Ongoing Hill-Valley Face-Off Bound to Leave a Mark on Manipur's Assembly Polls

With the BJP trying to make inroads into the state, a tough balancing act lies ahead for the Centre and North East Democratic Alliance too.

New Delhi: The effects of the ongoing face-off between the hilly and valley districts of Manipur — and the subsequent play of politics stemming from it — continue to surface in the national capital.

Even as the ongoing protest by Manipur Tribals Forum (MTF) against the death of nine young protesters on September 1  in Churachandpur town entered its sixth month at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar, four legislators of the Naga People’s Front (NPF), accompanied by the party’s state unit president, Awangbou Newmai, met Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh and Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju early this week. Their plea to the ministers was to “act against the heartless Ibobi Singh government and reject the three anti-hill area bills the Congress government passed in the assembly on August 31 last year.”

The four legislators — L. Dikho, V. Alexander Pao, S.T. Victor Nunglung and Samuel Risom — who represent three of the state’s five hill districts — Senapati, Chandel and Ukhrul respectively — resigned from the state assembly on September 4, just days after the bills were passed and three days after the nine young men allegedly fell to police bullets in Churachandpur town. The nine men killed were in a crowd protesting the passing of the bills by the assembly, which also led to the protesters burning down the houses of two Congress legislators (M. Vaipei and D. Ralte) from the area, as well as that of state Family Welfare Minister P. Tonsing.

ILP Protest in Manipur. Credit: PTI/File Photo

ILP Protest in Manipur. Credit: PTI/File Photo

Sharing the dais with the NPF legislators at the Press Club of India in Delhi on May 20, MTF convener Ro Hmar reiterated the organisation’s demand to withdraw the bills so that “the last rites of the nine bodies of the martyrs can be carried out by their mothers.” Since September 1, the bodies of the dead have been kept in a makeshift morgue in Churachandpur hospital in protest. Nine black coffins laid out at the Jantar Mantar protest site by the MTF since last November are a symbolic reminder of the coffins back in Churachandpur.

Furore over the bills

Presently, the three bills — the Protection of Manipur People Bill, the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms Bill (Seventh Amendment) and the Manipur Shops and Establishments (Second Amendment) Bill — are awaiting the president’s assent. The five-member NPF delegation is in Delhi to persuade the union government “to advise the Rashtrapati Bhavan to reject the bills”.

Though delegations of student bodies (MTF is a group of many tribal student and citizens’ bodies) and councillors from the hill districts have been meeting home ministry officials besides Rijiju and Singh, and also political leaders from the Northeast to build up pressure on the Centre to “take action” against the state government, the Narendra Modi government has been treading cautiously on the issue. As of now, the Centre is clearly soft paddling and has stayed away from taking any concrete step to iron out the differences.

“The obvious reason is the impending assembly elections in the state and how to turn the issue to the advantage of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to make Manipur ‘Congress-mukt’,” quipped a senior Imphal-based journalist, requesting anonymity. Ibobi Singh’s term ends in March 2017.

Upcoming assembly elections

If you look at the issue from the perspective of the upcoming polls, it definitely shows that the May 20, visit of the NPF leaders to Delhi is a taste of a impending big political clash.

On May 24, the NPF joined the BJP-mooted North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) in Guwahati, in the presence of the BJP’s national president, Amit Shah, and the party’s general secretary, Ram Madhav. NEDA will essentially chart out the road ahead for the BJP on how to grab the remaining Congress-run states in the Northeast with the help of regional players. Basically, the BJP is looking to take ahead the strategy it successfully followed in the recent Assam polls.

The Congress is aware of the poll implications of this ongoing hill-valley tussle and the BJP’s attempt to make use of it. NPF’s Dikho told reporters in Delhi, “All the three bills were passed in the assembly in just six minutes’ time on August 31. Between 11.38 am and 11.44 am, all the bills were tabled in the house and passed. No discussions on them, no questions were allowed to ask.”

Expecting to face a strong anti-incumbency in the coming polls, the 15-year-old Congress government obviously was in a hurry to be on the right side of the state’s majority community — the Meites. The events that led to the passage of the bills were quite violent in the Meitei-majority valley areas that comprise the four districts of Imphal East, Imphal West, Thoubal and Bishnupur. Spearheaded by the Joint Committee on Inner Line Permit System (JCILPS), there were month-long violent street protests which killed at least 8 people and injured many, leading to an indefinite curfew in the state capital.

The long pending demand for an Inner Line Permit

The demand of the protesters — implementation of the Inner Line Permit (ILP) “to protect the indigenous people of the State” — goes back some years.

The demand feeds on the fear of “outsiders” taking over the valley districts. Many Meiteis openly give the example of Bishnupur, which has a large number of North Indian population. The land in the hill districts of Manipur is protected by the third schedule of the Constitution. Any ‘outsider,’ including the Meiteis of the valley area willing to buy land in the hill districts needs the permission of the Hill Area Committee (HAC), though those in the hill areas can buy land in the Meitei-dominated valley areas.

