Manipur's woes find no echoes in Delhi

More than a month has passed since the public uprising and subsequent agitation in Churachandpur district of Manipur after three controversial bills were passed by the state government on August 31. The three bills are the Protection of Manipur People's Bill 2015, the Manipur Shops and Establishment (Second Amendment) Bill 2015, and the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms (Seventh Amendment) Bill 2015.
The contention and huge uproar over the three bills were echoed in all the five tribal hill districts in the state - Churachandpur, Chandel, Tamenglong, Senapati and Ukhrul.
Significantly, the tribal people asserted that the undemocratic passing of the three bills impinged upon their basic constitutional rights under Article 371C of the Indian Constitution, wherein administration of the hill areas lies with the president and that executive powers of the union is extended to the said areas.
Moreover, the newly introduced Protection of Manipur People's Bill 2015 strictly limits its "citizenship" to the census report of 1951 and categorically termed "people" who are recorded in the 1951 census as "natives".
This has caused a deep resentment among the tribal people in the hills. According to the cut-off year, many would be left out of the "native list". Given the geo-physical and developmental challenges, where the remote tribal areas are isolated, it is a well known fact that the census record cannot and will not give accurate data. It is of utmost importance to also underline here that after more than 60 years of India's independence, India is yet to ascertain and draw its International boundary lines in the northeastern sector. The 35-km stretch of international border in the Manipur sector is yet to be demarcated on the ground.
The state assembly passed the said bills without any debate or opposition in the assembly. In fact, there is no opposition party in the Manipur state assembly. Out of the 60 legislative members, 40 are from the Congress, while 20 are from regional parties or state parties such as All India Trinamool Congress, Manipur State Congress party and Naga People's Front.
Even the exclusive Hill Areas Committee, consisting of the tribal legislative members, was reportedly a silent spectator to the passing of the bills. Their silence was interpreted as "acceptance" by the ruling government and supported by the "majority" non-tribal valley dwellers. The tribal people interpreted this as "incompetence" and "dysfunctional" and directed their anger against the tribal elected representatives, subsequently burning down their residences and socially boycotting the 20-odd tribal MLAs.
Much as it is geo-physically comprising the Imphal valley and hills and socio-culturally inhabited by tribals and non-tribals, the state of Manipur has been administered separately. Historically, the valley administration has never been extended to the tribal hill areas even during the British colonial rule before 1947. This continued even after independence and statehood. While the tribal village chiefs governed and administered the hill areas in pre-Independence era, in the post-statehood and India's independence time the hill areas were administered under Article 371C of the Indian Constitution.
As rightly contended by the tribal people, census record(s) cannot be "proof of citizenship or nativity" as the tribal people owe their allegiance and citizenship to their village chiefs.
The random, umbrella bills for the entire state is a grave mistake on the part of the state legislators in a state as diverse as Manipur. More importantly, in a state that has seen and witnessed numerous violent militant movements and conflicts, such an act of apathy and arrogance on the part of the ruling state government indeed is a dangerous trend given the sensitivity of the issue.
Including state Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh, none of the state legislators has so far visited the district. The only gesture is a meeting called by the chief minister with representatives of the agitators, which is too little too late. Though the 20 tribal legislators have been consistently saying that they would resign, none of them has officially offered their resignation.
Till today, groups of young people were running amok, destroying vehicles and burning houses. As recently as on October 13 midnight, a school building was burned down in Lamka by a group of angry youths.
As it stands, the bodies of the nine people who died in the violence following the passing of the bills are still lying unclaimed in the hospital morgue. Curfews are imposed at any time by any group. Reportedly, the police depend upon the intervention of the womenfolk to control the situation or any incident that arises. There is literally no "public administration".
The tribal hill district of Churachandpur is way too far away from New Delhi and the noise of its inhabitants seems to fall on deaf ears.

IANS -- October 15,2015

Manipur Tribal women want political solution

The northeastern state of Manipur is going through another dire phase – and once again it’s women to the rescue. Ever since the state passed three controversial bills, one among them a land revenue and land reforms bill, clashes between the tribal youth and security forces have become an everyday occurrence. The public uproar ensued right after the legislative assembly passed the three bills – The Protection of Manipur People’s Bill 2015, The Manipur Shops and Establishment (2nd Amendment) Bill 2015, and The Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms (7th Amendment) Bill 2015 – on August 31. Incidentally, the legislations were passed during an emergency session following the demand of the implementation of Inner line Permit (ILP) system in the state. The ILP is a special pass that is required to enter the northeastern states of Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Mizoram. The system was introduced by the British to protect their commercial interests and continues now essentially as a mechanism to protect the tribal people and their cultures.

