Dr Arambam Birajit
Nowadays in every corner, we have been discussing on being tribal and indigenous in a confusing manner. In short, indigenous refers to being a native or the original inhabitant of a particular place whereas tribal refers to being a tribe possessing certain characteristics and qualities of basic social organization and value system. No doubt, many people use contextually these two terms ie tribe and indigenous synonymously.
In case of addressing their grievances and rights, these peoples may be taken up at the same level of people depending on the circumstances. Whereas, identities of these two peoples are concerned, they are people of different socio-politico historical positions. As per ILO Convention No.169, the description of “indigenous people” contains several elements which are not found in its description of “tribal people” for instance i) Historical continuity; ii) Territorial connection; and iii) Distinct social, economic, cultural and political institutions.
In some cases, a group not only possesses tribal status but indigenous feature also. On the other hand, one’s indigeneity is permanent and cannot be erased but the status of being tribe will, in course of time, vanish through a journey of gradual refinement-the so called detribalization process. But, the status of their indigeneity will remain. It should be very clear that all tribal people are not indigenous and all indigenous are not tribal. Here, it may be mentioned that the question of indigenous people is very contextual everywhere. In the context of India, the honourable Supreme Court judgment “Kailas &Other Vs State of Maharashtra dated 5th Jan’2011 has not mentioned even a single North East Mongoloid people as original inhabitant of India in any area of the verdict particularly in the judgment point No. 26. And in the point No. 20 also, it has been mentioned that the North East Mongoloid people are likely to be immigrants. India does cunningly accept the term indigenous people on the ground that all those who have already settled before independence are indigenous people of India. So, original inhabitants of India and Indigenous People of India become two different terminologies. Whatever the case, Meiteis are claiming indigenous status as per ILO convention and no one dare to reject it. Because of this, India Government allows to implement Inner Line Permit System in Manipur, which is not permitted at any non-indigenous State.
In the context of Meitei, not only British scholars, all the historians including Manipuri scholars agree that Meitei began their early life from the hills. The coming down from the hills and settling at foothills to plain valley area are the events of prehistoric period. The ancestors of present day Meitei clans such as Mangang, Luwang, Khuman, Angom, Chenglei, Ningthouja, Moirang were settled at different parts of valley area as independent principalities. They had their own chiefs with different identities, dress code, dialects, territories, spiritual beliefs and traditions etc. Even though the then society of those principalities were obviously characterized by tribal way of life it is wrong to claim the much evolved Meitei of present to be a tribe on the basis of social characteristics of their ancient early settlement. The evolvement of Meitei civilization as a historical process, which had been taking place since Nongda Lairen Pakhangba (33AD) till the formation of Nation State around eleventh century is inseparable from the emergence of the composite Meitei identity from the amalgamation of the earlier seven clans. No one can deny that Meitei had a civilization and its continuance till date. We should not confuse the distinction between a tribal society and a civilization. Even, the then people of Indus Valley Civilization are not considered as tribal by any historian because of their civilizational status. For, advancing towards a civilization, a hard struggle for establishing a political authority which leads to a specific set of ideas, having more intricate cultures, including literature, professional art, architecture, philosophical religion, and complex customs associated with the elite was an obligation and natural rather than just desirable.
Fights between principalities had been occurring for many years to subjugate each other. Lastly, the Ningthouja dynasty subdued all other groups and everything associated with all salais or clans such as myths, spiritual beliefs, dialects and social value system were assimilated or absorbed into the composite Meitei ethnicity and identity. Since then, the consolidation and refinement of Meitei identity came into existence. More and above, the absorption of Nongpok haram (Easterner) and Nongchup haram (Westerner) into Meitei civilization took place. On the other hand, the State formation process including the hill regions, was also going on contemporaneously. The above changes in the Meitei society show that Meitei society was not a society under a mere chief. The unique beauty of our Meitei rulers was the liberal mindset which empowered all chieftains of hills and valleys with a cooperative federal structure to some extent. (To be contd)