Politics

Fears Over Land, Identity Fuel Manipur’s Bonfire of Anxieties

Churachandpur seethes with anger, uncertainty remains about the Naga Accord and political tensions remain high over the ILP, as the assembly polls near.

Rally in Churachandpur. Credit: Akhil Kumar/The Wire

Rally in Churachandpur on August 30, 2016. Credit: Akhil Kumar/The Wire

Imphal: As the aircraft neared Imphal, my colleague, seated at the window, appeared thrilled by what he saw below – a sprawling water body with vegetation forming rings over it.

“What is that?” he asked in amazement.

“Loktak lake. The largest freshwater lake of the Northeast,” I responded.

It was his first trip to Manipur. As expected, he had never heard of Loktak, one of the most precious natural possessions of the northeastern state – yet, little known in rest of India.

He does know Manipur, however. He knows that it is the land of Irom Chanu Sharmila, who sacrificed nearly 16 years of her life demanding the repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, or AFSPA, from the state. He knows of Thangjam Manorama’s murder. He knows about the Meira Paibi’s powerful naked protest in front of the Kangla Fort against AFSPA. He knows about the extra-judicial killings conducted by security forces in the state, 1,528 of which were recently declared as fake encounters by the Supreme Court. And he knows of Thounaujam Herojit Singh, the Manipur Police commando who confessed in the Imphal Free Press to a fake encounter, and later to the Guardian, that to more than one hundred.

The standard narrative about Manipur across the rest of India is, unfortunately, not about its natural beauty, its bounty, and its diversity of people, languages and culture, but about what has been synthetically created – a land of perennial disturbance, a conflict zone.

At times, there is a disturbed association between the state and the Centre. At others, it is between the state and non-state actors, the state government and its people, the people and “outsiders”, and lately, also between many of the state’s tribes and the majority Meitei community, with the former alleging decades of discrimination at the hands of the latter. Although  many young Meiteis accept that this allegation is true to a large extent, the issue has been made use of by wider politics with links to the power corridors of New Delhi.

From Imphal to Churachandpur

Late at night, the phone rang. It was the driver of the taxi who was to take us to Churachandpur town, 70 kilometres from Imphal, early the next morning. He told me he would like us to start before dawn as he had just found out that there could be a bandh the next day. He didn’t know for sure who called the bandh, but he wanted to be careful.

Welcome to the Disturbed Area, I told my colleague jokingly.

At dawn, the driver informed me that he would only be able to reach us by 8 a.m. as he had to take an alternate route to avoid the bandh. A little after 8 a.m., we were on our way.

A map of Manipur. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A map of Manipur. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

For those unfamiliar with the topography of Manipur, let me offer a comparison. Think of Manipur as a bowl. The four valley districts – Imphal East, Imphal West, Bishnupur and Thoubal – form the base of the bowl, surrounded by the five hill districts – Churachandpur, Senapati, Tamenglong, Chandel and Ukhrul.

Among the hill districts, Churachandpur – named after Manipuri king Meidingngu Churachanda (1886-1941) – is the largest by area and by number of tribes that reside in a single district. People from tribes like Paite, Simte, Tedim-chin, Vaipei, Thangkhal, Kom, Gangte, Zou, Mate, Kuki, Thadou and Hmar live in Churachandpur. As many as 10 dialects are spoken in the district. No wonder then, that Churachandpur is locally referred to as Manipur’s second capital.

Thanks to the clear geography, the road from Imphal to Churachandpur town is a straight line that passes through Nambol (which has a memorial of the great Left leader Hiram Irabot), Moirang (from where you get a good view of the Loktak lake) and Kwakta (one of the few pockets where Meitei Muslims reside) – all in Bishnupur district – before entering Churachandpur.

On the morning of August 30 when we reached the town, it was one day shy of a year since the bodies of nine protesters who were reportedly killed in police firing had been kept in the mortuary of the local government hospital.

Remembering the “nine martyrs”

On August 31, 2015, as soon as news of the passage of three bills – the Protection of Manipur People’s Bill, 2015; Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms (Seventh Amendment) Bill; Manipur Shops and Establishment (Second Amendment) Bill – at the state assembly reached the town, protesters hit the streets. They alleged the Bills were “anti-tribal” and “a covert attempt by the Meitei-majority state government to grab tribal land”. Since the tribal districts are protected by Article 371C of the constitution, people from the valley can’t buy land here even though tribals can buy land and settle down in the valley districts. By bringing in these Bills, the tribals felt the government was trying to snatch the authority of the Hill Area Committee (HAC) and the Autonomous District Councils (ADCs) over tribal land.

