In a working democracy, governments and a ruling party facing dissent from within and confronting the wrath of the people who thinks the government is acting against their interests and aspirations is not new. It is pretty much the same when it comes to a Northeastern state like Manipur. However, the details of the dynamics can be complex for those who have not been familiar with the extremely polarised inter- and intra-ethnic relationships in the state.
In recent times, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government headed by chief minister N. Biren Singh has been hit by significant political developments he might have down-played or overlooked given the immense power he wields in Manipur, a state known for unforeseen political fragility in the past.
Considered as an embarrassment to the ruling party by many political observers, a former minister and now an MLA from the Heirok assembly constituency and advisor to N. Biren Singh, Th Radheshyam, resigned on April 13 stating that he has not been given any responsibilities commensurate with the post held. The MLA’s gambit was followed by another former minister and MLA from Langthabal assembly constituency and chairman of the Manipur Tourism Corporation, Karam Shyam Singh. He too resigned from his post, stating that as the chairman of the Manipur Tourism Corporation, he was not given any responsibilities and power.
The resignation of the two MLAs from their respective posts was soon followed by another MLA representing Wangjing assembly constituency, Paonam Brojen who held the post of chairman of the Manipur Development Society (MDS), also resigning. Paonam Borjen went on to explain how work orders for the already constructed works in his constituency had been cancelled. According to him, his close associates had to spend about Rs 6 crore in the construction and that they were not happy as the MLA was unable to explain to them how the money spent would be returned.
When the three advisors to the chief minister resigned, there were unmistaken speculations that dissent was brewing within the BJP. There were even rumours of at least 15 BJP MLAs reportedly camping in New Delhi, all purposefully united in dethroning N. Biren Singh.
Even as these developments have seemingly put Singh in a corner, one should note that the BJP under him won 32 seats in the House of 60 in the last assembly elections. The party has over the past one year garnered the support of more MLAs from other parties and now has the support of 55 members against five Congress legislators in the opposition. So the dissent within may not hold sway towards a situation leading to change of guard until and unless Delhi BJP authorities hatch a different plot. But then, dissent is dissent – whatever impact it has.
The tangle: protected forests and dissent
However, one should also note that on April 12, another tribal BJP MLA, Paolienlal Haokip, had questioned the revenue and forest survey being conducted in Churachandpur-Khoupum Protected Forest in Churachandpur in the backdrop of Singh’s tough talk against encroachment on reserved and protected forest areas in the hills.
Haokip, in a letter dated April 12 addressed to environment, forest and climate change minister Th Biswajit Singh, the MLA representing 59-Saikot (Scheduled Tribe) assembly constituency, described it as a matter of great public anguish and perceived injustice.
Stating that some revenue and forest officials have been recently deployed to carry out a survey of Churachandpur-Khoupum Protected Forest in Churachandpur, the MLA reminded the minister of a question he raised during the question hour in the assembly session.
Haokip had asked in the assembly whether or not the state government had nullified the orders of the then Assistant Settlement Officers (ASO) of the Forest Department excluding certain villages from the proposed Churachandpur-Khoupum Protected Forest of the time, to which the minister had replied in the affirmative. Maintaining that he could not raise supplementary questions as question hour ran out, Haokip said he should be allowed to raise the pertinent questions through the letter.
The BJP MLA asked how the state government can nullify such orders of the ASO who by law, in the absence of Forest Section Officer (FSO) – a post that vacant as the government failed to appoint one at that time – was the statutory authority to settle any claims of pre-existing rights on land. The authority and duties of the FSO/ASO are statutory under the Indian Forests Act, 1927, and do not require the state government to specially authorise decisions, as claimed by the state government in the annulment order, he mentioned in the letter.
The BJP MLA maintained that the delay in processing of claims cited as a reason for annulment was the fault of the authorities concerned and not of the land owners, and hence cannot be a reason for annulment of the orders excluding lands claimed by chiefs from the said Protected Forest.
“Some delays in submission of claims of pre-existing rights must have been caused by the failure on the part of the government to declare its intent to constitute a protected forest, as required under the Indian Forests Act, 1927, in vernacular, keeping the largely illiterate chiefs of those days in the dark and unaware,” he said.
The BJP MLA said he had earlier asked the authority to supply him copies of such information published in vernacular (DoL.Rep.(Forest)/SKT-MLA/05/2022(17) Dated: the 27th May, 2022). However, he has yet to receive any response, he added.
Haokip sought clarification from the Forest Department whether the current exercise of survey teams being deployed is due to the absence of any survey records with the government. If that being the case, it will prove the gazette declaring the Churachandpur-Khoupum Protected Forest is flawed and therefore void ab initio, he said seeking the purpose behind the present exercise.
