On the night of 7 October 2015 in New Delhi, several tribal protestors were arrested. Their protest was organised as a show of solidarity for the agitations by indigenous hill tribes in Manipur against the passing of three bills in the state. Collectively, these bills – Protection of Manipur Peoples Bill, Manipur Land Revenue & Land Reforms Bill (seventh amendment) and Manipur Shop & Establishment (second amendment) – work against tribal rights and interests in the state. The motive for an indefinite protest at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi from 4 November onwards (which continues even now in April 2016), under the aegis of Manipur Tribal Forum, Delhi (MTFD), was to draw attention of the powers that be at the Centre who have, so far, been silent on the issue. The killing of nine tribals in Churachandpur district of Manipur because of police reprisals against the agitations in the district was another reason for the indefinite ‘coffin protest’ at Jantar Mantar.
On the night of 31 August 2015, right after the bills were passed in an emergency legislative assembly session in Manipur, angry protestors marched towards the houses of their district representatives, torching one after the other. The violence began at the residence of the then Health Minister Phungzathang Tonsing followed by attacks on five other residences, including Member of Parliament Thangso Baite’s house. A deep sense of betrayal was the tinder that lit the fires. Ministers in the state assembly, despite incessant appeals by tribal groups such as the All Tribal Student Union Manipur (ATSUM) to either speak about the hill people’s concerns or oppose the bills strongly, chose to remain indifferent. All three bills were passed swiftly without any opposition.
By February 2016, the agitation against the passing of the bills eased after local leaders from the Joint Action Committee Against Anti-Tribal Bills (JACAAB) and women from the All Manipur Tribal Women Union (AMTWU), who are now at the forefront of the movement, took measures to temporarily ease heightened tension against the state among the tribal communities. This uprising against the bills took a violent turn after numerous forms of non-violent protest in the form of rallies, dharnas and public meetings, particularly in hill districts like Churachandpur, were ignored. Similar forms of protest were also, undertaken in metropolitan centres of India after the bills were passed.
For a majority of bills, passed at the state level, the governor’s assent is all that is required before it becomes the law. However, the governor can request the President of India to give his assent before it becomes the law, in the case of controversial bills. At present, there is a deadlock over the issue, as the bills await the consent of the President of India.
While a superficial initial analysis would conclude that the bills are the main reason for the protests, a more in-depth investigation reveals people’s fears about losing their identity and their anger against the infringement of their rights upon the land. Most importantly, it brings to fore the incessant suppression of tribal rights in the state and ignorance of the historic ties that the hill tribes have to the land. Due to this, there is a now a renewed call for separate administration for these communities.
The three bills were an outcome of the demand by the Meitei majority in the state to introduce the Inner Line Permit System (ILP) in Manipur. The ILP system is a colonial legacy that was enforced in certain areas within the Northeast. It was meant to restrict the entry of non-natives within such territories. In post-British era, the line system continued to be implemented, which meant outsiders needed permits to enter such areas that currently fall in Nagaland, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh. Even more states of the Northeast are demanding the implementation of the law due to the large-scale influx of ‘outsiders’. The commonly cited reason is the possibility of a fillip in the demographic composition of the state when uncontrolled migration in Manipur will lead to marginalisation of the natives of the state.
The Joint Committee on Implementation of Inner Line Permit System (JCILPS), a consortium of non-tribal civil society groups, had repeatedly stressed the fact that the indigenous people of Manipur were on the path of becoming a minority in their own state and demanded ILP and other protective laws to safeguard their interests. These ‘demands’, manifesting in protests in the areas where most of the Meitei community resides in majority, resulted in Imphal and its adjoining valley areas shutting down for two months. The entire valley was in flames until the government succumbed to the demand of the JCILPS.
The three bills can be seen as a successful culmination of the demand for ILP by the Meiteis. The tribal communities, on the other hand, were sceptical about the protest and doubted the intentions behind the ILP demand. The bills, in form and content, appear to be a shrewd attempt to control the entry and exit of ‘outsiders’ in Manipur. The state government along with the larger public in the valley, including the media, claims that the bills will not affect the interest of the tribal communities. The passage of the bills has led to an inevitable clash between hill and valley, and more so between tribal and non-tribal communities. It is prudent to understand as well as contextualise why the tribal’s oppose these bills.
Before the passing of the bill, efforts were made by the Meiteis to conduct peaceful rallies in certain parts of hill districts such as Lamka, Churachandpur District and Moreh, and Chandel District. Numerous tribal bodies objected to such rallies because they felt that they would incite violence. In Lamka town of Churachandpur district, the rally was called-off and when the rally was undertaken, on 18 August 2015 in Moreh, it led to a violent clash between the Meitei and the tribal communities. Such incidents reflected the volatile situation and the potential for unrest, even before the bills were passed.
Out of the three bills, the Protection of Manipur Peoples Bill and the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms (seventh amendment) needs critical review. There are two main contentious issues in the Protection of Manipur Peoples Bill. The first is the cut-off year, used to determine who the ‘indigenous’ people are, and the second being the very definition of indigenous people it employs. According to the law, “Manipur people” are defined, as a community of persons (and their descendants) whose names are found in the National Register of Citizens 1951, the Census Report 1951 and the Village Directory of 1951, “who have contributed collectively to social, cultural and economic life of Manipur”. The ire of the tribal population is focused on the cut-off year. Kham Khan Suan Hausing, who teaches political science at the University of Hyderabad, aptly summed up the situation in an article in Indian Express on 22 September 2015:
Given that most chiefs in the hill areas are illiterate, the limited tradition of written historical records in 1950s and the remote location of villages with roads that are conspicuous of their absence, makes it impossible for census enumerators to cover and accurately record residents of all villages.