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Protests in Churachandpur in 2015. Credit: Special Arrangement

As the day turned into night, the protest turned violent. The houses of a cabinet minister and some MLAs were burned down as public anger at their political representatives failing to “protect tribal interest” at the state assembly boiled over. The police reportedly responded with live bullets. All the tribes residing in the district united against the “anti-tribal” Manipur government and demanded that President Pranab Mukherjee refuse his assent to the Bills.

In June this year, the president rejected the People’s Bill and sent the other two to an expert committee for further examination.

The agitation in Churachandpur continues. But much has changed on the ground since 2015.

For three days beginning August 29, 2016, the joint action committee (JAC) – formed to spearhead the agitation against the three Bills – called for a bandh in Churachandpur in memory of those killed in the protests last year. Curiously, half the town did not observe the bandh. When we reached, one half of the town was quiet, while the other half was bustling with life.

The part that did not observe the bandh is mostly inhabited by the Kuki community, who were part of the protest against the Bills last year. As we passed by the area on August 30, dozens of Kuki women were sitting by the roadside in protest against the bandh called by the JAC, even as armed Assam Riffles personnel and Manipur Police commandos looked on.

We immediately made our way to the house of JAC chief convener H. Manchinkhup. There, a considerable number of young volunteers were busy with last minute preparations to begin the protest march from Churachandpur College grounds to a memorial built for the “nine martyrs”.

At the college grounds, young men and women – some dressed in black to amplify the state of mourning, others with their face painted in black and red – began to assemble. By 10 a.m., the march began. For well over four hours, the group made its way through over a dozen adjoining villages of Churachandpur before entering the town area again. Vociferously raising slogans against the Okram Ibobi Singh-led Congress government, it demanded “separate administration” from the state.

It was not just the Kukis who skipped the march; a number of people from the dominant Paite tribe were missing too.

“There is some misunderstanding between some of our tribal brothers and sisters. But this agitation is for their good too. I am sure, they will soon understand it,” Manchinkhup told this correspondent when asked about their absence.

As it made its way around the area, the march stopped to maintain a minute of silence at the points where some of the “nine martyrs” fell to police bullets last year, including in front of the local police station where five of them were reportedly killed.

Yet another meeting took place in the evening as some people from a village 34 kms away walked down to Churachandpur town to take part in the protest. Together with the people of the town supporting the protest, they lit lanterns that went up in the sky, creating a near festive setting.

The next day’s programme began at a vacant space in front of the newly-built mortuary at the hospital. In the mortuary lay the nine unburied bodies – among them 11-year-old Khaizamang, of the Kuki tribe, who ran out of the house to see what was unfolding on the street that evening.

“My son’s last words to me were, ‘don’t worry, there is police, police will kill only bad people’. Little did he know that he will lose his life due to police,” his mother Nemmeilhing told The Wire.

Women funeral song. Credit: Akhil Kumar/The Wire

Members of the Manipur Tribal Women’s Forum performing the funeral song on August 31, 2016. Credit: Akhil Kumar/The Wire

While she looked on with tears rolling down her cheeks, some of the mothers of the dead joined the funeral song sung by members of the Manipur Tribal Women’s Forum outside the mortuary. Except for one, all the dead were fatherless. All nine belonged to families of daily wage earners. On being asked if they had received any compensation from the government, they all responded in the negative. This, despite the chief minister having told the media some time ago that he did sanction compensation for the families.

The Naga conundrum

On August 31, a parallel meeting was held at the Churachandpur College grounds to mark what they called the Tribal Unity Day. Besides the JAC, leaders from Manipur Tribal Forum, Delhi, the presidents of Hmar Inpi, Thadou Inpi and the Zomi Council, and the head of Mizo People’s Convention spoke at the event to reiterate their demand for “separate administration”.

In later conversations with this correspondent, the JAC members, the members of the ADC, various Inpi heads and some other town elders also talked of “demanding sixth schedule for the tribes of Manipur” – a reference to the constitutional provision which provides additional rights to tribal areas – if not a separate administration from the Centre. While some also batted for a “Bodo Territorial Council kind of an arrangement brought in Assam,” others even advocated the demand of the Paite-dominated underground group United People’s Front (UPF) – which has been in talks with the Centre since 2008 – that “there should be a state within a state.”

While none were willing to say it on the record, almost all were wondering “what the Naga Accord will contain”.

The accord was signed last year by the Government of India and the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah), in the presence of Prime Minster Narendra Modi and NSCN leader Thuingaleng Muivah, but its contents have not yet been made public.

