Why the Ethnic Divide between Meiteis And Other Tribes of Manipur


By Lt. Col. Laishram Lokendra Singh (Retd)

Speaking at the “International Conference on Ethnicity” held at Manipur University on May 8, 2014 Dr. R.K. Nimai said that the religious difference between the hill and valley dwellers of the State is an important factor that disintegrates the people. Perhaps that is a simplistic view of the existing socio-ethnic problem.

Hindus and Christians through out the world live amicably with each other. Back home in India too they co-exist harmoniously as one integrated Indian society. Hindu and Christian religion per se are not a factor today that disintegrates people.

Nagas and Kukis of Manipur profess same religion as Christians but their ethnic divide is there for all to see. Bone of contention is land, each one claiming a particular region as their traditional ancestral land.

Ethnic divide between Meiteis and hill dwellers of Manipur today is the manifestation of modern day ethnic inequality created by Indian Constitution which is having far reaching ramification in socio-economic and political spheres of one’s existence in Manipur.

There is therefore a collective responsibility of revisiting Indian Constitution wherein it has divided the indigenous people of Manipur into two distinct categories as tribal and nontribal people leaving almost no scope for creation of a cohesive and harmonious society based on ethnic equality.

The Constitution has put Meiteis in the category of nontribal people called Mayang in local parlance. Now hill dwelling tribal people and this Mayang (Meitei) community are to close their eyes on this Constitutional divide and live as one just as R.K. Nimai has asserted in the International Conference ibid that creating division among the people along line of ethnicity would never bring any good and all concerned are to strive to live as one.

Paradox is self evident. You create a legal physical division which is palpable at the ground level and then you exhort people not to go by that division. Why have this division at all?

Tribals view Mayang (that includes Meiteis too) collectively as a shrewd race of people, outsiders out to exploit simple tribals. Basic instinct therefore is to distrust Mayangs (Meiteis) and distance themselves from them and interact only when there is dire necessity.

Meiteis on the other hand assume an air of superiority over the tribals in accordance with the age old Indian socio-cultural system wherein tribals are relegated to the lowest social strata of Indian social hierarchical divide.

With these two diametrically opposite social attitudes, it will be near impossible for the two communities to co-exist in harmony as one people in an environment where democratic politics is overshadowed by ethnic politics. Logical and workable way out is to cancel out ethnic inequality created by Indian Constitution.

One option is for hill dwellers to come out of ST cocoon and join mainstream. This argument will seem farfetched, nevertheless deserves a deeper analysis.

Hill dwellers of Manipur have been Christianized for more than a century. Missionary influence has eroded much of tribal cultural heritage, which was inseparably linked with traditional mythology, beliefs, rituals, and wilted when these were abandoned. The world religion they have converted to do not provide room for practicing tribalism and are now shaping a modern culture different from their erstwhile tribal ways. The days of primitive tribal existence, is now history.

The bare truth is that these hill dwellers are no more the head hunting, semi-starved, semi-clothed, food gathering or axe-cultivating primitive people of a bygone era. They have been subjected to missionary influence and have been exposed to influences of economic and socio-cultural forces of western Christian world. They are more or less tribal only in name.

As is evident everywhere during this transitory phase, a small privileged, property owning, educated section has been emerging; on the other hand, a vast bulk of the tribals are being hurled into the ranks of the lowest toiling, exploited class of people. The vocal, richer, privileged minority will inevitably utilize the benefits bestowed on tribal community as a whole in the form of concessions in their game for power. They will launch programmes and movements in the name of entire tribal community, which in reality serve only their vested interests. Such programmes and movements may also prevent unification of tribal people with Meiteis considered to be non-tribal population.

In the epoch of information technology of computers, internet, mobile phones, satellite TV etc. along with modern education and every corner of the land enmeshed into the wave of a more complex civilized network where they live in modern and even European style, a fresh study of ethnography of the hill dwellers will find it difficult to qualify them as tribes as defined or understood in the discipline of anthropology.

