In the wake of the development in Darjeeling, where administration in the Gorkha Hill Council has been purportedly given more autonomy without severing the territory from West Bengal, Manipur and all the other states where demands for new administrative arrangements exists, ought to give new attention to the problem. The talks are, the demand for a Telengana state carved out of Andhra Pradesh is also headed for a similar settlement to that of the Gorkhas. A little caveat needs to be thrown in here. Manipur should also prepare for an overhaul of its own administration to accommodate the aspirations of the hill people, who incidentally, rightly or wrongly, suffer from an acute sense of deprivation. Developmental disparity there are between the hill and the valley, but here it must have to be added, as we had pointed out before in these columns, the disparity is not so much between the hill districts and the valley districts, but between Imphal and the rest. But this is understandable, for Imphal is the capital city. Still, despite this tendency amongst the hill community to accentuate their sense of alienation on account of this rather faulty and unfair comparison between their districts and Imphal, the grant of a greater degree of autonomy to the hills is the need of the hour. Self determination is not so much about material benefits but a state of mind in which those given autonomy are made to feel their own accountability in their failure or success.
There is however a unique problem Manipur would face. The centrifugal forces working to tear the state apart are multiple. Even as powerful Naga civil society organisations, headed by the United Naga Council, UNC, are campaigning for a “separate arrangement” in the administration of the “Naga areas” of the state, the Kukis too are now raising the pitch of a similar demand for the “Kuki areas”. It goes without saying that there would be more such demands should there be signs that these earlier demands are showing positive results. Again, it would do everybody good to be wary that “Naga areas” and “Kuki areas” overlap considerably in many regions, and indeed this lesson was learnt the hard way on many occasions in recent history, the most brutal of which was the bloody feud between Naga and Kuki villagers in the earlier part of the 1990s. Again, contrary to what is now being claimed, it is not the state government, or the people of the valley, which foiled earlier nearly successful move to introduce the 6th Schedule provisions in the hills. Instead it was a disagreement on the inclusion of Sadar Hills as the sixth Autonomous District Council under the schedule, by powerful Naga lobbies, again led by the UNC. This was so because Sadar Hills which is virtually a Kuki region was claimed to be Naga territory. This happened in the 1990s when a Naga, Rishang Keishing, was chief minister, and another Naga, Meijinlung Kamson was Union minister of state for internal affairs, and if the ground was clear of the controversy mentioned, it would have been smooth sailing, and the hills would have come under this autonomy arrangement long ago. But that promising move was still born. The point to be pondered on now is precisely whether the ground is clear for another attempt at introducing this autonomy model?
Without resorting to any blame game, let the present government give another attempt at federalising its administration by seeking to give more autonomy to the hills. Apart from a consideration of upgrading the current Autonomous District Council to those under the 6th Schedule, the government could for instance split up some of its key directorates, such as education and sports etc, into two so that there is one each for the hills and valley. There could for instance be an education directorate (hills) and education directorate (valley), both ultimately answerable to the Government of Manipur, and at some point having to sit for some common evaluation examinations so that the overall education system is to the extent possible, standardised. This autonomy move must also not be seen, or indeed amount to be, part of an appeasement policy. The rural valley districts are not much ahead of the hill districts, and in the deal there must be something to make the valley feel they too have benefited. For instance, the state reservation policy could be restructured. Since the hills administration would probably be largely reserved for tribals, in education as well as employment, the reservation for schedule tribes in the valley could be reduced to the national standard of 7 percent and not the 33 percent the state currently follows. Any new policy introduced must be seen as fair by all, only then can it usher in stable peace in this trouble torn state.