“All depends on it. If the Nagas residing in the hill districts of Manipur get a separate administration, we will be stuck with the Manipur government,” said a community leader who did not want to be named. The Meiteis, he alleged, “have traditionally looked down upon the tribes living in Churachandpur. So what will happen to those who are not Nagas? Anyway, with 40 assembly seats in the valley areas inhabited by the Meiteis, and just 20 in the hill areas, we will never have our say in the state assembly. That is why, we want even the Kukis to come with us to become one voice to demand a separate administration for the rest of the tribes.”

“It is not that we want to leave the state of Manipur, we only want that our land is secured. If the Nagas get what they want, why can’t we?” asked a Churachandpur ADC member.

Rumours abound that even though the Centre might not tinker with the physical boundary of Manipur, the Naga Accord  might give a separate administration to the Naga areas of Manipur that may be governed by the Naga HoHo, or council, with a budget controlled by Naga rather than Manipur state representatives. The districts of Tamenglong, Ukhrul, Chandel and Senapati have a substantial number of Nagas.

This is also the reason why the Kukis have stepped back from the agitation at Churachandpur. There is a substantial Kuki population in most of the Naga inhabited districts. Traditionally, socio-political rivalry has meant the Kukis and Nagas have been at loggerheads. In response to the Nagas’ greater Nagaland demand, the Kukis organised themselves in the 1950s. At present, the underground Kuki Nationalist Organisation – a conglomeration of 15 ultra groups – is demanding a Kuki state to be chalked out of the Kuki inhabited areas. This demand has wide support from the Kuki community, who are now worried about “what will happen to that demand”.

Ethnically, the Kukis are from the same root, Zou, as the Churachandpur-based tribes who come under the umbrella nomenclature Zomi. Many Kuki leaders are therefore “upset” with the Zomis (Paite, Simte, Tedim-chin, Vaipei, Thangkhal, Kom, Gangte, Zou, Mate) for “siding with the Nagas” instead of with them. On September 15, the community’s leading body, the Kuki Inpi, will observe a black day.

In a later conversation with The Wire at his Imphal office, Kuki Inpi president Thangkhosei Haokip said, “All the tribal leaders of the state had a few meetings with the state government on the three anti-tribal bills. However, suddenly, the Churachandpur JAC came up with the demand of a separate administration. It surprised us as much as the government. We don’t support it because we want the agitation to confine itself to the three bills. The demand for a separate administration is a different issue. We didn’t begin our agitation for a separate administration.”

An office bearer of Kuki Inpi said, “We feel the new demand has come due to the pressure of some external forces.” Although he would not spell out what “external forces” he was referring to, other Kuki leaders, as well as Paite leaders and ADC members in Churachandpur do not rule out “the role of the Centre” there.

“Aside from the Naga issue, with the coming assembly elections (early 2017), the Centre is obviously interested in what is going on between the hill and valley areas of Manipur. Since the BJP is interested in grabbing power in the state, it’s government at the Centre is certainly looking at turning this turmoil to their advantage. But with just 20 hill seats it can’t grab power. It needs the Meitei votes too and that is why its state unit is launching street protests demanding the Inner Line Permit (ILP),” said a well-known local leader, who wished to remain anonymous.

He also added, “The BJP can be a natural choice for the Hindu Meiteis but not for the Christian people of the hill areas. Even though most people and the church in Churachandpur are a bit apprehensive of supporting the BJP, they are also angry with Ibobi for the Bills. In coming times, it will be interesting to see how it further develops.”

According to another Paite community elder and a supporter of the agitation: “There is actually no need for a separate administration. The HAC already has enough powers to administer the hill districts separately. The elected MLAs from the hill districts automatically become members of HAC. As per the HAC, the governor has the power to intervene in tribal matters. A separate budget has to be made as per the rules. But all this is only on paper. Unfortunately, the HAC members, even though they belong to the hills, are interested only in getting cabinet ranks in Imphal than looking at reviving HAC for tribal area development.”

A general sense of anger against elected leaders was palpable in Churachandpur. Over the last year, none of the MLAs had been allowed into the town.

“It is also one of the reasons why we have kept the bodies [of the nine victims of police firing]. As per tribal norms, since they are also the accused, they [the MLAs] are not allowed to return till the bodies are buried. If we bury, they will easily return and also begin campaigning for the next assembly elections and may try to win with money power, which we don’t want,” said a student leader. Kuki leaders tried to forcibly bury the dead a couple of times but have been unsuccessful.

Youth factor

Politics and tribal equations aside, what was notable in Churachandpur was that a lot of local youth, many of them educated from some of the country’s premier institutions, have returned to the town to join the agitation.

