The Manipur High Court on Wednesday ordered the removal of a paragraph from its order that directed the state government to consider the inclusion of the Meitei community in the list of Scheduled Tribes.

The High Court order from March 27 last year, which was made public in April, played a key role in triggering the ongoing ethnic conflict between the Meitei and the tribal Kuki-Zo communities in Manipur. Over 200 people have been killed in the state since May 3, when the conflict broke out, and more than 60,000 persons have been forced to flee their homes.

The March 27 order, by a single-judge bench of MV Muralidharan, who was the high court’s chief justice at the time, was passed on a petition by members of the Meitei Tribes Union. Several organisations led by the All Manipur Tribal Union had then moved the High Court on May 3, seeking permission to file a third-party appeal against the March order.

The original Meitei petitioners also filed a review petition seeking the modification of Paragraph 17(iii) in the order, which directed the state government to consider including the Meitei community in the Scheduled Tribe list expeditiously. The Meitei petitioners also objected to the tribal bodies’ right to file an appeal. Their review petition was filed after the Supreme Court on May 17 observed that the High Court order was “completely factually wrong”.

On Wednesday, Justice Golmei Gaiphulshillu of the High Court said that the paragraph in the order needs to be reviewed. “I am satisfied and of the view that the direction given at Paragraph No. 17 (iii) of the Hon’ble Single Judge dated 27.03.2023 needs to be reviewed, as the direction is against the observation made in the Constitution Bench of the Hon’ble Supreme Court,” the court noted.

The appeal against the entire March 27 order filed by the tribal organisations was allowed by the High Court on October 19 and is pending before the court.

On Wednesday, advocate Colin Gonsalves, representing the tribal bodies, said that the review petition by the Meiteis was filed to derail the appeal process and have their way with a “lesser but similar in effect” order, reported The Hindu.

“This [change to the court order] makes no difference,” Gonsalves told the newspaper. “The rest of the March 27 order remains. So even with the deletion, the effect of the order is the same: the state government is being directed to reply to the Centre on inclusion in the ST list. Our appeal challenges the entirety of this.”

Why tribal bodies are challenging Meitei inclusion

The tribal bodies had argued before the High Court last year that the Meitei community’s claim to the Scheduled Tribe status did not have merit. It also said that giving them the status would hurt the rights and benefits the Scheduled Tribes are entitled to, since the Meiteis are the state’s dominant community.

The members of the Meitei community account for 60% of the state’s population and are largely concentrated in the Imphal Valley. Manipur’s two major tribal communities – the Kukis and the Nagas – live in the hill districts, which account for about 90% of the state’s area.

For nearly a decade, the dominant Meitei community has been demanding Scheduled Tribe status, arguing that it needs legal protection against outsiders and “infiltration”. The Meitei petitioners have argued that before Manipur’s merger with the Union of India, they were recognised as a tribe.

The March 27 order had also left the tribals anxious as Meiteis’ inclusion in the Scheduled Tribes list would allow them to purchase land in the hill areas.

The tribal hill districts of Manipur enjoy special protections under Article 371C of the Constitution, which says that all laws affecting the districts must be vetted by the hill areas committee of the Manipur Legislative Assembly.

Also read: Why Manipur’s tribes are alarmed by court push for Scheduled Tribe status for the Meitei community?