A separate administration for the hills would be one solution to cater to the long standing demands of different communities in Manipur, while respecting the territorial integrity of the state.
December 9, 2015 marked the 100th day after James Khaijamang Touthang, a boy of 11, and seven unarmed civilians were shot dead by Manipur police and Assam Rifles personnel in Churachandpur, Manipur, on the night of 31st August and 1st September, 2015. Two other persons died in accident-related incidents but all the nine lost their lives because of three contentious bills passed by the Manipur Assembly. The bodies of the nine dead persons remain unburied in a makeshift morgue at the district hospital. The Joint Action Committee (JAC) against the bills says that they will not bury the dead until the government withdraw the bills. The bills have reportedly been referred to the President for his assent.
The difficulty in reading the complexity of Manipur comes largely from the state’s inability to come to terms with its past. A fractured past would seem to only suggest the possibility of a fissured future, with a difficult present. All communities – Meiteis, Nagas, Kukis, Zomis, Hmars and others – are caged by the tyranny of their own histories. Add to this the perceived fear of a shared future with scarce resources and the picture becomes a little clear. An ineffective administration, decades of nepotism and corruption, insurgent groups, and the militarisation of the state make up the perfect recipe for a political volcano.
The recent tribal unrest in the state’s hills has thrown up several questions. Who is a Manipuri? Who belongs to Manipur? What are the symbols and images that represent Manipur? The very idea of Manipur is being challenged from the demands of the various tribal groups.
Three bills under the aegis of the inner line permit (ILP) – the Protection of Manipur People Bill 2015; the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms (Seventh Amendment) Bill 2015; and the Manipur Shops and Establishment (Second Amendment) Bill 2015 – were passed in September by the Manipur assembly without any deliberation in the law-making house. It was the result of a two-month long agitation led by the Joint Committee on Inner Line Permit System (JCILPS), a Meitei civil society body. In what appears as a marked departure from standard law-making procedures where deliberations take place in the house, the Congress government under Ibobi Singh took the people of the state for a ride by outsourcing the debate to the streets of Imphal. This ‘heroic’ act of populism seems to have set a precedent with even the hills now demanding the repeal of the laws with debates on the narrow hilly lanes.
That bills affecting tribal rights and land were passed based on a draft submitted by a civil society body representing the interest of one community in a multi-ethnic state – which was accepted in toto, without referring it to the Constitutionally mandated Hills Areas Committee (HAC) on the pretext of being a money bill – is merely another feat for the government in the current dispensation of injustice and discrimination against tribals in this conflict-ridden state. The drafting committee did not have a single tribal member for laws that were to be applied in the entire state, where tribals make up 40% of the population.
The people in the hill districts vehemently opposed the passing of the bills. On the same night of its passing, the houses of the MP from Outer Manipur and six tribal MLAs – including those of a cabinet minister – were burnt down by agitators. The government responded with the use of live bullets on unarmed civilians.
Old fears, new game
The problems faced today by all sections in Manipur are two-fold: one, the fear of losing one’s territory. The fear of being dominated by ‘outsiders’, of being reduced to a minority in their own land informs much of the mistrust amongst different communities. This is a futuristic apprehension and is linked to the existence of multiple and often overlapping claims over spatial and cultural spaces.
Two, the failure of successive governments to consolidate the idea of Manipur as one that is inclusive and accommodating. The failure of basic administration and governance in the state also plays a big role in influencing the current state of affairs.
Among the Meiteis, in the past 20 years an ethnic revival has gained momentum, which even borders on shedding off its Vaishnavite Hindu past. The burning down of the state central library in 2005 by a crowd protesting the usage of Bengali script was an unfortunate landmark in this movement. There is a renewed search for identity – one that is grounded on indigeneity, focusing on promotion of the Meitei Mayek script, and even a demand for Scheduled Tribe status.
The coming of the Asian Highway, the central government’s plan to increase trade and commerce through Moreh, the proposed completion of the rail-link by 2016, the building of dams, and plans to extract mineral resources, have all contributed to a new found fear in the state. This has resulted in a clamour for protection and insulation, and hence the demand for the Inner Line Permit (ILP) system, amongst other measures.
The collective memory of the Treaty of Yandabo (1826) and the Merger Agreement with India (1949) are still used as anchors for several movements even today.
