In Manipur’s power hierarchy, the Meitei community sits at the top. They are in majority in capital Imphal and the adjoining valley districts of Thoubal and Bishnupur, and they enjoy unrestricted access to political power and decision-making, whether it’s related to finance, education or infrastructure.

Standing in contrast to the Meiteis are the tribal people of Manipur. Always at the periphery, they have struggled despite the presence of Autonomous District Councils and customary laws that aim to protect them and uplift their conditions.

This has been the power matrix in the state, dividing the hill districts and the valley. Thus far.

The new development paradigm and the gradual uplift of tribal people has made the Meiteis realise that the power relations in Manipur are shifting. This explains the community’s demand for Scheduled Tribe status and the violent agitation for Inner Line Permits in the state.

Inner Line Permits regulate the entry of non-domicile citizens into a restricted region. Those demanding it want to restrict and regulate the influx of outsiders and internal migrants “to save the culture, tradition, identity and demographic structure of the indigenous people of the state”.

Controversial reservation policy

It’s amusing to see that the dominant community, the Meiteis, are suddenly feeling oppressed. In any narrative, a dominant community picks up the victim card when it feels its power slipping away. This pattern is reflected in the ongoing Inner Line Permit System movement too. Working close behind this movement is the Meiteis’ demand for the Scheduled Tribe status.

Instead of being viewed as a thrust to bridge the gap between the hill districts and the valley, the ILPS movement should be seen as a move to strengthen the Meiteis’ dominance. Once the permit system is in place, it will be easier for them to gain Scheduled Tribe status. And the resultant increase in clout will only exhaust the available opportunities for tribal people, pushing them further to the fringe.

In the 60-member Manipur legislative assembly, 20 seats are reserved for Scheduled Tribes and one for Scheduled Castes. The reservation policy has always remained controversial in Manipur, where the available data speaks of discrimination against tribal people. For instance, as per the Manipur University Tribal Students Union, just 5.6% of the varsity’s faculty is staffed with tribal people.

The tribal people of Manipur have their reason to feel sceptical about the Inner Line Permit System movement. The current struggle to protect local interests and its land is far removed from reality. Failure to realise this can exclude tribal people further and can be counterproductive for Manipur.