The hasty passage of the bills without any consultation with the Hill Areas Committee (HAC) has not gone down well with tribal population. In particular, Section 2 (b) of the Protection of Manipur People Bill that defines “Manipur people” as those “whose names are in the National Register of Citizens, 1951, Census Report 1951 and Village Directory of 1951 and their descendants” has created the fear that they may be declared as “foreigners” in their own land if they are not on the records. This, in fact, is a very real threat to many, given the fact that most tribal chiefs in the hill areas are illiterate, there are limited written historical records from the 1950s and also several hamlets are so remote that it is impossible for census enumerators to accurately record residents of all villages. Apart from the question mark on identity it’s the land bill that has unleashed widespread anxiety. So far, the tribal upsurge has resulted in the resignation of five tribal legislators, claimed 10 lives, left more than 50 injured and led to the burning down of the houses of, among others, a tribal parliamentarian and six legislators.

At present, what has kept matters in control, especially in Churachandpur, the worst affected district, is the personal involvement of local women’s groups like the Zomi Mother’s Association, Hmar Women’s Association, Kuki Women’s Union and the women’s wing of the Mizo People’s Council. They have been out in large numbers to demand a “political solution” and are even “prepared for a long movement” but they are clear that violence is not the way out. The joint statement issued by the tribal women’s bodies says: “We are people who have been living and practicing our culture and traditions which are unique and distinct from the dominant societies. Our social, cultural, economic and political life has been passed down from our ancestors and we continue to practice them. We belong to a worldview that defines land as collectively owned by the people and not the State. We are against any form of attempt to alienate us from our land. Land is central to our identity and life”.

Vungmuanching, leader of the Zomi Mother’s Association, can remember the events of the day violence broke out as if it were yesterday. She elaborates, “When we came to learn that the youth has gathered in large numbers to burn the police station, we gathered our members and immediately rushed to the spot. There we formed a human fence and appealed to them to give up the planned arson. We had to literally beg them to stop. Some of us tried to reason with them saying that we, the mothers, were not willing to lose any more of our young children to the mindless fighting. We told them that they are our future and that if required we would sacrifice our lives first. But we will do things the right way.”

Ever since this landmark incident, things have been visibly better, although Vungmuanching is worried that the situation could very well go out of hand because “our youth is still on the boil”. It’s only the repeated calls for peace made jointly by the women’s groups which has kept them at bay. “During the curfew days, we were regularly organising non-violent sit-ins, signature campaigns and candle light marches as and when normalcy was restored for a few hours. What’s been truly inspiring and amazing is the spontaneous coming together of various women’s organisations despite the differences in political ideologies. Women and girls have come out because we feel the need to raise our voice. We hold our tribal elected representatives responsible for this mess and want the centre to step in and take immediate action,” she adds.

Thus far the administration has remained a quiet bystander and that has driven Vungmuanching’s contemporary, Kimneihoi Hlungdim of the Kuki Women’s Union to join in the call for “immediate intervention by the central government”. According to Kimneihoi, “The Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms (7th Amendment) Bill 2015 is a disturbing move by the state government to take away tribal people’s control of their own lands. Furthermore, I take serious exception to the provision in The Protection of Manipur People’s Bill 2015 that defines Manipur people as those persons who are registered since the 1951 census simply because in 1951 many of the people in the under developed tribal hills areas were not even registered.”

Kimneihoi is particularly concerned with the status of her Kuki people, too. “Of late, there has been a lot of talk as to how the Kuki people are ‘illegal migrants’. This is one of the reasons why the Kuki women and even people at large are demanding a separate administration. The Kukis are fiercely protective of their heritage and land.”

Marybeth Sanate of the Hmar Women’s Association is one of the key coordinating members of the ongoing women-led protests. She remarks, “This is the first time that such a large number of women has come together to demand a political solution.” As the protests gain momentum, the women are getting themselves better organised. Marybeth is confident that “the women are prepared to be part of a long movement” because they are well aware that “as they stand, things are not good and are not going to get any easier. We are getting ourselves organised. Several forms of protest are lined up, including a series of candle light marches”. Of course, even as the demonstrations go on and the women get ready for a long drawn campaign, none of the state or central leaders has visited the district yet and neither has there been any attempt to review or discuss the contentious legislations.

Times are indeed changing for the tribal groups that inhabit the idyllic hills of Manipur. With women’s groups in Churachandpur, that till recently were mostly welfare organisations, now beginning to assert their political rights it’s definitely the sign of a new beginning and, perhaps, a more stable tomorrow. 

Women's Feature Service
September 28, 2015.