Judgment of Bloodshed and Tears: Can Justice Be Arbitrary?

Raile R Ziipao

The Manipur High Court judgement broke the last straw in the historically fraught relationship between tribals and non-tribals (Meiteis), leaving a trail of horrendous violence in its aftermath. 

The recent judgement by a single judge bench of the Manipur High Court has led to violent clashes between the state's dominant Meitei community and tribals. The judgement directed the Manipur State Government to consider including the Meitei community in the Scheduled Tribe list. This decision has sparked controversy and raised concerns about the arbitrary nature of justice.

The petitioners, members of the Meitei Tribe Union, had sought the writ of mandamus for the inclusion of the politico-economically dominant Meitei community in the state schedule tribe list. There are some pressing issues of concern with this form of adjudication. Legal luminaries of independent India, such as Honourable Chief Justice of India, Dr D.Y. Chandrachud, aver that "the High Court does not have the power to direct changes in the Schedule Tribes List. It is a Presidential power to designate a Schedule Caste or Schedule Tribe". Secondly, numerous precedents exist on record to illuminate that it is beyond the remit of the judiciary to enlist and schedule communities as castes or tribes. Therefore, we must assess a fundamental bone of contention – what is the guiding motivation behind the petitioners' approach to the high court and the latter's motion to pass a judgment beyond its powers? 

In a state with about 54% Meitei population – a majority in demographic as well as representatives in all domains of the state – legislature, judiciary and executive – critical observers see this move as a majoritarian strategy to bypass Article 371C of the Constitution of India, which provides safeguards to tribals in Manipur.

The judgement has resulted in violent clashes between the Meitei community and tribals in the state. The AllTribal Students' Union Manipur (ATSUM) organised a rally to exercise their constitutional right to a non-violent civic protest. However, communal riots erupted in the Churachanpur district and spread to the Imphal valley. The situation on the ground is grim, with official data showing that around 60 people have lost their lives, 231 have been injured, and approximately 1,700 houses burned down. The situation is expected to worsen, with many innocent deaths going unreported, thousands of people rendered homeless, houses being burnt and properties continually being looted.

The communal violence in Manipur has been brewing for a long time due to historical faultlines between tribals and non-tribals, coupled with an indisputable question of land ownership and caste society. Land constitutes the ontological core of a tribe's being, fullness, and is conceived as being alive(Bodhi &Ziipao, 2019). The distortion of tribal land in the form of declaring tribal forests as either reserved or protected forests by the state without consulting tribals amounts to a denial of agency and their ontological being.

In Churachandpur district, the epicentre of the current spate of violence, the tribals have sharply reacted to the state policy on reserved and protected forests and eviction notices served by the state. The dominant community in the state, the Meiteis, advocates for a tribal identity as the best strategy for acquiring legal eligibility for land ownership in the hills, which at present is safeguarded under a special constitutional provision of Article 371 C. Their inclusion in the state schedule tribe list serves multiple purposes, including the application of Uniform Land law to secure the eligibility for purchasing land in tribes-dominated hill districts, enjoyment of scheduled tribe privileges besides that of OBCs, EWS, and SCs that they already avail, and declaration of Manipur as a tribal state.

Against this backdrop, the state has always favoured the dominant community. For instance, the state has attempted to amend and extend the Manipur land revenue and land reform Act of 1960 to hill areas. Last attempted in 2015, it had claimed nine innocent tribal lives in the protest against the amendment. The state relented and was forced to withdraw its decision following intervention by the President of India. 

Protection of assembly seats against the fear of changing demographic is another significant apprehension of Meiteis in the light of delimitation. Fearing a reduction in assembly seats, of which the Meiteis currently hold 40 out of 60, identification as scheduled tribes hit several birds with one arrow.  

There is an urgent need to create a space for the reconciliation of varied ethnic communities in the state for co-existence under a democratic framework. Multiple agencies are responsible for the ongoing imbroglio on land and conflict in Manipur. However, each stakeholder finds an excuse for the lack of an amicable solution, and the general tendency among them is to blame the others - what may be called the scapegoat syndrome.

The long-term political solution is to co-exist peacefully with certain compromises or part ways in separate administrations for hills and valleys in Manipur. The Manipur High Court judgement needs to be reviewed, and proactive measures must be taken to accommodate different ethnic communities in the historically volatile state of Manipur with multiple and competing claims to land, history, and identity, without any form of majoritarianism. The Judgement of Bloodshed and Tears must serve as a wake-up call to all stakeholders, demanding an immediate resolution of the underlying problems to avoid future conflicts.

Raile R Ziipao ([email protected]) teaches at IIT Bombay.