By Nehginpao Kipgen
It has been 150 days since the killing of 9 civilians, including an eleven-year-old boy in Churachandpur, Manipur, Northeast India. The tribal or hill people, under the aegis of Joint Action Committee (JAC), continue to demand for justice while the dead bodies lie in the district hospital morgue.
The deaths were a consequence of the three bills passed by the Manipur Legislative Assembly – the Protection of Manipur People Bill, 2015, the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms (Seventh Amendment) Bill, 2015, and the Manipur Shops and Establishments (Second Amendment) Bill, 2015 – on August 31, 2015.
The bills were passed in a special session of the assembly in response to the valley people’s demand for the implementation of an Inner Line Permit system in the state. The bills were first sent to the state governor for his approval, but he then forwarded to the president for his review and ordinance.
The fundamental problem of the bills is in its interpretation. While the valley people, who are predominantly Meiteis, view the bills as a mechanism to protect the state and its people from outsiders, the hill people (the Kukis and Nagas) see the bills as a threat to their rights over identity and land.
For example, Clause 2(b) of the Protection of Manipur People Bill defines “Manipur People” as “Persons of Manipur whose names are in the National Register of Citizens, 1951, Census Report 1951 and Village Directory of 1951 and their descendants who have contributed collective social, cultural and economic life of Manipur.”
Making 1951 as the cut-off year would exclude many of the tribal population from the definition of “Manipur people.” In that year, most of the hill areas were not accessible by road and the situation remains the same in some places even today.
There is also a lingering apprehension among the tribal people that the state government would use the bills as a strategic political ploy to gain access over their land. The unwillingness on the part of the state government to implement the Sixth Schedule in the hill areas exacerbates the concerns of the tribal people.
The argument of the state government and the valley people is that the bills are largely misunderstood and misinterpreted by the hill people. They claim that the bills are meant to check the migration of people from outside the state, and they would not disadvantageously affect the hill people.
Another argument of the valley people is that there is a constitutional injustice that allows the hill people to buy and own land and properties in the valley but people of the valley (non-tribal people) are prevented from owning land in the hills.
The politics surrounding the bills becomes so sensitive that it could further escalate into a major problem for the state as well as the central government, and more importantly between peoples of the hill and the valley.
With public support in the hill areas, the JAC has made a charter of demands from the central government, including the immediate withdrawal of the three bills and separate political administrative arrangement for the tribal people within the Indian constitution.
In conjunction with these demands, the JAC and leaders of Manipur tribals in Delhi have launched different forms of agitation in the nation’s capital, and have also met several political leaders, including Home Minister Rajnath Singh, but with no concrete action other than verbal assurances.
Now, the issue is in a delicate situation. If the central government does not act and the president does not give his assent, it is a matter of time the Meitei community would resort to several forms of agitation. An 11th grade student had lost his life in July last year.
On the other hand, it is apparent that though the JAC’s short-term demand is the withdrawal of the three bills and the protection of their land through constitutional safeguards such as the Sixth Schedule provisions, the long-term demand is a separate administration from Manipur which they believe is the only way forward to bring lasting peace and development in their region.
Under the present circumstances, the central government cannot simply say it is a state matter when the bills have reached the president’s desk, and when the issue involves constitutional matter, Article 371C.
Though any amicable solution is easier said than done, there are some viable solutions. One option is for the state government to withdraw the bills and go back to the drawing board by consulting the agitating tribal leaders.
The second option is to insert a clause in the bills which clearly states that they would not in anyway affect or apply on the tribal people and their land.
The third option is to implement the Sixth Schedule provisions in the hill areas that would protect and safeguard the history, culture, land and identity of the tribal people.
The fourth option is for the state and central governments to take concrete steps to ensure the proper utilization of development funds and schemes across the state. The status quo is that the valley districts are much more developed and advanced than the hill districts.
The fifth option is to review the political culture. Under the existing political arrangement, out of the 60-member legislative assembly seats, 40 are represented by the valley people and 20 by the hill people. There must be political accommodation in such a way that the post of the chief minister is also rotationally or periodically given to representatives from the hill areas.
The immediate worrying situation is that how long the 9 dead bodies will be lying unburied, or will more bodies be joining them. The question is will the issue be left for the people to decide, or will the state and central leadership take the necessary initiatives to find a solution.
Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen is a Political Scientist and Assistant Professor at the School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University. He is the author of ‘Politics of Ethnic Conflict in Manipur’. His works have been widely published in more than 30 countries across five continents – Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, and North America.
The article was originally published in www.huffingtonpost.com on February 4,2016. The author has sent the article for republication to Kanglaonline.