“The young people who died last year were poor. I felt compelled to join the agitation. The tribes have always been discriminated by the Meiteis. Even the name Churachandpur was given by the Meiteis. To us, this is Lamka. Nowhere will you find any tribal referring to Lamka as Churachandpur, it is there only in government records. I felt this is the time I have to raise my voice for justice, for equality, this is our last chance,” said a volunteer who graduated from the Tata Institute of Social Science (TISS).

Another volunteer, a graduate from IIM-Ahmedabad, added, “Our parents couldn’t study very well, couldn’t get better opportunities because we are a minority in the state, forever discriminated. We have to unite now, the poor and the rich, to break out of it. After all, we are also indigenous people of this land.”

Another TISS graduate quoted Benedict Anderson’s book Imagined Communities to ask, “When I land at Imphal airport, I see only Meitei women saying, Welcome to Manipur. I then wonder, where are we? Are we not a part of the state? If we are not considered a part, then why should we be together?”

Identity is closely linked to land rights. But the advent of big money is threatening to deprive the poor even from the tribal land. Add to it the rising population in the hill areas. Many in the valley blame this “sudden rise” to the influx of “illegal migrants from Myanmar”. A Churachandpur-based educationist, who wished to remain anonymous, candidly responded: “Of course, there are people from Burma in Churachandpur. It is an open border, it must be, because they are our own brothers and sisters, our own Chin people. We close doors on them just because far away a surveyor (McMohan) made an imaginary line without consulting us?”

Ride back to Imphal

In Manipur, bandhs are a part of everyday life, no matter if you’re from the hill or valley districts. Days-long bandhs are common, forcing the emergence of a parallel ‘bandh economy’. For instance, gas stations may be closed due to the bandh but all across the state you will find petrol and diesel being sold in mineral water bottles and drums by the roadside. You are lucky if you have to pay only Rs 20 more than the market rate but if the bandh goes on, the price can go up to Rs 150 per litre. The same is true of prices of other daily needs too, including food items.

“Minimum rate for a thing begins at Rs 10 in Manipur. The five-rupee coin has nearly vanished from the state. If any shopkeeper owes you five bucks, he will give you chocolate instead,” said a Paite girl living in Imphal.

On September 1, when we were travelling back to Imphal, a three-day bandh had been called.

The driver, however, told us not to worry. “It is a bandh given by the surrendered ultras. Even though they are in ceasefire with the Centre, the talks have not progressed, so they are protesting it. People are scared of underground forces, not those who are on ceasefire, so we can travel.”

So we began.

We couldn’t help but stare at the rolling rice fields enclosed by the lush hills under an azure sky, dotted with blobs of white clouds. For a moment, all the unrest, all the grievances, were forgotten.

Lush fields Manipur . Credit: Akhil Kumar/The Wire

The Manipuri landscape . Credit: Akhil Kumar/The Wire

Not for too long. Just as we began to relax, we come across a disturbing sight.

Slowing down the vehicle to let a convoy of army trucks pass by in Bishnupur district, our eyes fell on a banner with the poster of a young boy. Under it, about a dozen women in white were sitting on a mat.

“This boy died some days ago, a Meitei. His parents are so poor that they couldn’t pay his fees. The angry principal bashed him up so much that he died of head injuries. These women are demanding action against the principal,” our driver told us. He didn’t know whether the government had taken note of it although the report had come in some newspapers.

His nonchalance at the loss of a young life shocked us, but it had to be understood from the context of conflict. Years of living in a society ridden with violence can do that to people.

It was the same when we met Renu Takhellambam, the president of the Extrajudicial Execution Victims Families Association Manipur. Her husband, Mung Hangzo, was killed in a fake encounter in Imphal in 2007.

“Initially, she used to cry a lot. Her son was just a year old. Now, the tears have dried up and yet we are to get justice. The passage of years has helped my 82-year-old mother too to control her emotions,” Mung’s sister Manchin Hangzo told this correspondent.

Even as the Supreme Court is hearing the case of the fake encounters, it is not difficult to see the aggression of heavily armed Manipur Police commandoes across the state. They randomly stop young boys and apparently check their pockets for “money and drugs to consume”, say some locals.

Crisscrossing through Imphal city, it is not uncommon to see three-wheelers fitted with loudspeakers, their occupants demanding Scheduled Tribe (ST) status to the Meiteis – yet another growing worry for the tribes.

While granting the status will make the whole of Manipur a tribal region and thereby protect the state’s land from outsiders, many tribals feel such a provision “will take away whatever advantages we have as an ST category in education and state and central jobs.” Most IAS and IPS officers that you come across from Manipur are from the tribes, “primarily because of the ST status,” they say.

