Manipur Violence Subsides, But it’s Not Quite Yet Over

Protests on the streets of Imphal. Source: Pradip Phanjoubam

Protests on the streets of Imphal. Source: Pradip Phanjoubam

IMPHAL: Under pressure from unrelenting violent street protests in the state, the Manipur government on Sunday decided to withdraw the Manipur Visitors, Tenants and Migrant Workers Bill, 2015 passed earlier by the State Assembly, but which was awaiting the assent of the state Governor Syed Ahmed. Announcing this, the chief minister, Okram Ibobi had said a special session of the Assembly has been convened on July 15 to move a withdrawal motion.

In a meeting with the media today, he indicated the Bill will first be withdrawn and only then would it be decided, after wide consultations with legal experts, the leaders of the joint committee spearheading the agitation for the introduction of the Inner Line Permit system (JCILPS), and the intelligentsia at large, as to what step would be taken next. This step will in all likelihood be about modifying the Bill, but the other option of drafting a new Bill altogether after consultations is also still open, he said.

One of the main objections of the agitators to the MVTMWB 2015 is that it has no clause prohibiting land transfers to “outsiders”. The organisation also wants a backdated cut off date of 1951 so that land transfer deeds concluded after that year will be made null and void.

Although there is some respite in the tension in the valley districts after the government’s announcement, the trouble is far from over. The JCILPS has appealed to the public yesterday that the agitation must continue saying withdrawal of the MVTMWB 2015 is not the ultimate goal—it is the introduction of the ILP or an equivalent law. So while the government has been since the past three days extending the relaxation of curfew hours incrementally, the JCILPS has called a 14 hour general strike on July 14.

As of today, something on the return of public order in the state can only be certain after the July 15 special Assembly session.

Manipur land administration is as per the provisions of the Manipur Land Reform and Land Revenue Act, 1960, a legislation with a Union Government vintage as it was passed while Manipur was still a Union Territory. The state formally joined the Indian Union only on October 21, 1949 after the then king, Bodhchandra Singh, signed the Manipur Merger Agreement under controversial circumstances while he was under arrest in Shillong, the then capital of Assam, where he had gone for some work.

A culture of violent agitations

Manipur was one of the many princely states which resisted merger with India, and when finally it was absorbed into the Union, it was not as a full-fledged state but as a Part-C state, with a status even lower than a Union territory. The speculated reasons for this are many. These include making the state feel insignificant to knock out cold the rebelliousness in it. However, protests after protests with increasing tendencies towards violence, resulted in upgrades of its political status in bits and pieces, until in 1972, it was awarded full statehood. But the belief that only violent protests can make the Union take notice had already been conditioned among local citizens, as R. Constantine notes in his book “Manipur: Maid of the Mountains”. This is also one of contemporary Manipur’s many tragedies.

The MLR&LR Act 1960 covers only the 2000 sq km central Imphal valley. The hills, which form nearly 90 percent of the state’s territory, except in pockets, are left out of the purview of this Act to be administered under customary land laws of the communities inhabiting them.

This has also meant legal land ownership transfers can happen only in the fertile valley, which has led to continued shrinking of living space with each passing year. Moreover, though the valley is only 10 percent of land area of the state, more than 60 percent of the state’s population today is concentrated in it. The topography as well as the population distribution pattern has also skewed the development drives, with much of the developmental funds of the state remaining in the valley area, in particular the capital Imphal.

The consequence today is a sharp divide between the hills and the valley, but this is not all, for there is also a pronounced urban-rural divide. In old colloquial Manipuri, the word for “urban” had come to be “Imphal”, making this rural-urban divide to virtually be in a nuanced but antagonistic way, a binary between Imphal and the rural hinterlands.

Not just in the ongoing street agitations, but in many past unrests in the state, these fissures were visible, and often very pronouncedly. On the need for the introduction of a regulatory mechanism to prevent the ultimate marginalisation of the local population, there is a wide consensus cutting across the state’s geographical regions. But this need is felt most in Imphal and the other valley districts, for land ownership transfers to outsiders, as it is, are prohibited in the hills.

Pradip Phanjoubam is editor of the Imphal Free Press.