If there is one word diagnosis for Manipur’s many endemic problems, the closest is myopia. For far too often, the state has ended up mistaking the symptom for the disease in its effort to take a grip of its many problems. This applies both to the government as well as civil society. Be it the matter of drugs menace, lifting of alcohol prohibition, grant of 6th Schedule status to hill districts, or for that matter the bitter contest over the demand for inclusion of Meiteis in the Scheduled Tribes lists of the Indian constitution. Even when the desired goals are clear, the tendency has been to confuse matters when it came to identifying the causes for these ailments or the choices of the routes to their remedies.
Take first the last case of the demand for inclusion of Meiteis in the ST list as it is one of the hottest currently. The two major stated reasons for this are: One, to have traditional lands of the Meitei reserved for them just as the hills are for the different tribal communities domiciled there. This is prompted by a growing paranoic fear that the Meiteis would soon become marginalised in their own traditional ground – a fear compounded by a bizarre dual land revenue system followed in the state whereby Meiteis can settle nowhere else but in the Imphal valley forming less than 10 percent of the state’s area, although everybody else is allowed to own land and settle in the valley. The second is to have ST reserved seats in the top Central government jobs open to the Meiteis too, for there is now a perception that the community is falling behind in producing enough recruits for these important jobs.
I have absolutely no issues at the Meiteis being classified as STs, although there is always a self-righteous clique for whom even asking if this is the best way forward, is an affront and a show of condescension towards this demand. Regardless of these trolls who are unable to see from outside of their straightjacketed world, the rational mind must not cease asking the tough question even when this means swimming against the popular tide. Hence, even if we were to presume these fears prompting the demand are real and do have sound reasons, one important question would still need to be addressed – Is the route prescribed by those spearheading the demand the only way to achieve the goal, and also importantly, is this prescribed way the best route.
Take the first fear, that of the possible land alienation of the Meiteis. Sure, ST, status will likely address this anxiety, but are there no other ways? For instance, there was once three short-lived land bills conceived to address this problem. As all with memory retention capacity spanning at least a decade would remember, the move fell through because of strong opposition from many hill communities, especially those in Churachandpur district. This was understandably because the bill was sought to be made applicable to the entire state not just the valley districts, and the hill communities were already comfortable with the existing arrangement. I had through my writings as well as in official consultations, advocated for keeping the new laws exclusively for the valley districts, for the hill lands were already protected. This outlook was rejected as narrow and instead the bills were ultimately pushed to be introduced to the whole state, and the rest, as they say, is history. An unpleasant one, it must be added.
The question is, can this still be an alternative. That is, a modified version of the same bills covering just the valley districts. This way perhaps two targets can be hit with just one stone. On the one hand, the Meiteis in the valley will get a respite from their fear of being demographically overwhelmed, and on the other, maybe this can be a way to introduce the Autonomous District Councils patterned on the 6th Schedule – one for the hills and one for the valley. To bind the two regions together, there can be the common state government.
As to the apprehension that such an autonomy model would lead ultimately to the breaking away of any of the autonomous districts to form new states, let the reality dawn on those who nurture such anxieties. Last year’s budget demonstrated how economically unviable even the whole state is. Its budget estimate was Rs. 34,000 crores, while its own tax and non-tax revenue collection was just over Rs.4,000 crore. True, if the state mobilises its tax revenue more closely, for instance by strictly ensuring piped municipal water and land holding taxes are collected in total, perhaps this collection can be doubled or tripled. Even then, it would still be far short of what the state administration deems is its essential annual expenditure. As of today, even in the valley districts, where the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms Act is in vogue, there are virtually no official pressures for people to pay their land taxes, and those who do pay, do so voluntarily when they need to use their tax cleared land documents as collaterals to get bank loans.
The point is, if the state were to split up into two or more new states, it would only mean an increase in the number of economically unviable states, some more so than others, and the Government of India surely would not be eager to add more beggar states to its already long list – unless of course this is done out of political exigencies.
On the brighter side, if the autonomy model works in Manipur, and the state becomes a federation of autonomous regions, perhaps this will also show the way for Nagaland and Tripura to settle their own internal regional frictions – In Tripura the matter of Tipraland and in Nagaland that of Eastern Nagaland.
As for the other fear of the Meiteis falling behind in recruitment to top Central government jobs, demanding ST status as a remedy is the easy way out. A more durable solution would be to breathe life back into the state’s higher education institutions. Up to Class 12, thanks to the intervention of private institution, Manipur probably has not lagged too far behind any other states. There are rooms for improvement, but nobody will disagree that the game is not lost at this stage. An indicator would be the performance of our students in open all-India competitions, such as at the common entrance examinations for medical and engineering studies, where students who have studied in the state are at a par with the performance with students from any other state. If this same competitive standard were also to be maintained at the college level, like at the school level, there can be no doubt that students aspiring for any of the top Central government jobs will begin not to be left running behind their counterparts from other states at the open competition for these positions.
At the moment, except for a very few doing exemplary work, most of the rest of the state’s colleges are moribund, if not completely empty shells, where students enlist with no intent of attending classes, but just to ensure they at least can have a paper degree in case nothing else works out. They then go and attend private coaching classes to get the lessons that would help them in the competition for job entrances. The colleges in turn allow these absentee students to remain on their registers, for without them most of them would have no students left, officially making them redundant and fit for closure. This vicious cycle has already meant the condemnation of several generations of the state’s youth, and it is now time for the government and all concerned to set things right, even if this means drastic measures.
The point I am making here is, in any problem solution effort, let us not simply jump into the conclusion that there is just one way no matter which demagog advocates it, but explore all possibilities first and then after weighing their merits, decide on which one to adopt. I have taken just one contentious case, but in practically all other public issues, the resort has been virtually similar. In meeting this challenge, public attitude must also be rectified. The rational approach must be to question every proposition and debate them thoroughly so that a consensus built on agreed rationality can evolve. All can then commonly adopt and push this consensus together.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author