Three bills, one original and two amendments of existing laws, were passed by the Manipur State Legislative Assembly on Monday. However, trouble erupted from an unanticipated quarter, and Manipur’s southern district, Churachandpur, went up in flames, with irate mobs burning down homes of their representatives including the residence of senior cabinet minister and veteran politician, Phungzathang Tonsing. The rioters claimed that their elected representatives did not protect their interest.Official reports so far say three people have died, one in police firing, one trapped in a burning home of a legislator and another in a road accident when he drove unawares into a road blockade.
Earlier, in an ingenuous strategy to ensure at least a major portion of the demand for the introduction of the Inner Line Permit system to check influx of migrants, passed the legislative process, especially the Governor’s vigil, the Manipur government spilt the substance of the demand and spread it over three bills: 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 and passed them unanimously during a special Assembly session. The idea was, if the first and controversial bill ran into hurdles, the remaining two would not be held up with it.
All three now await the Governor’s assent. The popular anticipation was that the latter two bills would not face much hurdles for they are existing laws. It is the original bill, namely the Protection of Manipur People Bill 2015, which many felt was fated to run into a wall, particularly in view of the cut-off year of 1951 it seeks to define non-domiciles by. But it now seems there is more to it than just the Governor’s assent. Manipur’s hill districts, in particular the southern districts, are opposing it.
A day ahead of Monday’s special Assembly session, three students organisations, All Tribal Students Union Manipur, ATSUM, Kuki Students Organisation, KSO and All Naga Students Association Manipur, ANSAM, called a bandh in the hill districts to oppose the bills.
What is it that the hills are not happy about the three Bills? Part of the answer is that the migrant issue is alive mostly in the valley districts, which are open to all Indians to settle unlike the hill districts which are reserved for tribals. But this should have meant the hills were merely uninvolved.
A lack of communication could be the other reason. Meitei agitators in four valley districts or the Nagas and Kuki-Zomi groups in the hills failed to reach out and try to understand each other on the matter. Other than the stern opposition that came from Kukis in Moreh during a rally by Meitei residents there on August 18, and the prohibition of a similar rally planned in Churachandpur earlier, there was never any other meaningful communication.
The Naga districts, it had seemed were cool to the issue and were simply watching the developments from a distance, until the final moment after the bills had been tabled when ANSAM also joined the bandh call in the hills.
One is reminded of the rather cynical dig V.S. Naipaul once took at Salman Rushdie, when the latter was in hiding following a fatwa to assassinate him issued by then supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini. Naipaul in an interview joked, with naughty glee, that the fatwa was a “severe form of literary criticism.” Manipur too, it seems speaks only the language of fatwa and has lost faith in the power of dialogues to resolve issues, even the most problematic ones.
What had become glaring in the course of the agitation is that the dominant community of the state, the Meiteis in valley, are often given to arrogantly presuming foreknowledge of what other fraternal communities want or aspire for. The flames of anger in Churachandpur are now proving how wrong the presumption has been.
It must equally be said, the hills have also never tried to understand that the valley, now more than ever, needs room to be itself – the space which has been denied it for far too long. At this moment it feels besieged and pushed against the wall. The four valley districts where they live form only 10 percent of the state’s geographical area but is home to over 60 percent of the state’s population. The Meiteis are confined to the valley and by law cannot move to the hills, but the hill population are free to move to the valley.
Not only in terms of a shrinking living space, the Meiteis also now feel they have also been unduly disadvantaged by the reservation policy. As predominantly Hindus, they are left in the general category in the reservation scheme of the government. As a reaction, there is a growing demand among a section of them to also be clubbed tribal. Many of them are also moving away from Hinduism.
Of the three bills passed by the Assembly, the two which sought amendments to existing laws, were very valley specific, so it ought not to have been any cause for worry for the hills. But in the bill on amending the MLR&LR Act, there is a clause which says more areas of the state, still not under the law, can be brought under it, and this could have sent wrong signals. But for all one knows, this could be a reflection of the wishes of a growing section of the hill population who want to integrate with the modern monetary economy. In many private tete-a-tetes, this wish has been quite transparent.
Land tenure system
MLR&LR Act 1960, although is applicable in the valley districts only, has nothing to do with the valley’s wishes or aspirations. It is just a modern, civic, land tenure system, incidentally introduced in the state by the Union government by an Act of the Parliament, for in 1960 Manipur was a Union Territory. It has worked well for the valley except that in its current state, it has allowed for their own land alienation, and this is what is sought to be corrected in the current amendment bill.
The Manipur government must now initiate the process to find out what exactly are the objections of the hills to the three bills and prepare for further amendments. If it is about the Protection of Manipur People Bill 2015, which could leave many trans-border tribes alienated, then maybe this too can be made valley specific. If it is about the clause in the MLR&LR Act, mentioned earlier, that clause too could be deleted. But if the objection is against the valley’s effort to tighten its own hold on their shrinking home grounds, then the valley is unlikely ever to agree to abandon it under the present circumstance.
A brief look at the history behind the different administrative models for the hills and the valley here should be interesting. The administrative mechanism evolved in Manipur by the British after they brought the kingdom under them in 1891 is almost a replication of their administrative model in their older province of Assam where they had revenue provinces administered directly by modern land revenue laws, and the non-revenue hills simply left “unadministered”.
By the Government of India Act 1919, these hills beyond the “Inner Line” were marked off as “Backward Tracts” and left largely unadministered but under the Governor’s direct rule and not the provincial government’s. By the GOI Act 1935 the “Backward Tracts” were re-categorised into “Excluded Areas” and “Partially Excluded Areas”.
The “Excluded Areas” were not given any representation in the Provincial Government, which had been given much more democratic powers by then, with the condescending explanation that these hills were still not ready for democratic governance. The “Partially-Excluded Areas” were however given some representations in the Provincial Government, but by nomination of the Governor and not by election.
In Manipur, the British did not draw an “Inner Line” separating the hills from the valley, but there is a great deal of replication of the regulation’s provisions. The provincial government ruled the valley districts, but the hills were kept under the President of the Manipur State Durbar, PMSD, a British officer who played the role of the Governor in the then princely state. Although not identical, this was the broad pattern of governance the British took to many of their newly acquired territories.