New Delhi: The recent Supreme Court hearing on May 17 in a slew of petitions seeking the top court’s intervention in the Manipur violence and issues related to the demand for ST status by a section of Meiteis echoes a lot of concerns of Manipur’s tribal people. Concern because the respondents are missing the central issue of violence committed on hill tribes of the state and diverting it into a discussion on their origins and cultivation of poppy.
The legal fight
The order by Justice M.V. Muralidaran of the Manipur high court on March 27 in the PIL Mutum Churamnai Meetei v. The State of Manipur and Others, directing the state government to submit recommendations within four weeks to include the Meitei community under the ST category, is ultra vires and in conflict with Article 342 (1) of the Constitution which clearly ordains the president with this power.
An appeal was filed by Manipur Tribal Forum, Delhi, in the apex court against the order alongside a writ petition under Article 32, seeking safe evacuation of the tribals stranded in the camps set up by the Army and CRPF in the Imphal valley and for the establishment of a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to be spearheaded by Harekrishna Deka, former DGP, Assam, and monitored by Justice (Retd.) T. Vaiphei, Chairman, Meghalaya Human Rights Commission.
The matters were heard simultaneously by the Supreme Court on May 9, wherein the Chief Justice of India orally remarked that the Manipur high court should have been informed of the president’s power on the subject and that no other authority has the power to amend the ST list as was held out in the case of State of Maharashtra v. Milind (2000). However, a stay order of the high court’s decision was not issued. While the court expressed its deep concern over the loss of human life and destruction of homes and places of worship, it directed the authorities to provide medical care and transportation of the injured. Direction was also given to the state to provide relief and rehabilitation. There was no mention of setting up the SIT as prayed by the petitioners.
The second hearing of the petitions was held on May 17. The Solicitor General informed the court that the Manipur high court extended the four weeks’ time in its earlier order on March 27 to one year for submitting the recommendations to the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs, taking into account the situation in Manipur.
The bench made a critical observation, reiterating once again that the high court has no role to play in the grant of ST status to a community. The petitioners had raised serious apprehensions on probable militant attacks on the tribal villages. The court directed law enforcement agencies in the state to take immediate and appropriate steps to counter such apprehensions. Meanwhile, a status reports filed in the Supreme Court held that the state was returning to normalcy. The matter is next listed for hearing in July.
The ST status debate
The high court, by providing an extension of the time period for the recommendation, reflects a lack of sensitive erudition on an important subject like this. The Constitution has not provided attributes for the categorisation, which had been taken care by the Lokur Committee in 1965. Five identifiers were recommended based on ‘primitive’ traits, primordially distinct culture, and isolation from the mainland, inhibitions of interconnections with others and of course backwardness.
These recommendations, as the Committee noted, were in the “interest of national integration”. The Meiteis fit into none of these parameters. Some within the Meiteis fulfil the Scheduled Caste and Other Backward Class categories. The majority of the Kuki-Zomi group believe that such a demand by a section of the Valley people is for economic dominance and control over tribal lands. The courts must exercise due diligence while dealing with sensitive matters such as this, lest it be a precedent for unqualified applicants to make a mockery of the system under the guise of petitions.
Why deviate from the facts?
It is important to point out that the petitions filed by the hill tribes seek to condemn the inhuman acts of violence conducted against the Kuki-Zomi community in Imphal as reports and evidence of the involvement of the Arambai Tenggol and Meitei Leepun miscreants in burning houses, churches and educational institutions and killing many innocent civilians belonging to the Kuki-Zomi tribe have emerged. However, the respondents claim that the violence resulted due to the influx of ‘illegal immigrants’ and poppy cultivation in the reserved forests.
This is appalling, as the legal hearings have nothing to do with any discussions on who an immigrant is or which cultivation leads to what ordeal. The CJI had rightfully remarked that the single bench judge was given time to “remedy the order and the errors, however no remedy was done.” Why has the high court, instead of reviewing and curing its previous order, granted a further extension? Also, it is puzzling why the apex court did not issue a stay on the Manipur HC order in the first hearing.
The debate on ‘illegal migrants’ is insignificant when the facts deal with inhuman acts of violence against a particular section of people in the state who are neither immigrants nor ‘illegal migrants’ from Myanmar.
The fight against poppy production in Manipur can be won only if economically viable alternatives are provided to farmers, who are consistently excluded from development initiatives in the state. If fingers have to be pointed at an entire community for poppy cultivation, it can be said that the majority Meiteis are equally responsible as they play a major role in funding this poppy cultivation.
The fundamental issue here is of lives lost, crimes against humanity being committed by targeting a particular community, houses and places of worship being burnt down. Instead, there is a tendency among a section of people to conveniently frame the entire tribal community as perpetrators of violence simply because their past was filled with battles defending their land and identity. The need of the hour is to give justice where it is due.
Mercy V. Guite teaches Literature and Culture Studies in JNU, Mercy K. Khaute teaches at the Faculty of Law, University of Delhi.