Robed in a modish sarong – called a Phanek in Manipuri – and a nicely draped stole around her shoulders, Rose Mangshi Haokip betrayed her aristocracy until she poured her heart out. “I cannot see my sons and daughters fight against each other anymore. I have seen enough sons of our soil die in cold blood. Not anymore,” Haokip cried out loud while addressing around 100 people gathered to discuss the current conflict around Inner Line Permit (ILP) issue in Manipur. The Kuki Women Union’s president Haokip had specially flown in to Delhi to attend a meeting some concerned citizens of various ethnic groups in Manipur had organised.
Haokip, like many other women from the hills in the heavily militarised Manipur, has lived for many decades now, at the mercy of the paramilitary forces that enjoy the powers to arrest anyone indiscriminately under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). The turmoil in which Manipuri men and women live in presented the starkest possible picture when around 30 women marched naked in 2004 with the banner ‘Indian army rape us’ to protest against the draconian law in the aftermath of the 32-year-old Thangjam Manorama’s rape by the armed forces.
The law was finally lifted in the Imphal valley but remained in the hills. The selective lifting of the draconian law, however, escalated the already existing hill-valley gulf or the Meiti-Tribal divide even more. For much of the state’s recent history, the tribals have been complaining that the inhabitants of the valley, Meities, have dominated the political and economic landscape of the state. The tribal population comprising the Naga, Kuki and a range of other ethnic groups have felt under-represented in the state assembly and in governmental positions. And such perceived discriminations against the tribals have fueled separatist tendencies among many of these communities.
When on August 31, 2015, the Manipur legislative assembly passed the three controversial bills – the Protection of Manipur People Bill, 2015, the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms (Seventh Amendment) Bill, 2015, and the Manipur Shops and Establishments (Second Amendment) Bill, 2015 – without any discussion, the hill-valley divide escalated even more. The tribals see the bills – that will put into effect the ILP regime, which is intended to protect the land and other economic rights of the indigenous populations of the Manipur against outsiders – as yet another ploy by the Meities to exclude the people in the hills from the mainstream economy of the state.
Two important points in the bills have become eyesores for the tribals. One, the Protection of Manipur Bill, 2015 mentions 1951 as the cut-off year to define the residency of Manipuri people. Many people in the hills say that they were not registered citizens at that point of time despite the fact they have been living there for ages. Inaccessibility has been one of the main reasons for non-registrations of many tribals in the census in the hills. Two, the people in the hills fear that the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms (Seventh Amendment) Bill, 2015 would give the Meities the rights to buy and sell land in the hills but not vice-versa. That the hill districts still do not fall in the Sixth Schedule of the constitution that protects the rights of the tribals exacerbates the fear.
However, the state government and the people of the valley contend that the bills would not take away any right of the people in the hills and most of the apprehensions regarding the bills are a result of misinterpretation. Many in the valley say that the 1951 cut-off should go and there could be another way to determine the citizenship of Manipuri people. But they insist that the bills are intended to protect the indigenous population of Manipur from the increasing economic pressures exerted by outsiders, who have been settling in the valley for many years now. They say that the bills will not be applicable for existing settlers, but for those who intend to come in future. They contend that the bills are necessary as the population in Manipur has increased by 400% from 1948 to 2011, leading to an unsustainable situation with newer conflicts arising with each passing day given the limited resources and growth opportunities in the state.
The polarised campaign around the bills has led to an unprecedented trust deficit between the Meitis and tribals and that has put Manipur in a state of siege for more than a year now. The people in hilly districts comprising Churachandpur, Ukhrul, Tamelong, Senapati and Chandel are up against the four districts in the valley – Imphal East, Imphal West, Thoubal and Bishnupur. Never before have the people of Manipur been so divided. The unrestrained violence unleashed by the state government, perceived as favouring the Meiti position, has only fueled the tension in the hills. Almost a year ago, the police fired at the protestors in Churachadpur killing nine people, including a 11-year-old boy. Even today, their dead bodies remain at the district hospital’s morgue as the protestors refuse to bury them unless their apprehensions are not clarified.
As the bills wait presidential consent amidst the charged environment, the polarised campaign has led to unprecedented rumour-mongering from both sides, intensifying the already enormous trust deficit. This hostility, on both sides, have reflected on social media, mobile messengers, and various private platforms – almost to the point of no return.
