Of democratic customs

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The recent outburst from hill leaders regarding the proposed extension of Manipur Land Revenue & Land Reforms Act, 1960 in the hill areas is but natural. This is one of the major issues on which the politicians, intellectuals and activists are always united. Since the late 60s, the state government had been trying to bring all the areas of the state under a uniform land law which is the controversial MLR & LR Act. It is also the demand of several organizations based in the valley taking exception to the fact that while an individual from the hills could buy land and settle in the valley the plainsman could not buy land in the hills. But due to serious objections from the hill leaders, the government effort is still to bear fruit. It was Chief Minister RK Jaichandra Singh in 1988 who brought out an amendment bill of the Act seeking to extend the provisions of the Act to the entire state of Manipur including the hill areas to enable the Revenue department to make survey and prepare records of rights in respect of the permanently settled areas, wet land rice cultivated areas. The proposed amendment further sought to have only one law for collection of land revenue as well as hill house tax by repealing the Manipur Hill areas Act, 1966. Under the original Act, hill districts do not automatically mean hill areas. The Act assigned a special meaning to it. According to Section 2(1) of the Act, hill area means such areas in the hill tracts of the State of Manipur as the State Government by notification in the official Gazette declared to be hill areas. The State Government under different notifications Nos. had notified 1161 villages as hill areas in the 5 (five) Hill Districts for the purpose of this Act. Though Section 2, of the Act says that it does not apply to the hill areas of the State, it again says, ‘Provided that the State Government may, by notification in the official Gazette, extend the whole or part or any section of this Act to any hill areas of Manipur also as may be specified in such notification.’ It is this ‘extension by notification’ that the hill leaders are vehemently opposing. In a recent meeting organised by All Manipur Tribal Union, Professor Gangumei Kamei called for opposing the extension of the Act at any cost. Former bureaucrat turned politician Somi Keishing said, since the tribals have a customary land holding pattern, the proposed hill land survey should not be encouraged under any case. We must acknowledge that the hill communities have their own system of land holding based on customary and traditional practices. Yet there is a difference in land holding pattern between the Nagas and Kuki-Chin-Mizo groups. The hill people claimed absolute ownership over their land. Despite the absence of patta system, there is definitely an ownership system at the community level and also at the individual level among the Nagas varying according to tradition. With regard to the Kuki-Chin-Mizo group of people, the chief is all in all. He owns the entire land within his jurisdiction. There is neither clan land nor individual. He distributes land for cultivation and plot for dwelling house construction. The villagers dwell or toil at his pleasure. The Kuki chief has the authority to expel any villager from the village. It is mainly because of the objection of the Kuki chiefs that the Manipur Hill Areas (Acquisition of Chiefs Rights) Act passed by Manipur assembly on 14 June, 1967 could not be implemented till today. Some intellectuals from the hill communities have suggested the introduction of a separate land law for the hills by codifying the traditional land tenure system, while other groups advocate the continuance of the existing system. What is missing in most of these deliberations is the issue of individual ownership rights over land. While revisiting or re-examining traditional laws and customary practices the most important yardstick should be whether the law or practice is democratic or not. Our main concern is about the individual ownership rights of the people over land. The individual should not be exploited or dispossessed of his democratic right in the name of traditional law or customary practices. We must be very clear of the fact that the sacred man-land relationship begins at the individual level. We must also understand that one of the main causes of land degradation in the hills is the lack of individual ownership rights over land. The individual simply does not care about the upkeep of the land that he tills or the forest from where he lives off. Give him the ownership of land and it will be major step towards rejuvenation of the land in the hills.

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