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Equality as a reason to act: Towards a transformative social mobility in India

May 25, 2023
11 mins read

Since early May, ethnic violence in the Indian state of Manipur – a highland state bordering Myanmar, has killed more than 70 people, hospitalized hundreds, and displaced over 20,000 people. Violence broke out in the state capital Imphal on May 3 after hundreds of people from the Naga and Kuki tribes took part in a march against the dominant Meitei ethnic group being recommended to be included under the Scheduled Tribe list in India.

The construction of homogenous legal narratives deemed necessary for institutional consolidation in state-building in Manipur, a Northeastern state in India, masks the understanding of social mobility, the ability people have to move up the social ladder. Such narratives treat history as linear and flatten identity and puts political heft upon the minorities entailing misrepresentation and skewed access to civic participation. This yields an undemocratic social process giving the Meiteis, the dominant social group, who advocates the homogeneity thesis, a narrative privilege devaluing constitutional provisions of inclusion and empowerment to the minority tribes. The prejudice becomes more pronounced when the idea of homogeneity is projected as a noble goal akin to entailing distributive justice, while the minority tribes object to it as defiant to state-building.

The discursive effect of constructing a homogeneous social identity into the legal system to the detriment of minorities has become a pertinent issue of mobility in Manipur. This essay explores responsible civic engagement in all communities. It underpins the historical differences embedded in how power was exercised that influence economic participation. With this historical and political backdrop, it looks at the social mobility issues based on facts and scientific reasoning that is latent and ubiquitous yet seldom examined in Manipur. It argues that the fate of a heterogenous entity (language, ethnicity, or religion) is not necessarily inherent with mutually exclusive relations of social groups, but its recognition and empowerment serve the common good.

However, the construction of the dominant interest into socio-legal structures through statutory laws and normative socio-economic standards as a blanket approach to representation and recognition leads to developing narratives that are discriminatory.  

There are 34 recognized tribes (roughly 35.4% of the population) in Manipur, primarily divided into two ethnic communities: the Nagas and the Kuki-chin people, living predominantly on a subsistence economy in the hills, whose combined population is less than one advanced community, the Meitei (roughly 64.6%), mostly concentrated in urban areas of the Imphal valley, according to 2011 census of India.

The Meitei speak “Manipuri” or Meitei lon as their lingua franca, which is regarded as a means to access the classical Manipuri cultural heritage. Further, it was made the state’s official language, while the respective tribes have their own distinct languages. As Ngaranmi Shimray, a socio-political analyst observed, Manipuri was included in the 8th schedule of the Constitution of India in 1992 – as one of the regional languages. Since then, Manipuri has steadily become one of the approved regional language mediums for the Central Armed Police Force recruitment examination in India.[1]

Moreover, the elite civil services exam called the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) accepted Manipuri literature as one of the subjects in the exam. Such crucial steps in social empowerment that advance mobility could be easily portrayed as giving equal access to the citizens in the Indian state’s legal system, which in reality, does not. Still, it embedded a narrative of homogeneity in Manipur. In practice, tribals in their respective villages had to learn Manipuri (oral and written) to be eligible as equivalent counterparts in vying for employment in the state and in the central government.        

While there can be several ways to look at social barriers to mobility, the implications of the indifference to structural and infrastructural backlogs, narrative privilege, and the idea of homogeneity – a social meaning-making that seemingly animates an inclusive representation positioned in the standardization of language, electoral democracy, and identity consolidation, are indispensable to understanding mobility in Manipur. Historical reparation, one in the form of constitutional reservation (an affirmative action for education, employment, and political representation) in the Indian legal system, was initially instituted as a measure to transform social mobility by uplifting the socio-economic conditions of only the oppressed caste and tribes (now categories such as Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) are included) since independence. The Manipuri Scheduled Castes and OBCs are already protected within this legal system. Despite the transformative constitutional provisions, the effort to flatten identity and legitimize the dominant group’s socio-economic privilege continues to manifest, adversely affecting social mobility.

