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.