When "tribe" definition ceases to be anthropological and becomes constitutional


By Pradip Phanjoubam

The storm in the tea-cup over the demand from certain sections of the Meitei community for inclusion in the 5th Schedule of the Indian constitution which lists an ever increasing number of recognized tribes in India, is unfortunate for many radically different reasons. Obviously, the tribal status in India is no longer defined by anthropological or sociological parameters, but by the cravings of the incentives accorded to this status.

In this way, the conditions for an ever proliferating number of demands from different communities to be given the tribal status, and equally importantly, the reason for perpetuating this retrogressive social status by those who are already classified in this category, are inherent in the constitution itself. Let there be no dispute about this, what the section of the Meiteis are demanding is not the tribal status but the incentives that come along with it, just as the opposition to the demand by tribal students bodies in the state, is not to another community joining the tribal ranks, but the fear that there will be more competitors of these same incentives and governmental doles.

Both, are pathetic in equal measures, and in fact are the two sides of the same coin. The Meiteis should not be wanting to be tribals, I will give some of my reasons why, and on the other hand, the tribals should have been happy at the prospect of an expanded fraternity. That both parties see it other than this way, is nothing short of a tragedy of a grand story being reduced to a trivial and mundane one. On the wide canvas, the harmatia (or fatal flaw in personality) as the Greeks call it, is that of the incentive structuring of the Indian constitution, and not so much of the much visible dramatis personae of the current issue in Manipur.

I will not go further on whether the tribal status is good or bad for communities which are already listed in the 5th Schedule of the constitution, considering the sensitivity of the issue, but here are some of my reasons why the demand from a section of the Meiteis for tribal status is a bad idea, and I am not saying this out of sentimental reasons, but sound economics. It is a bad idea because the gains can only be short term, and the unseen prices paid for it will be far heavier. I have not done any empirical survey on the matter, so what I say here will be from general observations alone.

Whatever else may be said, the Meitei economy today is one of the most diversified, if not the most diversified in the entire northeast region, including Assam, precisely because its growth has been intrinsic in nature, and not so much a result of pre-fabricated, one-size-fit-all economic models dropped from above. It may not be a monetarily rich economy yet, but have no doubt it would prove the most resilient ultimately. In it is practically every component of a naturally cultured, therefore multifaceted, life’s battle hardened economy. Look at the range of professions the community has nurtured. From cycle repair shops to excellent motorcar workshops, from watch mechanics and TV repair professionals to medical professionals of the highest standards, from traditional doll makers, truck drivers, weavers, to media professionals and academics of repute. Blacksmiths, goldsmiths, gunsmiths, sportsmen, professional dancers, farmers, carpenters, masons, computer hackers… you name it and the Meitei society would have them. Many of these professions were groomed by survival needs, and most began as, and still are extremely lowly paid jobs. Yet they have managed to survive as economic traditions.

This range and reach could not have happened in a completely sponsored economy, which are essentially top heavy and bottom empty. The top is essential no doubt, but ultimately it will be the bottom which will make the difference, once the sponsors retreat.

In fact, most of my criticisms of the Manipur government’s employment, therefore economic policies have been from this standpoint. No government has done much to build the place’s modern economy from this rich traditional foundation, by striving to enrich the environment in which this diversification can thrive and expand, such as by ensuring electricity availability, improving road and internet connectivity, extending better credit facilities to prospective entrepreneurs etc. Instead, today gainful employment has come to mean only garnering government jobs, and we all know government jobs have a very low ceiling, and in fact this ceiling has already been reached. Nonetheless, creating jobs in the government’s parlance continues woefully to be confined to raising more police constabularies etc.

Let those amongst the Meiteis who want the 5th Schedule tribal status do some serious rethinking. Even the OBC status they are now classified into should be treated as a temporary measure. Imagine how hollow and vulnerable an economy which has only government job holders and nothing else would be. There is much wisdom in the saying “Phadi leitana imung keidouneida oiroi” (a household without phadi/towel, can never be complete).

But as I mentioned earlier, if the demand for tribal status by the Meiteis (or at least a section of the community) is bad, the opposition to it from those already classified as tribals is as shameful for it demonstrates how uncivil our “civil society” still is. Indeed, the debate over who or what should constitute the rather ethereal notion of “civil society” gets all the more intriguing in a conflict situation, such as in Manipur. The question is, should “civil society” have a technical definition and be treated as constituting of the occupants of a space earmarked between the State and private vested interests, or other power players, such as the militant challengers to the State’s authority and legitimacy?

