The divide over the three bills, supposedly designed to do what the Inner Line Permit System does, in checking immigration into the state so as to prevent the feared possibility of a demographic upset, is far from being resolved. As the agitation for their passage builds up in the valley districts, there has been a 48-hour bandh announced in the hill districts to oppose any such move. Can people residing in the state’s two geographical regions see things so differently? The valley districts which are so far open to all Indian citizens to settle, feel they are under a siege and desperately need a law to regulate further population inflow, a concern incidentally shared by all Northeast states, including neighbouring Nagaland, Mizoram and Assam. Quite to the contrary, the hill populations have interpreted the bills as the valley’s attempt to encroach into the land and rights of the hills, and as we have seen quite tragically, this protest began in Churachandpur, where six homes of politicians of the district were razed to the ground, and in same night of violence, and on the next day, six people died in firing by police and Assam Rifles, and three others consumed by the flames that destroyed the six bungalows of the VIPs.
Can the same set of documents be read so radically different? Our guess is, not many people on either side of the fence have actually read the actual documents and that a majority are merely responding to the hysterical cries of demagogues amongst them. If this is so, considering all the irreparable losses suffered on account of these interpretations, it should come across as simply unforgivable. To make sure all interested get to read the actual documents, we are reproducing them verbatim, in a series, in the columns adjacent to our editorial columns. We have reservations about the bills no doubt, especially with the choice of 1951 as the cut off year for deciding who is “Manipur people”, but certainly not for the same reasons those who are now repeatedly chanting these bills are “anti-tribal”. We are no constitutional experts, but after repeated reading of the texts of the bills, we still fail to see how they are aimed at dislocating and dispossessing the tribals from the hills. Moreover, we fail to see how tribal ministers and MLAs would have agreed to sell the rights of their constituencies and forsake their prospects of ever winning future elections, much less having their homes destroyed. They too would have in all honesty, read the texts of these bills as we do, and so many more who actually get to read the bills probably would too. But if we are no constitutional experts, we are certain those who are making these serious charges which have left a trail of destructions, are not either. This is why, we suggest again that the government approach a reputed constitutional expert of known integrity such as Fali Nariman, A.G. Noorani, Rajeev Dhawan, Prashant Bhushan etc, and have him or her interpret the bills so as to resolve this oppressive crisis. If they recommend anything be amended, so be it. No doubt their fees will be high, but this will be a government expense worth the while. This chant of “anti-tribal” is becoming Goebbelian, if we can coin such a term after Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda chief, who once is said to have famously said something in the line of “keep repeating an untruth once, twice, thrice… and it will become the truth.”
The other often repeated charge is that the bills were not referred to the Hill Area Committee, as mandated by the constitution in matters of any bills that concern the hills. One of the bills, “The Protection of Manipur Peoples Bill, 2015”, does mention that the definition of “Manipur peoples” will apply to the whole of the state, therefore the hills as well. Should this have warranted a reference to the HAC? By strict definition of procedures, probably? But should this also mean any reference to the hills directly or by implication be also referred to the HAC? Again, by strict definition of procedures, probably yes. However, such hair-splitting interpretations would stall the legislative process at practically every stage, which is probably why the resort often is to conventions when the consensus says the intents clearly do not infringe on other provisions of the constitution. And this is not just the Manipur Legislative Assembly, but all legislative bodies. Students of law will know, there are so many grey areas even in the longest written constitution that India’s is, and it is conventions that take the due legislative process along. The extreme case would be that of the British, who do not even have a written constitution, and all legislative processes are by established conventions and democratic discussions alone. But, as we have suggested before, let all agree these bills be made applicable to the valley districts alone till such a time a consensus on making our civil laws more uniform comes about.