The Ibobi government had responded to this fear of the Meiteis earlier too. In 2012, it sent a proposal to the Centre to impose ILP in the state which was rejected. The introduction of ILP in the state has also been a demand of the rebel group, the Revolutionary People’s Party of Kangelipak.

Hills vs Valley

This time round, the state government went a step further and brought in a bill along with amendments to two existing laws to keep away the “outsiders”. The clauses of the Protection of Manipur People’s Bill were drafted by none other than the JCILPS, which enjoys huge support among the Meiteis, who comprise approximately 28% of the population.

However, what seemed to Singh as a master-stroke plan prior to the crucial elections was at once looked at by the Nagas, Kukis, Hmars and others as “anti-hill people.” In no time, the traditional fault lines between the hill and valley areas began to firm up, leading to violence and umpteen hours of bandhs.

While the Meites supporting the ILP maintain that its demand is to protect their land and is not directed against the hill people, the hill people look at it as “an attempt by the Meites to claim the Scheduled Tribe status,” like the hill people do, and thereby “take away all the benefits” they enjoy. The leaders from the hill areas look at the proposed amendments to the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms Bill (Seventh Amendment) Bill as an attempt to take away “our land”.

With JCILPS yet again intensifying its protests in Imphal since mid-May, the issue has received fresh traction now. Responding to the protests, Ibobi held an all-party meeting last week in Imphal where it was decided to send a political delegation to New Delhi to urge the president, the prime minister and the home minister to give assent to the bills. Ibobi was to lead the delegation on May 16 but a fresh bout of agitation in the hill areas stalled his plan. The NPF legislators’ visit to Delhi was clearly keeping in mind his visit.

Speaking to The Wire after a meeting with the home minister, NPF leader Newmai said, “Though the home minister didn’t give us any assurance, he listened to us. He said he is aware of the problem.”

Clearly, the Centre’s game plan is to continue to pussyfoot it till the elections are close. Though, soon after the success of Arunachal Pradesh, it allegedly tried to unseat the Congress government in Manipur, the Congress high command was quick to act and elected a new state party chief, thus quelling dissidence in the party.

Another crucial factor why the Centre is treading cautiously in the state is also the BJP’s surprise win in the November 2015 assembly by-elections. The BJP won the Meitei-majority Thangmeiband (Imphal West district) and the Thongju (Imphal East district) assembly seats. The state party unit is hopeful of gaining more seats in the coming polls.

Meanwhile, JCILPS is putting pressure not just on the Congress government but also on the state BJP leaders “to act.”

JCILPS convener Khmodram Ratan told The Wire, “It is time the state government pushes the Centre to agree to the bills. Nothing will happen by sitting in Imphal. They have to act soon.” He said, “We are also engaging with the local BJP leaders on the issue. While they verbally agree to our demand for ILP, but they have not done anything to push their government at the Centre to implement it. The BJP MLAs were also a part of the all-party meeting called by Ibobi Singh.” JCILPS now also demands that “outsiders should not be allowed to vote in the coming elections.”

Congress and BJP treading cautiously

Looking closely at the developments, it is clear that not just the Congress but the BJP too is in a tight spot on this hill-valley issue. As Pradip Panjoubam, editor of Imphal Times, pointed out, “Since the BJP is trying to enter the state, it will obviously be on the side having more butter to it.”

What Panjoubam basically means is this: In the 60-member assembly, the hill districts have 20 MLAs while the valley areas have 40. Clearly then, to reject the bills will not deliver the majority number of 30 to the BJP and the NPF to seize power from the Congress. Presently, NPF has only 4 members in the hill areas while the rest are with the Congress.

Also, yet another factor to keep in mind is that most Meiteis are Vaishnavites, who are otherwise “looked at as a natural ally by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh,” as per a local BJP source. He also pointed out, “Already the RSS’s recent declaration supporting the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) has not gone down very well with the Meiteis.” Irom Sharmila, a Meitei, has been fasting for the last 16 years demanding the Centre to lift the AFSPA from the state.

The Naga Accord

Additionally, the Meiteis have been staging street protests in Imphal since Modi announced on Twitter last August about signing the Naga Accord. Protesters are of the view that the Centre “would relent to the Naga demand” to give away the state’s land to them as per the Accord since the details of it have been kept a secret.

Commented on the developments, a political observer from Imphal said, “Most likely, the Centre will reach a midpoint on the issue. It may form a committee to look into the possibility of implementing ILP in the valley areas which will typically be mandated to submit its report after the assembly polls. To keep the hill people happy, the Centre will most probably create an autonomous council comprising the five hill districts.” Newmai did mention this at the Delhi press conference, “We are also demanding an autonomous council for the hill areas to safeguard our interests.”

In coming months, it will be certainly interesting — to not only see how the Centre proceeds on the vexed issue but also how the NEDA convener Himanta Biswa Sarma negotiates through these logjams and play the ‘outsider’ card effectively to deliver Manipur to the BJP.

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