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Hindus in India's Assam state now clamor for tribal status

Meitei Hindus there issue same demand to reap benefits as peace eludes communities in the neighboring state of Manipur
A municipal worker walks as protestors observe a year of the ongoing ethnic conflict in Manipur in India's national capital New Delhi on May 4.

A municipal worker walks as protesters observe a year since the start of the ongoing ethnic conflict in Manipur in India's national capital New Delhi on May 4. (Photo: AFP)

Published: May 21, 2024 07:37 AM GMT
Updated: May 21, 2024 09:55 AM GMT

The demand to confer tribal status on a prosperous Hindu community has been raised in another northeastern Indian state after it caused widespread unrest and the deaths of tribal Christians in a neighboring state.

Meitei Hindus in Assam sought their inclusion as tribal people under India’s affirmation policy on May 19.  It comes just over a year after sectarian strife began over the same demand in neighboring Manipur state which has claimed the lives of more than 220 people, displaced over 50,000 and destroyed nearly 350 churches. 

Close to 160,000 Meitei Hindus in Assam have linked their demand for tribal status with their counterparts in Manipur, ruled by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

“Once we get indigenous status in Manipur we can claim the same in Assam” and in other northeastern states, said Yambem Arun Meetei, secretary-general of the World Meitei Council, told UCA News on May 20 

Since Meiteis are original inhabitants of Manipur, “we need to get indigenous status first in Manipur,” he said.

Tribal status will allow wealthy and influential Meiteis who dominate the social and political scene in Manipur to buy the land of indigenous people. Kuki tribal Christians who follow traditional vocations and live in the hilly districts in Manipur vehemently oppose the move.

Meetei called on the Manipur government to quickly submit reports to the federal government to speed up the process.

Violence erupted in Manipur on May 3 last year after the state's top court asked the pro-Hindu government to confer tribal status on Meitei Hindus, who make up more than 50 percent of Manipur's 3.2 million population.

Most of the victims are Kuki Christians who are up in arms against extending such status to Meitei Hindus.

Christians, who form more than 40 percent of the population, have been fighting against the move that would give the more prosperous Hindus benefits like job quotas and reservations in state-run educational institutions under India’s affirmation policy, started after independence from Britain.

At a May 19 meeting in Guwahati, a major city in Assam, the World Meitei Council asked Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh to speed up granting the process to help them avail them benefits in Assam, also ruled by the pro-Hindu party of Modi and bordering Bangladesh.

"The Meitei community in Assam have been demanding the status long before those in Manipur,” the council told Singh in a memorandum.

According to the council, Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma supports their demand. Its members also staged a demonstration in Guwahati.

Even after one year, the Manipur government is still unable to restore peace as warring Christians and Hindus continue to fight over the tribal status row.

The Catholic Church has a diocese in the troubled state, based in the state capital Imphal, and headed by Archbishop Linus Neli.

A Christian leader in Assam, who wished to remain anonymous, found no justification in the demand by Meitei Hindus. “It seems like adding fuel to the fire,” he said.

Meitei Hindus also live in other northeastern Indian states like Tripura (23,000), Nagaland (9,500), Meghalaya (4,400), Arunachal Pradesh (2,800), and Mizoram (2,200). There are also Christians among the Meiteis.

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