The ILP issue

While speaking to the Meitei leaders demanding the ILP to stop “outsiders” from settling in the state, the main thread of the conversation – like in the hill areas – was the fear of losing land and thereby their identity.

Just as posters of those killed can be found all across Churachandpur, across the valley posters saying, “No ILP, no rest” can be seen

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United Committee Manipur president Elangbam Johnson. Credit: Akhil Kumar/The Wire

“Many people of the state woke up only after a Nepali man won the elections in Kangpokpi constituency in Senapati district. The outsider issue is therefore affecting the hill districts too. The broad gauge line to Jiribam (Imphal East district) is going to start soon, which will bring more outsiders to the state. If we don’t act now, our land will be gone. Manipur will become another Tripura where the indigenous people have been outnumbered by the Bengalis who came from Bangladesh,” said Elangbam Johnson, president of the United Committee Manipur.

Becoming “a guest in one’s own’s home” is a fear most Meiteis have. Even before the three Bills were brought in by the state government, an agitation began in the valley areas demanding ILP with huge public support. The protest turned violent in July 2015, leading to some police firing. A school boy was killed in the firing.

Since then, there has been a regular series of protests and bandhs given by the Joint Committee for Inner Line Permit (JCILPS)

JCILPS convener Khomdram Ratan had to go underground after the Manipur police issued a “wanted” notice against him for allegedly pledging support to the banned separatist outfit United National Liberation Front. On August 19, Ratan was arrested when he decided to come out to join a rally. He continues to be in jail.

The government had originally planned to table the draft Manipur Regulation of Non-Locals Bill, 2016 it had prepared to help bring the ILP to the state in the ongoing assembly session, which began on September 2, but has now decided not to do so since the JCILPS’s suggestions on the Bill came after the August 24 deadline.

Bijoy Moirangcha, the present JCILPS convener, in a press briefing denied a delay on their part and demanded that the Bill be tabled in this session itself.

According to a local Congress leader, with the assembly elections approaching and the BJP casting its net on the state, the Congress government “has to wait for the right moment to bring it. The elections are still at least 150 days away.”

A pro-ILP march. Credit: Special arrangement

A pro-ILP march in 2015. Credit: Special arrangement

Politics at play

Although Irom Sharmila has declared her intention to contest the elections, neither the Congress nor the BJP think she will be a force to reckon with. “It will be a fight between BJP and the Congress,” the Congress leader said.

Many civil society leaders also feel the same way.

“Nobody is opposed to her breaking the fast. It went on for too long. Not too many can do that. She deserves all the respect for that great sacrifice but when she suddenly said she will contest elections, we couldn’t support her. Unlike in other parts of India, election and politics is all about muscle and money power in Manipur, so people stay away from it, not too many think that justice can be achieved through elections,” said Meira Paibi leader Ima Ngangbi Devi.

“Let’s see, she deserves all the support, who knows, we might just decide to bend our rules only for her. We are emotionally invested in her,” she added as an afterthought.

Politics aside, like in the hills, speaking to young Meiteis is an enriching experience. Though most political leaders refuse to accept the tribal allegation that they face discrimination from the Meiteis, many young Meiteis accept it.

“It is the ugly truth, sooner we accept it, the better,” said a young woman with a degree from Oxford university, UK. However, she added, “The problem is, if you openly say it, it is considered unpatriotic. Be it in the hills or the valley, the space for dissent for young people is very little. We are forever bound by the larger interest of the community.”

Another young woman with a degree from Hyderabad University said, “We used to live in amity. There is a festival among the Meiteis where they are supposed to dress up in tribal outfits. It is incomplete without the participation of a Tangkhul (mostly residing in Ukhrul district). However, since the last decade or so, Meiteis have begun to dress up as Tangkhuls as they have stopped coming. We need to ask, why?”

Interestingly, while higher education has made many young people in the hill areas identify the schism between the hill and valley more and thereby demand a separation from the valley, the same education has not only made many young Meiteis identify the divide but also accept the tribes more as an equal.

“I agree that the discrimination happened during my father and grandfather’s time but I as a young Meitei don’t look at a young tribal as being in any way less than me. I have belief in all the young people, that we can sit together and sort out our differences so that we all can be a part of the Manipuri identity,” said a college student in Imphal.

Such a coming together on equal terms may well happen in Manipur in the future, but definitely not before the the Naga Accord is revealed and the 2017 assembly polls – where two arch national political foes are heading towards a never-seen-before collision to wrest power in the state.

Perhaps an old Assamese saying can best sum up the what’s happening in Manipur – when two elephants fight, the earth shifts.