‘Us’, ‘them’ and an elusive peace – Dr. Malem Ningthouja

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Meitei and Kabui women stage protest demanding Inner Line Permit System at Konung Mamang in Manipur
Meitei and Kabui women stage protest demanding Inner Line Permit System at Konung Mamang in Manipur

Manipur has often been the setting for violent agitations, with those behind them demanding the implementation of an Inner Line Permit (ILP) system in order to define and protect “insiders” from buying up land on the one hand, and from the unregulated entry of “outsiders” on the other. All this can be traced to the core — in the agitations of 1920, 1935, and 1965, when sections targeted the “outsider” monopoly in trade. The agitations, in 1980, 1994, and from 2006 onwards, have been primarily against unregulated immigrants who bought up land and immovable properties.

The agitations have been motivated by the situation that has set alarm bells ringing following unrestrained demographic pressure by “outsiders” and the need for an ILP as it exists in Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland. The ILP is required for ‘other’ Indian citizens to enter Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Mizoram. The objective has been to prevent outsiders from buying up land and owning natural resources in Manipur. But these stirs have been confined to the Manipur valley, which is about 9 per cent of the geographical area and where 61.54 per cent of the enumerated population (Census 2001) comprises the majority community Meitei, tribals and others living together. Interpretations of the campaign have been along communal lines, probably because it was concentrated in the valley and led by Meitei-based organisations.

Geo-community projection

The apparent Meitei orientation of the agitation has been obvious since minimal tribal presence in the valley has been juxtaposed with Meitei predominance and tribal organisations in the hills that have deliberately maintained an opaqueness about a supporting role. A visible role for the Meitei is clear as defending the territorial integrity of Manipur is dear to them and as they have been the front runners in being associated with other popular movements to protect land and resources from being consumed by controversial projects.

The ILP agitation has been the brainchild of Meitei organisations for two basic reasons. First, its geographical epicentre has been the valley where there has been increasing pressure on land as a result of population growth. This includes migrations by outsiders and continuous “land grabbing” by the government for the setting up of military establishments and other infrastructure, which led to systematic reduction of areas under primary economic activities. Second, Meiteis have been in the fore front of this as despite their known achievements in arts and culture, sport and other skills, they are deeply apprehensive of being marginalised and facing insecurity in Manipur.

This needs to be explained in detail. Despite the perception that identifies the Meitei with the valley, in reality, the valley is liberally open to all who can buy and own land and resources. This situation is what has promoted the large-scale migration of tribals and outsiders from other parts of India and also Nepal, Myanmar and Bangladesh. It is a one way migration that has deeply affected the psyche of many Meiteis, as they, as a result of being clubbed with non-tribals, are now constitutionally not permitted to own land both in the vast tracts of government reserved areas in the valley and in the hills of Manipur. However, the Meiteis consider the migration of tribals as a sign of integration and do not oppose it; what they are critical of and apprehensive about are the ‘outsiders’.

A form of restraint

Many Meiteis are worried that the numerical strength and growth of outsiders have now reached alarming proportions and there is a situation where they outnumber several small communities in Manipur; according to the 2001 census, there are 9.18 lakh Meiteis and others, 6.70 lakh tribals and 7.04 lakh outsiders. They predict a socio, cultural and economic domination by outsiders as a result of large-scale migration, especially after the extension of railway lines, trans-Asian highways and the expansion of market corridors towards Southeast Asian countries. They are also worried about unrestrained land grabbing in Manipur to facilitate hydro-electric projects, mining, and also oil exploration and drilling at the cost of the people and the ecology. Many have upheld that the implementation of the ILP or a similar law can act as a form of restraint to unregulated immigration and also prevent outsiders and companies/industry from taking control over the land and resources, especially in the valley, where there has been no protective law ever since the permit system was lifted by the Government of India in November 1950.

Following violent agitations that have often lasted months, the Government of Manipur and the Joint Committee on the Inner Line Permit System in Manipur (JCILPS) arrived at an agreement. Thus, on August 31, 2015, the Manipur Legislative Assembly passed three Bills, which were not to the complete satisfaction of pro-ILP sections. These are the Protection of Manipur People Bill 2015, which has fixed 1951 as the base year to detect outsiders; the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms Amendment Bill 2015, and the Manipur Shops and Establishments Bill 2015. These Bills are being strongly opposed by the ‘tribal’ organisations in the Manipur hill districts, particularly those of the Kuki Chin Mizo-based organisations, and which have now been supported by Naga-based organisations as well.