The BJP MLA also asked whether fresh surveys are being conducted in all such Protected Forests, and if so, the detailed schedule for such surveys. “Unless it is a comprehensive exercise, the present exercise is perceived to be selective and targeted in nature, causing public angst,” he said.
Urging the forest minister to instruct concerned officials to clarify in writing the issues so that he can help the public understand the actions of their government, the BJP MLA requested him to stop further surveys before “the issues are satisfactorily clarified”.
Biren government’s response to Kuki assertions
The issue formally raised by Haokip is one of the many reasons fo the current spate of articulations, both in violent and non-violent forms, playing out in Churachandpur and other districts where the Kuki tribe lives.
Despite the vociferous protests, the chief minister seems unfettered and has been stridently confronting the Kuki issue vis-à-vis efforts to protect reserved forest in Manipur. He has reportedly stated that the Manipur government came to know about the changes in the forest of the hill districts with the help of satellite mapping. The government takes encroachment on forest areas very seriously and will deal it with accordingly, he unequivocally asserted.
The Manipur government has been going all out against what it called encroachers of forest land. At least 29 houses were demolished inside Langol Reserved Forest on April 11, 2023. On February 21, 2023 also, K Songjang village was evicted from the Churachandpur-Khoupum Protected Forest as Google Maps showed no settlement in the area in 2020. The chief minister stated that those who are protesting against the action of the government were challenging the constitutional provisions.
Even as Kukis protested against the action of the state government, the state government refused to retract from its mission. Coming to the rescue of N. Biren Singh is none other than Union minister of environment, forest and climate change Bhupender Yadav. During a recent visit to the state, he stated, “Forest land has always come under the ownership of the state government. The 1927 Forest Act became a state subject after independence. But after the 1976 amendment, forest land came under state and centre. The ownership of the forest always lies with the state government. The protection of the reserved forest and protected forest land is the sole responsibility of the state government.”
Why are the Kukis fuming?
The current violence and tension in Churachandpur district had its point of departure from mass rallies held on March 10 in parts of the hill districts of Churachandpur, Ukhrul, Kangpokpi, Tengnoupal and Jiribam-Tamenglong.
Thousands of people belonging to the Kuki tribe in Manipur protested against the alleged “selective targeting” of Kukis by the BJP-run state government. The rally participants protested against the state government’s action on February 20 where the residents of a Kuki village (K Songjang village) in Churachandpur district along the border of the Churachandpur and Noney districts were evicted because they were allegedly encroaching on protected forest land.
After the state forest department cleared the Kuki village (K Songjang), the protest rallies were called by the Indigenous Tribal Leaders’ Forum (ITLF), a newly formed conglomerate of tribal groups, including the Kukis. The state government on March 11 announced that it had decided to withdraw from ongoing tripartite talks and the Suspension of Operation (SoO) agreement with two armed political groups, the Kuki National Army and the Zomi Revolutionary Army, claiming that these two groups were responsible for inciting the protesters during the rallies.
The SoO agreement is a ceasefire agreement that the Government of India and the state of Manipur signed with two conglomerates of tribal armed groups in the hills, the United Peoples’ Front and the Kuki National Organisation, in 2008. Both the Zomi Revolutionary Army and the Kuki National Army are part of the Kuki National Organisation umbrella.
It may be mentioned that the eviction of the villagers was effected following a notification issued by the forest department in November, 2022, derecognising 38 villages in the districts of Churachandpur and Noney, allegedly located inside the Churachandpur-Khoupum protected forest. The notification stated that the permission for settlement granted to the villages was issued by an officer who was “incompetent” to make such allowances. The Churachandpur-Khoupum forest was notified as protected in 1966.
According to the Kukis, the 38 villages, home to over 1,000 people, have been in existence “since the last 50-60 years”.
Kuki Inpi Manipur (KIM), the apex body of the Kukis, has also alleged that N. Biren Singh’s statement on the land-forest issue had been a “flagrant falsification” of the realities to divert the real issue of the tribal community’s dissent against “his authoritarian” rule in Manipur.
KIM asserted that the protest rallies were held as a result of public discontent over the extreme disregard of Scheduled Hill Areas and Article 371C of the Indian Constitution by the state government. The Kuki body said it took exception to the chief minister terming rally participants as “encroachers, poppy cultivators, drug smugglers, and illegal immigrants”.
Amidst the charges flying thick and fast and exchange of assertive stances, the simmering tension between the N. Biren Singh-led government and the Kuki bodies is not likely to subside. State forces might have succeeded in controlling the situation that has unfolded in Churachandpur district as of now, but controlling the ground situation does not necessarily lead to peace or a position acceptable to all. Singh is not likely to relent, given his resolute stance on the issue and of course the Centre giving him an implicit support for his action, at least on the issue of protecting forest lands.
Dhiren A. Sadokpam is Editor-in-Chief of The Frontier Manipur.