Perpetual marginalization

Many federal states in India are not homogenous in terms of language, race, ethnic group, or religion but are harmonious to a great extent. Public policies that primarily rely on the categories of identification and classification of social groups are critical to ensure a warrant of empowered mobility in the civil and political sphere. For instance, in the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871, some tribes who were listed as criminals by the British were delisted in Independent India. Article 334 of the Indian Constitution provides for the reservation of seats for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in the Indian Parliament since 1950.

The Forest Rights Act, which protects the settlement rights of indigenous peoples in India, among other rights, was implemented in 2006. The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, primarily performed by low caste to dispose and clean human excreta manually was enacted in 2013. Some laws for the oppressed caste and tribes were passed very early on, while many are contemporaneous, keeping aside the pith and substance of the Acts. Though these social justice trajectories arise out of uneven and need-based dispensation, they exhibit the marginalized nature, condition, and livelihood struggles of the Dalits and tribes in India.

In 2019 the Savitribai Phule Pune University, Jawaharlal Nehru University and Indian Institute of Dalit Studies jointly revealed that upper-caste Hindus, who comprise 22.3% of the population, own 41% of India’s assets, while 7.8% of Hindu Scheduled Tribes own only 3.7%.[2]

The caste hierarchy latent with social and cultural capital also affects the socio-economic advantages and adversely impacts schooling and childcare. These are crucial social mobility indicators. Along with the caste factor, though it may not be extrapolated exactly in Manipur, Raile R. Ziipao’s work on “infrastructure of injustice” in Northeast India, Manipur included points to structural inequality woven deep into the ethnic fabric of the society since the colonial times.

These historical structural inequalities are reinforced through social groups, such as caste, ethnic group, and class – that are imbricated – which makes it harder for people to get equal opportunities to create income or access resources. For instance, in Manipur, in terms of structural backlogs, the seven tribal hill districts combined do not have one government-owned multi-specialty hospital. Also, out of 36 colleges under Manipur University, 29 colleges are in the valley and 7 in the hills.[3] Studies show unequal higher educational attainment among different classes in India; better social backgrounds receive higher education.[4] So, the development trajectory paints an overt “othering” of the hills in Manipur. Thus, even if the size of the economy increases, there is a visible difference showing structural exclusion and gaining trust deficit between the hill and valley.

The ethical practice of reparation invoked the political goals of moral ideals, values, virtue, or duty to balance practical policy and the ethical dimension of inclusion. So, the state’s intervention and facilitation are desired for the rule of law. But historically, any social group’s excessive indulgence in ingroup ideological chauvinism, characteristic of a state or non-state interest, has proven to be authoritarian, destructive, and imperialistic. The recent mob violence with a communal tone in Manipur losing several precious lives reveals an aggressive manifestation of a fixated ingroup solidarity built upon ideological, linguistic, and historical differences. And with the rising question of the ability of the state to engage as a non-partisan actor, the value of equality is made more elusive in longue durée.

Houses set ablaze during clashes in the Torbung area of Churachandpur in Manipur.

To the case: demystifying homogeneity

Within India, Manipur itself is not a homogenous state – with no allusion to its durability – and historically it is a space inhabited by different social groups with distinct histories. This fact has implications for democratic politics. Though there is no insinuation of any communal discord, the distribution of 60 political representation in the state remains an anomaly with a sharp distinction of fixed 40 Meitei elected Members of Legislative Assembly (MLAs) and 19 Scheduled Tribe MLAs, one for Scheduled Caste, where communities have existed for long with articulations of varying interests.