Inter-community tensions

Agitators blocking the road by burning at churachandpur
Agitators blocking the road by burning at churachandpur.
Photo: Deepak Shijagurumayum

Kuki organisations have opposed the ILP movement from spreading in Churachandpur and Chandel districts, which led to a violent clash on August 18, at the border town of Moreh. They have charged the Bills as being evidence of Meitei expansionism in the hills to expel a large section of Kukis. The propaganda has been appealing to many who are unhappy with the anti-Kuki stance and ‘refugee’ tag attributed to them by individuals from other communities. There has also been rivalry between Kuki underground organisations and those who have been identified as being with other communities. There could also be an element of fear as many of them — either people who might have migrated after 1951, or those whose lineages might not have been recorded in the list criteria — could be treated as outsiders. Other tribes have also expressed similar concerns.

The overall projection of the Bills as being pro-Meitei fails to holistically interpret the limitations of the cut-off year of 1951. This provision actually affects all, including some sections of the Meiteis and others who came to Manipur after 1951. It will also be practically difficult to detect and deport migrants who have close ethnic bonds with one or other ‘indigenous’ communities. But the polemics of insecurity have interplayed with the propaganda that the Manipur Land Revenue and Reform Act 1960 has been extended to the hill districts, which is untrue as there is no amendment in the territorial extent of the said Act.

BSF's gypsy has been burnt down by the agitators inside the Churachandpur hospital
BSF’s gypsy has been burnt down by the agitators inside the Churachandpur hospital
Photo: Deepak Shijagurumayum

The recent tensions, and which have been extensively reported in the media, might not have occurred had the Government of Manipur dealt with the situation in a better way. Instead of fully relying on the consent of the tribal MLAs, it could have also consulted the Hill Areas Committee or other responsible ‘tribal’ organisations in order to resolve any misunderstanding, before passing the Bills. On the other hand, neither the organisation that had led the ILP movement nor the tribal organisations who protested against the Bills had approached each other for mutual consent in this regard. The Kuki and Naga organisations were not insensitive to the primary objective of the cut-off year of 1951, as being primarily to target the ethno-culturally, distinguishable outsiders from other parts of India, Nepal and Bangladesh. They wanted to magnify the controversies arising from these Bills in order to invoke community sentiment, consolidate their respectively fractured communities, and to intensify the demand for either VI Schedule status for the tribes or different administrative systems for Kukis and Nagas. In this, there is tactical unity between Naga and Kuki organisations. This is understandable in the context of Naga enthusiasm towards the speeding up of some kind of pan-Naga integration under the proposed framework of the recent Peace Accord. This is something that the Kuki organisations are concerned about as this inspires the ‘Kuki’-based undergrounds that are under the Suspension of Order (SoO) with the government, to speed up their agenda to have either Pan Zomi Reunification or autonomous administration. The recently leaked Kuki National Organisation’s proposal to the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah) or NSCN-IM asserts: “Historically, the [Meetei or Manipur] Kingdom consisted of the valley areas, which today form the valley districts of Manipur… The Kuki and Naga peoples shall mutually respect one another’s identity and territory and maintain the best of fraternal relations and work together to preserve peace in the land and usher in progress and human welfare in the Kuki and Naga states.”

Now, when tensions have been fanned, there seems to be the role of certain vested political groups to add fuel to the fire in order to magnify the issue of unrest, and, in turn, use this as a reason to justify the imposition of President’s rule in order to unseat the incumbent Congress government. In this there is an interplay of political demagogy, adventurism and speculation. Unrest, rioting and repression have led to a heavy toll in terms of civilian life, the destruction of property and a creation of tension. If the Bills are the issue, is there no room to either clear the misunderstandings or add some clauses in the Bills to resolve the tension? If the Bills are just the spark, what role should the Government of India be playing to scale down the tensions? The question now is this: who will negotiate for peace with whom, at what cost, and for what purpose?

Malem Ningthouja
Malem Ningthouja

(Dr. Ningthouja is a Fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, and the author of three books on Manipur.)

** The article was first published in The Hindu and reproduced in KanglaOnline with permission from the author.

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