Gemeikhup Vaiphei and his four colleagues from the Churachandpur Autonomous District Council (ADC) of Manipur have been camping in New Delhi for over two weeks now. These executive members of the ADC have a long list of important people to meet before they head back home to Churachandpur, where nine bullet-ridden bodies are being held in a hospital room until the leaders return with an assurance from the Centre addressing the locals’ demands.
The bodies are of eight men between the ages of 20 and 30 and one of an 11-year-old boy. All fell to the Manipur Police’s bullets aimed to quell a violent protest in Churachandpur town on September 1, which erupted a day after the State Assembly passed three controversial bills. The people of Churachandpur and the other five hill districts of Manipur – Ukhrul, Senapati, Tamenglong, Chandel, and Sadar Hills — are vehemently opposed to the bills because they perceive them as an extension of a historical discrimination of the tribals, or the hill people, by the Meiteis, or the valley people. They allege that the bills will give the Meitei-majority State Government sweeping powers to not only take away their traditional rights over their land — as granted by Article 371 C of the Constitution, but will also eventually compromise their tribal identity.
With every passing day, the urgency for the team to return home is growing. In the absence of a morgue in the town, the bodies are being kept in an air-conditioned room in the Churachandpur District Hospital. The protesters are using ice slabs and lemons and water melons to ensure that the bodies don’t decompose and there is no stench. Guite says, “The people of Churachandpur will not agree to bury the bodies unless they get the Centre’s assurance that it will stop the bills from becoming laws.”
Knocking on every door
By the time this correspondent caught up with the team, they had already met with President Pranab Mukherjee, Home Minister Rajnath Singh, the Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju and Joint Intelligence Committee Chairman and the interlocutor for the Naga peace talks, R.N. Ravi. Others they had an audience with include the Special Secretary (Internal Security) Ashok Prasad, Tribal affairs Minister Jual Oram and Minorities Affairs Minister Najma Heptullah, besides prominent North East MPs like P.A. Sangma and Neiphu Rio.
On September 10, the Centre had sent R.N. Ravi to Imphal to take stock of the situation. But, according to Vaipei’s colleague M. Gouzamang Guite, “The state government didn’t allow him to proceed to Churachandpur stating safety issues. So the MHA sent Ashok Prasad on September 22. He visited Churachandpur, saw how people were taking to the streets, met the protesters who submitted a memorandum to him demanding changes in the bills.”
The ADC team has given the Centre two solutions. “We need both immediate and long-term solutions. The immediate solution is that the President rejects the bills as they violate the Constitution. The long-term solution lies in the people’s aspiration for a separate administration since their long pending demand to be included in the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution has not been granted by the Centre, like it did to tribals in Assam, Mizoram, Meghalaya and Tripura. The ADCS were formed by an Act in 1971 to allow the tribals to have a say in the administration but it doesn’t provide legislative, judicial and financial powers to the tribals,” says Guite.
At present, the ADC funds for the hill districts are routed through the state government, and often don’t reach them, the team alleges. “It is the reason why our health services are not up to the mark, our roads are broken, our people are behind the Meiteis in various fields. Lack of development has led many hill people to move to the valley, and also outside the State, for employment, education, etc.,” says Vaiphei.
A Catch-22 situation
The Centre is in a bind over the issue since meeting the demands of the ADC team risks provoking the majority Meiteis. The three bills have been adopted by Manipur Assembly on August 31 following a two-month long campaign by the Meiteis who dominate the Imphal East and West districts. One of their key demands was the re-introduction of the Inner Line Permit (ILP) to check the influx of migrants into Manipur.
A Joint Committee for ILP was formed by members of civil society to drive the protests and to draft a memorandum with clauses that should be included in a new bill named The Protection of Manipur People Bill, 2015. The government formed a four-member committee to draft the bill and passed it along with two other bills, leading to the present violence in the State’s hill tracts.
Well known Manipuri intellectual Arambam Lokendra, who drafted the memorandum to the state government on behalf of the Committee for ILP, explains why such a bill was needed. “Historically, there had been a system in place to control the entry and exit of outsiders in both the hill and valley areas of Manipur. Even after it joined the Indian Union in 1949 as an independent district, it had a permit system. It was lifted from the valley areas in 1950 by the district chief, the Imphal Deputy Commissioner, keeping in mind the movement of people from one area to another during Partition. As per the 1948 records, there were 2,719 foreigners in Manipur, but their number had swelled 400 times by 2011. This onrush of migrants has created a new dimension to the social, economic and cultural life of the indigenous people, leading them to fear a loss of their identity.”
Though the Bill says that “it shall extend to the whole of the State of Manipur”, the state government didn’t refer it for consideration to the Hill Area Committee (HAC), which comprises the elected representatives of the hill districts. It didn’t have to because all the bills were introduced in the Assembly as money bills, the reason many tribals see them as having a hidden agenda.
Points out Grace Zamneiching, an executive member of the Churachandpur ADC, “These bills have been termed money bills though they have nothing to do with finance. It is to bypass the HAC because the Manipur Legislative Assembly (Hill Areas Committee) Order, 1972, states that any bill, other than a money bill, has to be referred to the HAC for consideration after it is introduced in the assembly.”
Lokendra says the ILP committee has nothing to do with this technicality. “It was the responsibility of the State Government to consult the HAC. The Governor should have also seen to it. He kept the bill for three days before introducing them in the Assembly as money bills.”
Lokendra also points out here, “This hill and valley divide has got stronger only from the 1990s. In the 80s, when there were atrocities on hill women and on valley women by security forces, each came out in solidarity with the other.”