This stark contrast would not have been a problem if the Delimitation Act 2002 had been carried out as provisioned. Through the delimitation process, the tribals’ vote-MLA ratio could be configured with the proportionate number of increased constituencies for the tribe with respect to their population. But against the interest and constitutional rights of the tribes (Article 82 of the Indian constitution and The Delimitation Act 2002), the political reform is still in thin air. Even, alternative governance measures for the tribes such as the Autonomous District Councils Act of 1972 and Village Authority Act of 1956 are in a state of delirium as the voice of minority tribal MLAs is overshadowed by the majority legislative politics. Documentation of customary rights is emphasized over oral practices and financial prerogatives are nominal, which otherwise are vital to tribal grassroots governance and performance. 

Along with the dominant group’s interest on homogeneity, one cannot evade the political economy of resource politics that the discursive power of narrative brings, which adversely accretes social mobility in Manipur. The tribes in Manipur own roughly 90% of the land. In recent times, the demands of scheduled tribe status from (some) Meitei social groups have been raised through important public institutions, such as the state’s honorable High Court.[5]

This received protest across the tribal districts in the state but with violence between the Meiteis and the Kuki-chin groups. In terms of writing, economy, political representation, and civic development, the Meiteis are far ahead of any tribe in Manipur. Their demand, then, is not for equality, but their reason to act seemingly rests on the contingent rights to gain a greater monopoly over the legal system and have access to resources such as land, if the competent authority (the Honourable President of India) schedules them as a tribe. This will derail the political ecology of the tribals and lead to further marginalization.

Moreover, justice with reference to the values of equality and social mobility in Manipur will remain a mockery in the modern temples of learning and popular discourse. It is high time stakeholders refrain from what Murray Edelman calls “constructing the political spectacle”, where the polemics of the underprivileged are often seen through the privileged indifference to social regression.     

Demystifying homogeneity depicting the majority-minority binary does not mean contradicting continuity and stability in the social order nor eclipsing the intra-minority ethnic faultline. The Naga ethnic groups and the Kuki-chin ethnic groups have their respective histories. During colonial times, the Kuki-chin groups were used by the Rajas of Manipur and British officials, deploying them in the foothills and other strategic locations as surrogate defense mechanisms towards the valley while the unrestrained raids between the ethnic groups continued.

This nature of settlement and movement of people are internationally seamed with bordering Myanmar and Bangladesh, and social groups’ engagement diverges with ethnic nationalism. It has resulted in internecine conflicts between the Nagas and the Kuki-chin groups in the post-colonial period as recent as the early 90s. Ironically, the Christian Kuki-chin groups (perhaps, subject to further classifications) still openly erect stone monoliths engraving Nagas as genocidal even though both ethnic groups suffered grave ordeals of losing precious lives. The Meiteis are privy to these historical cleavages and can manoeuvre the ethnic card. Their rhetoric of homogeneity, such as “Ching-tam amattani” (hill-valley are one), needs to be more sensitive and dialogical towards the historically embedded othering and marginalization of tribes, leaving aside the explicit resource politics attached to it. Would not walking the talk of equity be more forthright than romanticizing homogeneity?

A temporary relief camp setup by Indian Army in Manipur’s capital Imphal on May 5. Image credit: PTI/Frontline

Reasoning the practice of equality

Ethics and politics may suggest different ways to act. One guides the fabric of moral values and the other of power. However, political ideologies are also value driven because power relations are driven by the interest and needs of social groups, which are again not impervious to privileged social values. This relation between social groups develops a civil sphere where political influences are tied to specific social groups and remain resilient against marginal voices.

The irony of transformative social mobility is that there should be a corresponding improvement of the minority with the dominant social group but power and privilege direct normative order and shape social and political norms. In such a case, social order springs top-down which is based on organized knowledge. In the past, organized knowledge was manifest in setting the moral code in the palace or religious institutions. It was the norm for a lord to be a serf’s benefactor and a lord to be a king’s vassal, with the latter considered divinely endowed.