Thus, hill dwellers having become avowed Christians and now standing at the threshold of a modern society based on western culture can therefore become non-tribal just as Meiteis became non-tribal in 1950 on the premise of having converted to Hinduism (partially or otherwise). Million dollar question is, who in his right mind would like to give up this modern day god given privilege which is said to have been enjoyed only by the “R.K. Clan” during the reign of various kings of Manipur.

The other option is that Meiteis who were recorded as major tribe of Manipur in the official records of the Govt. of India prior to the issuance of Scheduled Tribe gazette notification in 1950, revert to being recorded as a tribe as heretofore. This means Manipur would become a tribal State as that of Nagaland, Mizoram or Arunachal Pradesh.

At a point of time in history Meiteis took to Hinduism and became partially Hinduised. Those who are familiar with Hindus of mainland India will easily spot the difference between Hindus of India and partially Hinduised people of Manipur. Meitei Hindu converts have not forsaken their erstwhile religion by whatever name it may be called.

Customary practice of “Khoiri naopham phumba (burial of placenta)” at the birth of a child, “Saroi Khangba (propitiation of evil spirits)”, ancestor worship such as “Yumjao Lairembi, Apokpa Khurumba” etc., spiritualistic culture of “Amaiba/Amaibi (Shaman)”, the list can go on…; is certainly not a part of Hindu religion. Meiteis took Hindu religion as an addition to their erstwhile beliefs rather than as a replacement.

Put simply, Meiteis have adopted certain Hindu beliefs and practise forms of worship akin to Hindu ritual, but largely do not subscribe to Hindu social values, their puritanical precepts of Hindu morality. For eons Meiteis have sustained basic social attitudes which are similar to the most progressive sections of the Indian urban society which in essence is the ethos of the Meiteis, other tribes of North-East and some of those of central India.

There is absence of caste distinctions, the question of caste coming up only at the time of taking of certificate for children education, application of government job or such like requirements. There is equality of sexes; in fact women are in the forefront of social happenings, preference for adult marriage, liberty of divorcees and widows to re-marry, and independence of the nuclear family from control on the part of the joint family.

In fact though Meiteis have come in close contact with Hindus of mainland India for centuries and have been partially Hinduised, but over the years have exhibited the greatest power of resistance to the alien Hindu culture that have been pressed upon them, zealously guarding and retaining till date their distinct culture of ancestor worship, animism and shamanic spirituality.

To be precise, Meiteis till date are a semi-tribe or tribe in transition who are in the process of losing their identity and tribal culture but not yet fully assimilated to the mainstream Indians. In elementary terms it means Meiteis are in the process of becoming Mayang but as yet not fully transformed. Mind you to be a tribal you have to be born a tribal, you can not convert to a tribe like you convert to a religion.

Within the problem of nation building in a plural society, the heart of the matter is to create a congenial environment where Meiteis and hill dwellers of Manipur can live as one integrated society sharing a collective destiny sans the feeling of “us and them”.

You can not undo history; however, you can get Indian Constitution amended so that the indigenous people of this land are not divided into tribal and non-tribal people; and each one respect the other as equal human being of the global village of 21st century.

(Views expressed in the write up are those of the writer)



  1. I would like to point that regarding the distinct religion that is being followed in manipur that it is the same case throught the India. Nowhere in India same set of rituals are practiced but still they are all hindu, for example we do not celebrate chhatpuja which is integral part of bihar and east up culture. Keralites, tamils and andhra people follow different customs when rituals and local gods are considered. In areas around delhi, from where I belong we also have rituals and customs dedicated to ancestors. As I got chance to meet 3-4 meiteis at my workplace, I can say that I find more things in common with meiteis than with the tamilians and even sikhs possibly due to hinduism. Hope that problems get settled with time and meiteis will get to play a major role to play in politics, society and economy of India.


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