Amongst the hints of the shape of the `framework agreement` between the Government of India and the NSCN(IM) signed in New Delhi on August 3 is that there will be no redrawing of the boundaries of existing states of the Northeast neighbouring Nagaland. Another also indicated there will be an administrative autonomy model introduced for Nagas living outside Nagaland, and a structure to ensure cultural unity amongst the various Naga tribes. On the first point, it has further been clarified that the accord will create no power structure which will clash with the authority of the states in these neighbouring states. If these are the correct and honest pictures of what are envisaged, and there is no reason why they would not be, neighbouring states have little to worry. For reasons obvious, Manipur has been the most concerned with the development, wary as it is of the idea of a Greater Nagaland which will dismember it of large chunks of its Naga majority hill districts. These assurances should however allay these concerns to a good extent.
Having said this, it must be agreed that the siege mentality that the Meiteis in the valley suffer from is not without reason. The small valley they are settled in is the only land governed by the modern land revenue laws, and open to settlement by all. An increasing congestion is the result. This should explain why the movement for the Inner Line Permit System, ILPS, is restricted to the valley, while many in the hills have either remained silent, or else dismissively and with airs of ridicule, assess its implications. This siege mentality is also what has led the retrogressive demand of a section of the Meiteis to be classified as Scheduled Tribes, a fact which the hills have, rather than rejoice at the prospect of an expansion of their fraternity, again viewed with apprehension that the latter would come and grab their share of the reservation pie. This is the nature of the hill-valley divide in the state today, and it is too deeply entrenched to be washed away by sermons on ethnic brotherhood and shared indigenous interests.
This being the case, the valley must begin changing its attitude and approach. It must begin thinking in terms of cooperative federalism rather than homogenising the aspirations of the different communities and regions. This will entail first of all for the Meiteis abandoning their arrogant presumption that their interest defines the state`™s interest. However, this should also mean an end to what they have also presumed as the political correct stance of investing all their energy to what they see as ethnic brotherhood of communities in the state, even if they receive little or nothing in return. To seek a certain level of parity however should not be about asking for ST status for themselves. It should on the other hand be about evolving a model by which the playing fields are level at least on their unreserved grounds. But before a possible model of this nature is touched upon, a little more on the autonomy model for the hills, especially with a Naga Accord approaching should be relevant. Let this accord be a success, and it can be a success only if it does not have the potential for harming neighbours.
As long as there are no power structures that will come to clash with the authority of the state, let an autonomy model, 6th Schedule or newer, be given to the hills, although the 6th Schedule was originally meant for pockets of tribal lands in demographically and territorially much larger Assam. Mizoram abolished it when it was separated from Assam to ultimately become a full-fledged state, and retailed it only in three tiny pockets where minuscule ethic communities who did not want to adopt the newly constructed Mizo identity lived. In Meghalaya strangely, the 6th Schedule was retained even after it was separated from Assam and reorganised as a separate state so that almost the entire state, except the capital region of Shillong, overlaps with three 6th Schedule ADCs. This, as reports suggest, has been the cause of many small administrative irritants but never one capable of threatening the existence of the state. So Manipur should not worry too much. Manipur needs not worry too much on the suggestion of a structure for cultural integration for the Nagas too, for this is already very much a reality even today. For instance all Naga students bodies in Manipur are affiliated to the Naga Students Federation, NSF, and all apex Naga tribal bodies are affiliated to the Naga Hoho.
But if the hills are give further autonomy than they already have, in all fairness and administrative prudence, the valley too must be given something. A model that refers back to the logic by which the 6th Schedule was conceived of when it was being framed, and the definition of tribal as communities living by their tradition mores and economies, whose land holdings are determined by customary laws etc, could be the cue. The Canadian model, although the situation is vastly different in that Native Americans had been robbed of their lands and their populations decimated by systematic genocide, could be useful. Natives who lived in `Reservations`, are entitled to state provided facilities for tribals, but not those who live and work, or have acquired properties in non-reserved lands as any other ordinary citizens of the country. In the Manipur context, this could be about all who settle and acquired landed properties in the valley having to forsake reservation facilities, although every one of them obviously would retain his or her ethnic identity intact. This will not only give a sense of a measure of protection to the insecure non-tribal Meiteis, but also ensure reservation facilities went to only those who deserve them amongst those in the ST list living in the 6th Schedule areas.
Leader Writer: Pradip Phanjoubam