The Manipur University protest has been going on for over a month, and it has spiralled into a bigger movement in its call to oust its Vice Chancellor (VC)- Pandey. The protesting students made charges against the VC for irregularity and in promoting his vested interests linked to saffronisation and in side-lining issues of the university, administration and students’ concerns. The protest is led by Manipur University Students Union (MUSU), and later it is supported by the university’s teachers and non-teaching staff. Beyond that, it receives support from various valley based students’ body and organisations which are predominantly of Meitei community. With protest slowly taking the centre stage, there has been this constant gaze towards the tribal students and its associated bodies to be a part of the protests. The tribal communities have maintained distance from the protest and maintained a silence. The onus on them to come out and take part in the protest became louder and louder. The tribal people feel that this is a part of the dominant politics in Manipur where experiences as such is not new and they have been dictated and coerced into remaining submissive to speak Manipuri, write their scripts and be at the receiving end of constant discriminations. In this light, they feel that the current protest even if it affects everyone, is of least concern to them for the fact that the protest in Manipur University in the past concerning tribals are led by tribal students themselves. This lack of support and solidarity between tribals and Meitei is deeply shaped by context, history and politics in Manipur. The dominant politics largely comes from the Meitei community whose dominance is shaped by arrangements from the state in the post colonial era and its kingdom in the past. It is also seen in the concept of what constitutes Manipuri and why tribal people do not find any convincing space in being Manipuri. They either choose to go by their ethnic identity or simply as Kuki of Manipur and Naga of Manipur.
The separate paths in which both tribals and Meitei lead their causes and movements in Manipur is guided by contestation and dominant politics. The reality to this situation is shaped by history and it continues to have its ramifications till date. It will be unfair to view the ongoing protest in Manipur University in terms of tribal students being indifferent to it be it their silence or support for the VC. Distrust between tribes and Meitei of Manipur stems largely from the hegemony of Meitei where tribal people are at the receiving end of it and they are constantly meted with discrimination, harassment and subjugation. Social, political, cultural and economic status can be taken up as an indicator to why Meiteis are well off from the past than tribes. It is a moot argument to pitch in Meitei Scheduled Castes (SC) and Meitei Pangals (Muslims) that these categories are more or less the same as tribal people of Manipur for the fact that it is the responsibility of Meitei society to reach out to SC and Meitei Pangals to uplift them. The only thing left for tribals is to fend their lands and resources which the valley people are increasingly looking towards it in finding ways to lay a claim on it. They try to equate the lands and resources with the political power of Meitei, infrastructural developments in terms of schools, hospitals, sports, etc in Imphal and other valley districts, job opportunities, social status and economic well beings of Meitei, Meitei language dominance, scripts etc, which is clearly a tactic to expand its dominance into the tribal lands and resources.
Coming back to the protest, why is it that the valley suddenly remembers of unity for all the people of Manipur when they have distanced themselves in owning up their hegemony over tribals for many decades. The need for unity to come together for the protest in Manipur university is very opportunistic. Tribals have endured long enough of the tactic of valley people in trying to use them to manoeuvre their political agenda. The last time, the valley people remembers of unity is when “Hingmannasi Eikhoi (let’s live together in unity)” music video was out in 1990s. Between then and now, it is a vacuum which is void of any effort by them as a dominant community to come forward, acknowledge their mistakes and political misadventure, and instill a sense of being a good neighbour. It is really an abomination that without reflecting on this, they have the audacity to call on tribal students to be a part of Manipur University protest against the VC. If protest restricted to Manipur University supersedes the dynamics between the hills and the valleys, then why is it that there was no support from Meitei students of Manipur University when tribal students were protesting in regards to reservation issue in 2017 and before. Unlike the present pressure on tribal students to join the protest against the VC, Meitei students were not compelled or asked to join the protest for reservation issue led by tribal students in Manipur University. On the other hand, there has been a demand for ST status for Meitei in Manipur. Context in this form does not exist in isolation and they are present at large and to this ongoing protest as well. Even beyond Manipur University too, a reflection must also be made on why no tribals are involved in ILP movement, and why are there no collective fight against AFSPA; these are some pointers that will inform of the complex situations emanating from dominant politics at play and ethnic contestation.
In making a sweeping statement against the tribal students’ organisation as puppets of right wing government or calling every tribe as unthinking set of people is demeaning and discriminatory. It can be seen as a denial of their rights, agencies and existence. No matter, how problematic the right wing government is, for tribals what is of utmost importance is struggle and the choices available to them, let them stand on their own and keep their fights alive. It is imperative to mention that all the students in Manipur Universitiy and various affiliated institutions, including tribal students are all affected from this protest and they are certainly losing out their academic year for not getting marksheet, exams being postponed etc. The yardstick that submission of support to VC Pandey is allowing themselves to be called a right wing sidekicks is simplistic and dismissive. The choices available to tribal students matter, and the Meitei people must know that their positions and politics are more unreliable and harmful than the right wing politics which they are objecting to, when it comes to tribal people. There is no point in sermonising tribal people of unity to suit their convenient politics. The least the tribals are expecting from the Meitei is to come forward and submit their hegemony and work towards building a society by recognising the differences and allowing space for respect to diverse cultures, customs and practices, and religions, ethnicity and identity, and political agency. If these are addressed, we wont be experiencing the current complexities we are creating at our political dispensation and circumstances.