The Freezing and Thawing of the Churachandpur Agitation

As the agitation in Manipur’s hill district crosses its 600th day and eight bodies still await burial, the protesters witnessed their struggle nearly reach a resolution this month, but then suddenly head back into a deadlock.

Salpha Pumbuk, where the protesters congregate. Here, nine dummy coffins have been placed in a row since 2015 to remember the nine locals who died. Credit: Anoo Bhuyan

Churachandpur (Manipur): The Baptist and Presbyterian Christians in the Churachandpur district of Manipur recently remembered the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ on Good Friday. They were, however, nagged by other deaths as well – on the political front. In about a week from then, they were to reach the 600th day anniversary of the death of nine young locals in a political agitation in September 2015. Eight of these bodies are yet to be buried and have been preserved in a morgue.

On Good Friday, the nearly 800-member strong church sang, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son. And that is why Jesus died for you and me.” Just around the corner from the church, a large banner with nine faces, and one cut out in an act of vandalism, reads, “Our heroes, your blood shall set us free.” In this Christian and Kuki dominated district of Manipur, the language is striking for its spiritual poignancy.

As they prepared to celebrate Easter on Sunday, April 16, they wondered what the next week would bring – perhaps a resolution to their crisis and the burial of their dead?

The district has been agitating against the three bills that were passed by the Manipur state legislature in 2015. The bills – the Protection of Manipur People’s Bill 2015, the Manipur Land Reforms and Land Revenue (7th Amendment) Bill and the Manipur Shops and Establishment (2nd Amendment) Bill, 2015 – were introduced by the previous government and passed without the consultation of the hill area committees. It kicked off violent protests. Although most media reports state that all nine died in police firing, some actually died due to burn injuries from fires that were started by the agitators. Once the number of dead and injured started mounting, a Joint Action Committee Against Anti-Tribal Bills (JAC) was set up. It is a consortium of various tribal bodies that had come together to agitate against these Bills. They feared that the valley areas were seeking to take over their tribal and hill areas and called these Bills ‘anti-tribal’ in nature.

In advance of the 600th day anniversary, the JAC informed the media that to commemorate the event they would organise a mass mourning, fasting and praying at the Salpha Pumbuk. “The JAC humbly requests the general public to come forward and join hands in offering our thanks to the Almighty for leading us thus far and for His continued guidance, companionship and pray for an early solution to the prolonged impasse while we reaffirm our commitment towards our struggle for tribal self-determination,” they said. As a mark of respect for the ‘tribal martyrs,’ they also asked all business establishments to shut down from sunrise to sunset, and asked vehicles to stay off the road.

Salpha Pumbuk is where the protesters congregate. Here, nine dummy coffins have been placed in a row since 2015 to remember the nine locals who died. It is a makeshift thatched structure. Saturday, April 22, turned out to be a rainy day and so the congregation had to move into a hall where they fasted, prayed and listened to teachings from the Bible.

The dead bodies lie frozen in the morgue at the Churachandpur district hospital. There were nine bodies, but one disappeared. It belonged to the youngest victim, an 11-year-old boy, and the belief is that his family buried the body without informing the JAC.

Freezing and thawing

Even as the bodies stayed frozen, a political-thaw began earlier this month. With the recently concluded assembly elections, Manipur booted out the 15-year-old Congress government and a new BJP government came in. This brought an uptick in the mood of Manipur. Every day the newspapers have been filled with reports akin to press releases of various ‘JACs’ that have been meeting the new chief minister with their demands.

But the JAC in Churachandpur got special attention. Resolving the Churachandpur agitation was a priority for this new government, along with dealing with the three-month long blockade imposed in north Manipur by the United Naga Council. The previous Congress government had met the protestors only twice, and only in the early days of the agitation. They said that the previous chief minister had asked for an analysis of why the Bills were ‘anti-tribal’ in nature. They sent him a reply in January 2016, but never heard back.

On April 5, however, the new government invited the JAC for talks with the chief minister and his cabinet soon after taking office. The first round was scheduled for April 7, the second for April 10 and the hope was for a memorandum of understanding between the two sides by April 12. Around the same time, Manipur governor Najma Heptulla reached out to the protestors as well, urging them to call off their agitation.

It felt like the new government would break ice, but then the indications began to change and things fell apart. The government had only succeeded in resolving the blockade in the north, but not the agitation in the south. Instead of the agitation nearing its end, it seems that stances hardened. “I think the government will resume talks, but we don’t know when. We are always open. Eventually if they do not concede to our demand, there is no solution. We are only representing the wishes of the people,” says H. Mangchinkhup, chief convener of the JAC.