A recipe for exclusion?
The divide is now so strong that the tribals take umbrage at the People Bill mentioning Manipur as “a small hill State”. Says Vaiphei, “This is to help the Meiteis to eventually demand ST status. If done, it will compromise our tribal identity.” Vaiphei and others say discrimination against the tribals still exists and therefore their special status needs to be protected. “Even in today’s times, we are called by the derogatory term Hao by many Meiteis in markets, etc.”
Pointing to one of their key concerns, ADC member G. Thangkhousuanmung Guite refers to the section of the bill which defines ‘Manipuri People’. “It includes only those persons whose names are in the National Register of Citizens, 1951, Census Report, 1951, and the Village Directory of 1951 and their descendants. If this is the criteria, then more than half the population in the hill areas will become outsiders. I know this for sure because I am also the chieftain and book keeper of Churachandpur town,” says Guite.
The post of a chieftain, in the Naga and Kuki societies, is hereditary. Guite, a Kuki, is the grandson of the first chieftain of the Kuki-dominated Churachandpur. “Manipur was not a state in 1951. People from the hills would rarely go to Imphal in the 1950s because one had to go by foot all the way. There was only one Deputy Commissioner stationed in Imphal. Most Census enumerators would avoid coming to the inaccessible hill areas from Imphal. And even if one did, it must have been during the day time when people were in the fields and jungles on work. Also, knowing how books are kept, it is very difficult to find even the directory of 1951 for most village chiefs of the hill districts,” he states.
Thangkhousuanmung also points a finger at the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms Bill, 2015, saying, “Till now, if a non-hill person wanted to buy land in the hill areas, he had to go through the DC who would then take the permission of the ADC. So the final say was with the ADC. This has been tinkered with for some time by the Government to grab land in the hill areas by amending the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms Act, 1960. It has already taken the wetlands of the hill districts that way. Now the seventh amendment to the Act has been done in the form of the new bill. It bestows the final authority of granting hill area land on the State Cabinet. It means the power of the ADC granted through a special Act has been taken away.”
Lokendra responds, “What I understand of it is that law making is a flexible process. If the hill people are not agreeable to certain clauses, I don’t know why they can’t be amended now to address their concerns.” He, further adds, “None of these were there when the discussions on need for the bills were on. There were four senior tribal leaders in those discussions and they never objected to them,” he says.
It is not surprising then that the houses of State ministers from Churachandpur were burnt by locals for not safeguarding their “interests” in the Assembly. Allegations are rife that “they sold themselves for big money.”
The insurgency factor
In any case, the political representatives from the hills couldn’t have stalled the bills. Of the 60 Assembly seats, only 19 are reserved for hill areas though their population almost equals that of the valley. This lopsided representation has been a thorn in the State politics for some years now. The Manipur Government stalled the delimitation of the constituencies in 2008 stating that the Census report of Churachandpur district showed an abnormal rise of population, hinting that it may include migrant Mizos entering it from the Chin state of Myanmar with which it shares an open border.
“The State Government’s contention is not entirely untrue,” says a local activist. “We have come across many Burmese living in these villages,” he says.
Of the many insurgent groups that have sprung from Churachandpur, the Kuki National Organisation have been demanding a State comprising the Mizos (they use the term Zomi) living in Manipur and the Chin state of Myanmar and it is likely that they are easily given shelter in these villages.
Says Guite, “The insurgent groups are also stakeholders. We have asked the Government of India during our meetings to start a dialogue with KNO and United People’s Front to bring peace in the area. This doesn’t mean that the delimitation process be stopped. Unless it is done, we can never have a say in the State policies.” This September 26, the Supreme Court has asked the Manipur Government to send a fresh plea to the Centre to start the delimitation exercise.
The larger politics at play
Importantly, the present union of hill people, comprising mostly the Nagas and the Kukis, against those in the valley is a new phenomenon in Manipur. It is perhaps for the first time the two communities — who otherwise have a history of bloody violence in Churachandpur — have come together against the Meiteis.
Many in Imphal see this as a result of “a change of game” of the Central Government which otherwise has often been accused of pitting the Kukis against the Nagas to thwart the ongoing insurgency in neighbouring Nagaland. This “change” may have to do with the recent Naga Accord, the clauses of which are still under wraps.
No wonder then that some political observers in Imphal see this present state of unrest in the hills as an opportunity for the Bharatiya Janata Party to open its account in Manipur politics. The Assembly polls are slated for 2017. “It is important to ask what the BJP Government will get by giving what the hill people want,” says Arambam.
On September 10, the day the Naga Accord interlocutor reached the Imphal airport, the state saw a glimpse of this. Women took to the streets holding up placards that said “Go back R. N. Ravi.” The Central interlocutor reportedly responded to a question on the Naga Accord in a meeting with members of civil society in Imphal that he has not brought with him “any baggage of the past”, hinting that the Accord may have an entirely new narrative.
With the hill and valley divide in Manipur worsening by the day, it will finally depend on the fine print of the Naga Accord whether a fresh faceoff is in the offing in Manipur in coming times or not. That’s why it matters so little if Delhi sends home the Churachandpur ADC team with the “assurance” of rejecting the bills.
Cautions Lokendra, “The Indian Government has never recognised ethnic nationalities in its entire history of nation building. It is doing so in the Naga talks for the first time, which may have violent implications in the Northeast. The Centre’s stance on this latest dispute in Manipur show that it may be trying to draw a new boundary in the hill region. But if it slices Manipur without consulting its people, there will be widespread and long term unrest in the State.”