A call to strip the Kuki-Zo communities of Scheduled Tribe status in Manipur has further raised the temperature in the restive state.

The Kuki-Zos are spread across all states in the North East, save Arunachal Pradesh. In each of these states, they have been accorded Scheduled Tribe status, which under the Constitution makes them eligible for the benefits of affirmative action.

The demand to remove them from the Scheduled Tribe list in Manipur has come from a Meitei politician Maheshwar Thounaojam whose contention is that the Kuki-Zos “are not original inhabitants of Manipur”. The Meiteis and Kuki-Zos have been locked in furious ethnic clashes in the state since May. More than 200 people have died in the violence.

Chief Minister N Biren Singh, who has been accused of Meitei majoritarianism, has said that an all-tribe committee would be formed to examine the matter.

The Meiteis, who are the single-largest ethnic community in the state, do not have Scheduled Tribe status in Manipur. A section of the community believes that is unfair and has long agitated to be included in the Scheduled Tribe umbrella. In fact, it was one of the reasons that precipitated the violence in May, although the tension between the communities is much more deep-rooted.

Many Kuki-Zos now see the demand to delist them as “revenge”. ​​“Kukis were at the forefront against the Meitei ST demand,” said a historian belonging to the community, who requested anonymity. “Hence, in revenge, they came up with this demand.”

A petition

The matter dates back to December when Thounaojam, a Republican Party of India (Athawale) leader, sent a representation to the Union ministry of tribal affairs arguing that “the Kukis including Zomis of Manipur are not qualified for being Scheduled Tribes of Manipur on the ground that they are not original inhabitants of Manipur”.

On December 26, the ministry forwarded Thounaojam’s petition to the state government. The state government’s “recommendation and justification”, the ministry said, was a prerequisite for any “amendment” in the list of Scheduled Tribes.

However, both the letter and the petition surfaced in the public only in January.

The claims

Thounaojam’s demand largely rests on his claim that the Kuki-Zos are not indigenous to Manipur, an often-repeated contention by the Meiteis. To support the contention, Thounaojam in his petition relies on several colonial texts.

Later in the petition, Thounaojam moves to more contemporary matters. He invokes the category “Any Kuki Tribe” – an umbrella term for 32 Kuki-Zo communities that are not independently listed as a tribe in the Constitution. According to the 2001 census, their numbers add up to 28,342.

“As the particular names of tribes to be covered under the tribe name ‘Any Kuki Tribe’ are not specified, there is clandestine rooms [sic] for enrolment in ST list of whoever people disguising as Kukis whether refugees or illegal immigrant,” the petition argues.

Incidentally, the Biren Singh government in February 2023 – a full three months before the ethnic clashes began – had written to the Union tribal ministry with a similar request: deletion of the “Any Kuki Tribe” category from the list of Scheduled Tribes of Manipur.

What the rules say

Kuki-Zo activists, for their part, argued that the main premise of Thounaojam’s petition was flawed.

The existing criteria for recognition of any community as a Scheduled Tribe, one of them pointed out, was that it had “primitive traits, distinct culture, geographical isolation, shyness of contact with the community at large, and backwardness.”

Said the activist, who did not want to be identified, “Even if one were to accept Kukis were not indigenous to or the original inhabitants of Manipur, nowhere has indigeneity been identified as a specific criterion for the grant of Scheduled Tribes to a certain community.”

On the other hand, the rationale for the “Any Kuki Tribe” category is explained in the report of the Lokur Committee, which was set up in 1965 to look into criteria for defining Schedule Tribes, said the activist.

The committee in its report had stated that it would be “nigh-impossible” to name all sub-tribes individually.

“To remind Biren Singh, ‘Any Kuki Tribes’ was added by the BJP government headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee only in 2003, after it was initially deleted in 1956,” the activist said.

Many within the Meitei community also see the demand and Biren Singh’s plans to form a committee to examine it unwarranted. “It shows that both of them have no understanding of the law or the Constitution,” said an Imphal-based lawyer, who asked not to be named fearing retribution.