While this definition of “civil society” is definitely not sufficient, it has been indeed a convenient one. The trouble however is, when there is a technical definition of “civil society”, it invariably turns into a hotly contested space, and in fact often readily transforms into an extension of the conflicts they are supposed to be arbitrating thus becoming in the process an instrument of the same war, though by other means.

Manipur is familiar with this phenomenon. The “civil society” space has been deeply fissured on sectarian ethnic lines, demonstrations of which are never in short supply. Such wars by other means are fought on practically every issue involving any two or more communities of the state’s multitude of communities. The division is also seen along other broader lines such as between the hill districts and valley districts, between the tribals and non-tribals etc.

It is not uncommon to even hear of self proclaimed human rights organisations, thrown up by mutually antagonistic ethnic communities, speaking two different languages on the same issue. It is as if there is nothing universal about even human rights. How then can the “civil society” be the agent for the much hyped problem solving discourses, is a question much ignored.

The technical ear-marking of a so called “civil society” space leads to another familiar problematic situation. The conflicting parties themselves begin actually to contest for this space by putting up their “civil society” proxies, having realized how powerful these bodies can be in force multiplying their agenda through precisely the “wars by other means”.

The result is a complication of the conflicts themselves. So much has already been written about how even students’ movements have become organs of those behind these conflicts. Some even float their own “civil society” bodies. Must this not be considered a corruption of the popular understanding of “civil society”? A rethink is vital to consider if the definition of civil society must not have some qualitative elements over and above just the quantitative.

A weak State has not helped matter one bit either. Here, legitimate powers that should vest only with it often get wrested away by numerous “civil society” bodies, adding to the general residue of insecurity amongst a larger section of the society. The Weberian notion of legitimate violence is no longer a monopoly of the state, precisely because of its ineptitude and lack of commitment. This legitimacy vests in the hands of so many so called “civil society” bodies, precisely because of the state defaulting. Take the latest case of the hauling up of ice-cream manufacturers for unhygienic factory environment by a students’ body. The vigilant act which would have gained them public legitimacy should have rested solely  with the government had it also been as committed to public interest.

Although in a different context, and lacking half the gravity of the powerfully communicated despair in Macbeth’s last word for his queen at the news of her death, in considering Manipur politics, one is reminded of how the great Shakespearean character summarised his wife’s life, “….a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

There are many issues of extreme urgency awaiting government attention. Law and order without dispute would rank as number one among all of these. I am not simply referring to the obvious case of insurgency but also again to the manner in which a major portion of what should have remained as sole governmental responsibility, as well as the seal of authority that should have been exclusively the government’s, are being allowed to be wrested away systematically by non-governmental players in the state’s sordid power game.

Or are we witnessing a cruel parody of what Karl Marx called the “withering away of the state”, to give way to a “dictatorship of the proletariat”. The presumption seemed to have been, when the masses are the dictators over their own affairs, rooms for injustice and oppression would be automatically eliminated. The lessons of the atrocities of the French Revolution, which too had justice and equality as its slogans, were surprisingly missed, and VI Lenin’s interpretation of Marxism took cognizance of this problematic area when he stressed on the centrality of the Party of elite thinkers and leaders in any Communist revolution.

In a way he anticipated a basic foundation of modern electoral democracy too, for indeed, democracy is also about a people electing its elite leadership to be in charge of their affairs till so long as they enjoy their confidence as expressed in their periodically renewed electoral mandates. In this way the quality of a democracy is also determined by the capability of an electorate to choose the best amongst its elite. You get the elite you deserve.

In Manipur, the state is withering away, not by any grand Marxian design, but precisely for the abject lack of a will or imagination to come up with a design. For our elected elite, the needs for accountability or good governance are secondary to their personal agenda centred around the competition for the spoils and clout of office.

A rule of the masses has thereby been unleashed, leading to a mad contest for the powers of governance amongst various “civil society” organisations. Today many of these mushrooming power centres have naturally filled in where the government is absent and have even assumed the judicial powers of summons, inquisitions and trials, executive powers of levying taxes, excise duties and even to mete out summary punishments.

They legislate too through diktats and decrees. And yet the government continues to pretend there is nothing seriously wrong and that the law and order situation has improved. Time for all, most pertinently the government, to wake up.


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