In this backdrop, on 11 June, a citizen group led by Binalakhshmi Nepram, founder of Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network/Control Arms Foundation of India, organised a hurried but important meeting at the Delhi’s Constitution Club of India after some tribal students from Manipur were brutally beaten up by the police at Manipur Bhawan on 8 June. The students had gathered to protest against Manipur’s Chief Minister Ibobi Singh, who had come to Delhi to meet the president for his assent on the three controversial bills. Nepram invited leaders and prominent personalities from all the ethnic groups to sit together and try to find a common ground. An initiative like this, according to Nepram, may not end the conflict but could start a process of dialogue where everybody could speak honestly and peacefully.
“The people’s convention is aimed at diffusing the tension between ethnic groups. The history of Manipur has been syncretic, one which has spread the message of co-existence always. We could not sit silent in such times of turmoil. Our children are being trained to be soldiers. We need to prevent that. We have seen how corporate interests in places like Rwanda and Congo created the divide among indigenous groups and engineered the conflicts. Manipur is witnessing a similar situation where the government is playing from the court of corporates,” Nepram told The Wire.
Like Haokip and Nepram, many in the desperately wanted a resolution to the conflict. No one had a solution. No one had a plan. But the despair in their voices echoed constantly at the venue as almost every speaker blamed the successive governments at the state and the centre for the limbo that Manipur has been in for many decades now.
Sitara Begum, a Pangal Muslim from Manipur, lamented, “Continuous bandhs, blockades, killings are no solution. The government has failed in resolving the more immediate problems of the day. There is no employment for the youth. No development at all. And this is one of the most significant reasons for the tension between communities.”
A well-respected Meiti activist Babloo Lointongbam of Human Rights Alert presented a historical perspective of the demand for the bills. “While I agree that Meities have been dominant both politically and economically, the ILP issue has to be seen in a different context. A permit system was in Manipur till the 1040s until it was removed unilaterally by an official of the government of India, Himmat Singh, in 1950. If the rate with which outside population is increasing in Manipur continues, there will be 40 crore outsiders in 70 years. Manipur will be at the centre of Look East policy of the Indian government. Many trade routes will go through Manipur. The corporates are already interested in mining our resources. The people in the hills and the valley must unite to ensure twe safeguard and protect each other.”
The Wire’s interview with Binalakshmi Nepram and Babloo Loitongbam
Giving a completely opposite picture, Naga Thankul leader Lakpachui Siro, also the co-founder of forum of understanding the Naga-India conflict and Human Rights, said that the problem of Manipur goes beyond the three bills. He argued that communities should accept the historical oppression of the hill people. “Demographic threat to the indigenous communities are a real problem in the North-East but the legislations to protect the people of Manipur should be passed only with the support of tribal people including the Nagas,” he said. He also talked about the gross under-representation of hill people and the structural exploitation that the tribals had to face for centuries. “The ILP can succeed only when the hill peoples support it, not oppose it,” said Siro.
Alana Golmei, general secretary of North-East Support Centre and Helpline said, “The trust-deficit between the people in the hills and the valley has been compounded by huge miscommunication in the social media and that needs to be seriously combated. Only a united struggle that exposes the corrupt government and its double standards will help us move forward.”
The convention may be a small effort on the part of Manipuris to diffuse the long-standing tension between ethnic groups but it was one of the most significant forums that spoke against the dehumanisation in Manipur on the basis of immediate identities. Noted academic Anuradha Chenoy who has worked on international conflicts in detail chaired one of the sessions at the meeting. Chenoy said that the central government has played a great role in perpetuating the divisions in Manipur to cover up for its absolutely no role in the state’s development. “While there are many narratives of the conflict in Manipur, the one given by central government i.e of an unending identity clash is the most dominant. The government has made no serious efforts to resolve the issue,” said Chenoy
Perhaps, the success of this citizens’ effort lies in the fact that it unequivocally held the government responsible for the state of paralysis in which Manipur continues to be today. Its role in ossifying the conflict, instead of neutralising it, is for everyone to see. As the central government has not taken any concrete position on the bills, and the state government has not given any credible assurance to the tribals, initiatives like this convention could go a long way in re-building the trust in each other.