In the hills, the Nagas and Kuki-Chin groups have different demands from the government. Yet, they all have a commonality in that they all want separation from the valley. This, they claim, is the only way for them to protect their rights and territory, and work towards the development of their constituencies.
Tribals in Manipur have had a troubled past. The horrors of the Naga-Kuki and Kuki-Zomi conflicts in the 1990s have not yet been fully solved. While the Kuki-Zomi conflict has been resolved to a large extent in the form of traditional understanding and peace-building measures, the wounds of the Naga-Kuki conflict continue to play an important role in the dynamics of Manipur’s politics. This relationship becomes more crucial in the current context with the Naga Accord being signed, with a possible arrangement for the four hill districts of Chandel, Tamenglong, Ukhrul and Senapati – which NSCN-IM claim as a part of ‘Greater Nagalim’. These four districts are home to a sizeable number of Kukis.
Both fears are not entirely unfounded. The prospects of the Indian government’s ‘Act East’ policy, along with proposed mega-projects not just in the state, but in the entire North-eastern region seems to have done much harm to various communities that co-inhabit this fractured theatre of conflict and violence. With a state that neither recognises the fears and apprehensions of the people nor comes up with strategies to strengthen communities for the preservation of their land and traditions, the people aren’t left with much choice but to agitate .
The recent violence in the hills is also, to a large extent, due to the growing tensions between the elites and the masses. While the elites have for very long been at the forefront, leading their tribes and communities in the name of certain demands, the last two decades has seen a challenge to that form of patronage. With more and more tribal youth getting educated and securing better jobs, they are more assertive about their rights and identity. There is a growing demand to root out the corruption of state officials and those of their own leaders. It is in this matrix of desire for social reformation and political status that one needs to read the recent events in Manipur.
A possible way out?
In the search for a way out, denying the hill-valley divide would be a gross misreading. This divide, unfortunately, is not merely geographical or colonial. It has come to represent the narrow lens and boundaries communities create for themselves in post-independent India – not a mere colonial hangover but the overconsumption of its ideas and categories. Different tribes in the hills have always contested the Meitei claim of there being one Manipuri family. This supposed sanguine thread has been appropriated by the dominant Meitei community to consolidate its control over other communities as much as it is advantageously used by the state.
One possibility is giving full autonomy to the tribal districts of Manipur. This will be a political solution without infringing upon the territorial integrity of the state and at the same time meet the aspirations of the hills. A regional body with separate Naga and Zo (Kuki/Chin/Zomi groups) councils should not be unthinkable; if every tribe with their apex bodies gets to decide which council they want to join, this would give a choice even to the smallest tribes usually overshadowed by the larger tribes in deciding their future course of action.
With the guarantee of this regional body, the valley can perhaps apply the bills but only with the insertion of a clause that they will not be applicable to the hill districts of Manipur. The basis on which the demand for the ILP was started will then be equally attended to.
The Modi government must take the people’s unrest both in the hills and valley of Manipur as a sign of hope for a political solution and work towards the best possible outcome. A political solution at this juncture would stretch the ‘historic’ Naga Accord even further. People’s demand for change must be taken as an opportunity to usher in a new era of peace and development. This is crucial for the timely implementation of the ‘Act East’ policy towards South-east Asia with people’s participation. Failure to channelise the energy of people, especially in the state at this moment, is likely to result in a return to the old regime of corruption, mis-governance and lack of development. This has the potential to break into fresh cycle of bandhs, strikes, blockades and internecine violence.
A separate administration for the hills – not for any particular ethnic group but rather based on the identity of being historically located as Manipur tribals and yet, with provisions for each community to have local self-governance – would be one solution to cater to the long standing demands of different communities in Manipur. It is high time that the tyranny of the past is overcome by the potential that a shared future holds.
The idea of Manipur has to be re-negotiated. A political solution for lasting peace and development is of utmost importance. Writing about forgiveness in The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt suggested that the act of forgiveness is the only way to come to terms with the past. Together with the faculty of promising, it enables us to face the future and release us from the burden of irreversibility. Manipur needs this perhaps more than any state in India today.
Golan Suanzamung Naulak is a Chevening scholar, studying South Asian history at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London