are divided into the five administrative districts of Chandel, Churachandpur, Senapati, Tamenglong and Ukhrul.
The state has land topography of 22,327 sq km and hosts over three dozen communities that speak different languages and practise different cultures.
The state is mainly inhabited by the Meiteis, the Kukis and the Nagas who are part of Tibeto-Burman language groups, but on further observation, one finds Austro-Asiatic speakers in Jiribam subdivision of Imphal East district, Dravidian speakers along the international border town of Moreh in Chandel district, and Indo-Aryan speakers in different parts of the state with the main concentration in the capital, Imphal.
Within the state, Manipuri is spoken in different variants based on the region of inhabitation. The variation is intelligible to all.
Three scripts are used for all official dealings in the state—the Bangla script, the Meitei-Mayek script, and the Roman script. The Meiteis used Meitei-Mayek for writing prior to adopting the Bangla script.
Today, Meitei-Mayek, said to be an indigenous script, is gaining ground in its usage for both official and non-official purposes. Some of the Meitei communities (Meitei is not a homogeneous group) are already included in the lists of Scheduled Caste and Other Backward Caste.
The situation in Manipur can be understood by people in other states if Maharashtra is considered for comparison. Maratha is a generic community with many sub-castes and ethnic groups.
Besides, often in cultural texts, particularly during the colonial era, “Maratha” and “Maharashtra” get conflated. But it is understood that all Maharashtrians are not Marathas, nor do all Marathi speakers belong to just the Maratha community.
The demand of Meitei community for ST status is thus comparable to the Maratha Aarakshan Morcha in Maharashtra or the Jat reservation movement in Rajasthan. The All Tribal Students Union of Manipur State took out a protest march against this demand. Clashes erupted and the state authorities did little to contain or avert the situation.
The primary responsibility for the clashes goes to the ruling dispensation. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) formed a government in Manipur by bagging 32 seats in a 60-member assembly. The Janata Dal-United (JD-U) won six seats.
Now that JD-U has left the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), BJP faces political uncertainty. In order to ensure future electoral success, it has used in Manipur its standard method of mobilising majority against minority by bringing ST-status for Meiteis.
Had the regime been genuinely interested in social and economic development of the majority—a long overdue process—it would have carried out a state-level enumeration of communities.
The absence of a good census allows politicians to exploit the aspirations, hopes, sentiments, language traditions and social identities of the people in whose name they seek power.
Manipur has long been a heavily militarised civil area. There have been long protests against the imposition of the Centre’s will on the people, who are fiercely independent minded and proud of their cultural traditions.
A scientific census will help any future state administration assess the needs of Manipur’s many ethnic and linguistic communities. However, power-obsessed divisive politics will not allow it.
At this moment, Manipur faces a great humanitarian calamity. It requires solace, care and concern, irrespective of the victims’ ethnicity, language and religion.
But in the long run, it does not require increased policing. What it deserves and needs is a proper sociological understanding and a government that understands that development for all is a constitutional obligation of every government. Divisive politics can only lead the beautiful state to further misery, suffering and strife.
Ganesh N Devy is a scholar and cultural activist who set up the People’s Linguistic Survey of India or PLSI. Nipuni K Mao is editor of Manipur PLSI
This was first published in the 1-15 June, 2023 print edition of Down To Earth
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