The pre-colonial Meitei kingdom’s Lallup (revenue service) system, with “feudal tendencies” that existed for centuries had similar relation to the vertical social order in the valley. Even so, since the pre-colonial period, there were no obsequious relationships between the hill and the valley as the British ethnographer and historian B. C. Allen also observed and wrote that the ethnic groups were “independent from the state in the valley” and exhibited assertions of control with intermittent raids and military expeditions from both sides. The coming of the British laid the foundation of structural injustice,[6] which invoked “spatial politics” (hill-valley binary) and used surrogate defense, pitting one ethnic group against the other, thus, intensifying ethnic salience and cleavages.

In more recent times, a privileged narrative, such as the pitch for homogeneity in Manipur, seeks to gloss over the monopoly of the dominant social group who had gained the patronage of colonial rule as a “protected state”, a status distinct from the hills.  The homogeneity thesis advances the interest of the dominant social group to permeate the corridors of influence, being the majority social group in business or politics. So, the call to homogeneity as emancipatory or enlightened interest cannot solve the structural problems concomitant to caste, ethnic group, or class divide. Ignoring the subtle approach to the discursive power of narrative privilege embedded in the segmented and hierarchical social system creates socially or morally incohesive and disruptive forces that constrain liberty. Ultimately, it keeps inequality going and limits social mobility.

Mistakenly, reasoning against such existing socio-political structure and moral norms would be seen as unethical or, at best, ignorant of history. In contrast, early modern Europe and the colonial Indian subcontinent had the same strain of relational ethics and social justice to liberate the marginalized. Post-colonial thoughts were initially an aberration to the colony’s norms until the existential problems of the colonized made people question the imperial quest, beaconing to act for universal human rights. Similarly, in Manipur, a social relation premised on biased knowledge production of flattened identity without reflecting the history and socio-economic condition of various social groups misrepresents the practice of inclusion.       

Why would cohesive social groups allow the narrative of transformative social mobility to be hijacked with degenerate ideas of empowerment? Keeping it unchecked would result in further political alienation of the marginalized. In contrast, the constitutional imperative to empower the marginalized is contingent upon putting away the prejudices of social groups and acting on the collective political objective of equality. As narrative privileging continues, the human relations that were supposed to support the capacities and adaptation improvements of the underprivileged individuals and communities, one crucial response of acting on the practice of equality is addressing the epistemology of mobility that primarily rest of action-oriented trust building, which conjoins the historical, circumstantial and cultural dimensions of the diverse social groups.

Cited works

[1] Ngaranmi Shimray. 2023. “Disunited Tribes of Manipur: A View From The Corner,” The Frontier Manipur, 25 April 2023. Web URL: Disunited Tribes of Manipur: A view from the corner – The Frontier Manipur

[2] Tagade, N., A. K. Naik, S. Thorat 2018. “Wealth Ownership and Inequality in India: A Socio-religious Analysis,” Journal of Social Inclusion Studies, 4(2): 1-18.   

[3] Mayirnao, S. 2023. “Ukhrul Assembly Constituency: A Cassandra in the Politics of Manipur.” Ukhrul Times, March 14, 2023. Web URL: Ukhrul Assembly Constituency: A Cassandra In The Politics Of Manipur | Ukhrul Times

[4] Goswami, N. 2022. “Unequal higher educational attainment across social backgrounds in West Bengal, India: a sociological analysis,” Cogent Social Sciences, 8(1), 2144135: 1-20.

[5] Devi, P. K. 2023. “Manipur HC directs the state to submit recommendations for inclusion of Meetei/Meitei in ST list,” India Today, April 19, 2023.

[6] Kapai, Y. 2020. “Spatial Organisation of Northeast India: Colonial Politics, Power Structure and Hills-Plains Relationship.” Indian Historical Review, 47(1): 150-169. https://doi.org/10.1177/0376983620925591 

Shimreisa Chahongnao

Shimreisa is India based PhD Student in International Politics, and specialises in ethnic, race and political economy.

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