These apprehensions of the communities around becoming a ‘non-Manipuri’ in the state and the subsequent denial of rights to their own ancestral lands cannot be ignored.
In the hill districts, normalcy has not returned since the passing of the three bills particularly in Churachandpur district. Rather than remaining indifferent, it is high time that the state government rethink its policy towards its minority tribals
Another bone of contention is the Manipur Land Revenue & Land Reforms (MLR&LR) Act. Similar to the Assam Land and Revenue Regulation (AL&RR) 1886, the MLR&LR Act came into being in 1960 but put the hilly areas outside its purview. However, repeated amendments have been made to negate the protection offered by the phrase “except hill areas thereof” in the sixth amendment of the Act, which bars non-tribal communities from purchasing lands in the hill areas.
Various valley based non-tribal civil society organisations have, in the past, pressured the government to implement a uniform land law in the state. These organisations complained about the shrinking space of the valley areas due to over-population. On the other hand, tribal communities are troubled by the over-concentration of infrastructure facilities, centres of higher learning and centralisation of government offices within the valley areas. But, contrary to claims by non-tribal communities, the present MLR&LR act does not restrict settlement of non-tribals, including the Meitei community, in Manipur’s hills; it only places restrictions on the outright ownership of land by non-tribals in hill areas. Non-tribals can also buy land in various parts of the hill areas of Senapati and Churachandpur District after these villages in the foothills were declared to be part of the plains by the Manipur state in 1962.
The passing of the three bills has also boosted the Meiteis’ bid for gaining Schedule Tribe status, and with it the chances of Manipur being declared a ‘Hill state’ with only ‘tribal minorities’, who need protective provisions like the ILP. The ‘Hill state’ demand has been made by the valley-dwelling Meiteis, who say that most of Manipur’s land falls in the hilly areas. The tribals, who are the actual inhabitants of the hill areas, however would be affected adversely if the ST status is granted to the Meiteis and the whole of Manipur, including the plains, is declared a ‘Hill state’.
Besides this, the discontent among the tribal communities is also due to the bypassing the Hill Areas Committee (HAC) by the state. The HAC was set up as a constitutional body to safeguard the rights and interests of the tribal hill communities. The committee is to be consulted in any matters relating to them. The disregard of the HAC and rights of the tribal communities are what triggered the violent protest on the night of 31 August.
The tribal communities are reverting to the demand for a separate administrative system for the hill regions of Manipur. This will comprise all the hill districts, which constitutes 90 per cent of the state’s geographical area. Indeed, the demand for a separate administration for hills territories is as old as the merger of Manipur with the Indian Union itself. In the early years of independent India, opinions were divided upon the future relation between the hills and the valleys. In the Constitution Making Committee (CMC) in 1947, the representatives of the tribal leaders proposed the right of secession of the hill areas from Manipur after a period of five years. Two members of the CMC, A Daiho, a Mao Naga and Tiankham from the Zo community made it clear that they could not be members of the committee unless such clauses were incorporated. Regardless of this, their proposal was rejected following arrests of numerous tribal leaders in 1948.
At present, the local administration of the tribal communities in the form of autonomous district councils of the five-hill district does not enjoy any meaningful autonomy. Formed under a state law, the autonomous districts are, bestowed with limited powers and functions under the pervasive control of the state government. It is beyond reasonable doubt that the autonomous district councils of Manipur, rather than granting tribal self-rule, ends up as an unfair mechanism to govern the tribes. The present political unrest reignites this past historical injustice in the contemporary crisis.
The state government’s attitude of antipathy towards the tribal concerns seems to have further antagonised the tribal communities. In trying to delegitimise their concerns, the state government steadfastly labelled the protest by the tribal communities as a result of ‘misinterpretations’. This has only fuelled anger and resentment towards the state government. The growing disillusionment with the state government is what prompted the tribal communities to demand autonomy for hill territories. As of now, the only desire, according to the Manipur Tribal Forum, is a peaceful separation of the hill and valley. Rather than maintaining a neutral stance over the issue, the state government, by trying to get an assent for the bills from the President, is appeasing only the ethnic majority. As the crisis continues, it brings into stark relief the unequal relations between the hills and the valley area, socially, economically and politically.
As much as the Meitei fear losing their traditional lands, identity, culture and language, it is the same fear that triggered the protests in the hills of Manipur. The past attempt to impose Meitei Mayek, the traditional script of the Meitei community, upon the tribal communities is seen as a form of exerting cultural hegemony upon the tribal groups. While the state government along with the valley based civil societies speak loudly of their discontent regarding over-population in 10 percent valley areas, what is left unsaid is the unequal power arrangement and unequal development of the hills and the valleys at large.
The future of Manipur and the ethnic relations of the different communities rely on the manner in which the government deals with the issue. As of now, the integrity of Manipur – ethnically and territorially – is at stake. In the hill districts, normalcy has not returned since the passing of the three bills particularly in Churachandpur district. Rather than remaining indifferent, it is high time that the state government rethink its policy towards its minority tribals.
~ Roluahpuia is a doctoral candidate at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Guwahati, Assam, India.