In 2015, the protesters had come to Delhi and laid out nine dummy coffins at Jantar Mantar as a mark of protest. They are now looking to return to the capital to not only protest but also to get the central government involved in the crisis.

The sublimation of talks

When the dead bodies and the injured began coming to the district hospital in August 2015, no one knew which way the agitation would go. The JAC was only formed by September 2. Until then, the families were confused about what to do. But they were asked not to bury the bodies. In fact, the dusty little town had no morgue in the district hospital. With blocks of ice, bottle gourds and other local methods, they kept the bodies frozen. In a few months, they finally managed to buy a cold storage from Guwahati in Assam, had it installed in the government district hospital, put in air conditioners and then decided that they wouldn’t bury the bodies until the government gave in to their demands.

In their recent press release, the JAC said, “It is a customary practice among the Christian tribals to give an honourable burial to the dead; however, until and unless the extreme sense of insecurity among the tribal people fuelled by the passing of the three anti-tribal Bills can be mitigated through an amicable and sustainable solution, the burial of the remaining eight tribal martyrs is not our priority.”

So this month, the JAC met the new chief minister with a three-page charter of demands. By the end of the first meeting, there was some ambiguity about the demands, but still some hope for the second meeting. By the end of the second meeting, news reports said that the JAC had asked for the creation of a new Lamka district in the area. The three-month long blockade in Manipur last year was called due to the very same reason – when the state government went ahead and suddenly announced seven new districts. The talks had come on to shaky ground, and by the end of the second round it was clear that the agitation was not being pacified. In fact, the crisis was back where it started. “If they force us to end this agitation, we will block it with our bare hands. We are not afraid of the bullet,” says Mangchinkhup.

As hope sublimated, the deadlock was set in place. For example, one of the main demands in their charter is for a constitutional safeguard for ancestral tribal territories and the development of tribal people. They want the sixth schedule of the constitution extended to Manipur. At present it covers tribal areas only in Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura and allows for considerable regional autonomy in matters such as allotment of land and inheritance of property. However, the JAC says they were told that no assurance can be given to them on this front. They want a written assurance that no bills of this nature will ever make it to the Manipur assembly without consultation with the tribal stakeholders. They were given only oral assurances. The JAC also asked for “justice for the tribal martyrs and the injured including declaration of August 31 as an annual state holiday on the occasion of Tribal Unity Day.” The government spoke in favour of giving compensation to the families of those who died and were injured. They discussed the possibility of also giving a government job to the next of kin. But the state is unwilling to go as far as declaring a holiday. As for the JAC’s demand for the new Lamka district, they say now that it was on the agenda but never a priority for them.

Total success or total agitation

From their initial demands, it might seem like they have indeed had considerable success – the three Bills were not given the president’s assent. Thus, two years since they were passed by the state assembly, they have not become a law. The new government assured them that they will not reintroduce these Bills without consultation with the hill areas. The government has also offered compensation to the families. Back in 2015, these might have been considered reasons enough to call off the agitation and bury the bodies. But as the agitation grew, goal posts changed and this became too little. And this brings us to 600 days of an impasse and last week’s day-long fast.

In the families, one can see the conflict – between wanting to bury their loved ones and wanting a resolution to the land question. Enkhankhup Suante’s mother, Dimngah Don, is also divided but resolute. The 19-year-old died a few days after sustaining burn injuries in the violence. He is survived by a young wife and a baby boy. A framed photo of him with his last words says, “I will be together with God. Our land shouldn’t be lost without reason or fight.” His mother says that on that fateful day, the family could see a fire in the distance. “I am also a man of the community,” is what he said before running out to get closer to the violence. His mother says, “I want to do the last rites and bury my son. There is no peace of mind. But a burial without some outcome of the reasons why they died, is not acceptable. We know that we will become foreigners in our own land with these Bills. We want protection of land by the sixth schedule. When they died, they were declared martyrs of the tribal community. So we cant decide anything. What the JAC says, we will do.”

Robert V. Jamminthang’s sister Lun Valte. Jamminthang was killed in police firing when the agitation became violent in 2015. Credit: Anoo Bhuyan

Similarly, Robert V. Jamminthang’s sister Lun Valte is also in a dilemma. The 30-year-old theology student was shot and killed in the agitation. We ask her what she hopes for. “Justice. And also for my brother,” she replies. What exactly does she want in terms of justice? “It is not about money. The reason for all this is land. So that’s what we need justice on. I don’t know what exactly. But we need protection. The valley area is trying to snatch our land,” she says.

Finally, we ask her, hasn’t there already been some success on the question of land, given that the Bills have not been passed and have not been reintroduced since?

At this point, Lun pauses. She is silent and fidgets. A JAC member says to her, “Constitutional safeguard.” “We need a constitutional safeguard for the tribal people,” Lun says.