Hills on fire: A year of tribal unrest in Manipur

Hills on fire: A year of tribal unrest in Manipur

Submitted by alvin on Fri, 2016-08-26 10:09 In far corner of Northeast India, in the town of Lamka in Churachandpur district, Manipur, nine dead bodies lie unclaimed in a morgue in an ill-equipped district hospital.The nine persons, one of them an eleven-year-old school boy, were either shot dead or succumbed to injuries after the state security forces retaliated following a massive public uproar over the passing of three controversial bills in the state assembly on Aug 31, 2015.The three bills were: 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).  Soon after the passing of the bills, the district of Churachandpur was on fire, with angry youths torching at least five tribal legislators’ private residences in the district, including the residence of a Lok Sabha member. The district literally came to a standstill. Specifically, the headquarter town Lamka witnessed continuous curfew, bandhs, rallies. and demonstrations thereafter.The citizens’ protest involving the unclaimed dead bodies will complete 365 days on August 31.Manipur assembly took less than half a day to pass the bills. The bills were introduced on Aug 28 ( Friday) and passed without any debate on Aug 31 (Monday), reportedly bypassing the  Hill Areas Committee, comprising tribal legislators, which was supposed to give consent to any bills passed in the assembly. The bill was also not in the public domain nor discussed in the media.The sudden uprising also witnessed a massive protest from other tribal hill districts in Manipur, which demanded for a separate administration for tribals. The five tribal districts in question are Churachandpur, Chandel, Tamenglong, Senapati, and Ukhrul.  As the protest gained momentum and pressure was brought upon before the president and the Union government, the home ministry in June 2016 asked the government of Manipur to review and amend the three bills.The home ministry asked the government to re-examine The Protection of Manipur People Bill (2015), which was the most contentious. The other two are said to be examined by constitutional experts for a “reasonable conclusion”. The controversial bills were passed after massive pressure from the civil society in the capital Imphal. The groups, under the aegis of Joint Committee on Inner Line Permit (ILP), were demanding for the implementation of the ILP to regulate influx of migrants into the state.Succumbing to pressure, the Congress-led government under Okram Ibobi Singh passed the said three bills.The bills were vehemently opposed by tribals in the hills, who alleged that it infringed upon their rights over land and resources. The definition of “Manipur People” became contentious and controversial. As per the bill, citizens of Manipur include those who have been mentioned in the National Register of 1951. But Manipur attained statehood only in 1972 and, reportedly, the state also has no Register of Citizen 1951 document. Moreover, many of the villages in far flung, under-developed areas cannot be expected nor assumed to be registered in 1951 nor every person covered in the census for obvious reasons. Thus 1951 as the “cut off year” for “citizenship” led to the fear being cut off from Manipur itself.Therefore, exclusion in register or census, that will eventually question their “nativity” or “citizenship”, led to a deep sense of anger among the tribals.Moreover, land revenue and land reforms have always been hotly contested. The tribals’ anger was further deepened by the new land reforms bills that provide scope for converting land into “revenue” for the state. Therefore, there was the prospect of hill lands - collectively owned under customary laws and ownership - being taken out of tribals’ hands. Many of the lands in the tribal hill districts have also been subsumed into the valley revenue lands.According to the 2011 census figures, the population of tribals in Manipur is estimated at 902,740 out of the total population of 2,570,390. The state has two distinctive social and geo-political entities. Tribals inhabit the hills and non-tribals inhabit the valley.Interestingly, two Parliamentary constituencies have been categorically segregated into “Inner Manipur Parliamentary Constituency” and “Outer Manipur Parliamentary constituency”. The inner Manipur is represented by non-tribal (Meitei) community while the outer Manipur is represented by a tribal representative. Tribals in Manipur have a long history of grievances, especially in terms of socio–economic discrimination. Tribals inhabit areas that are low in economic productivity, hard to reach and inaccessible. After 70 years of India’s independence, many villages do not have electricity in their homes. Connectivity to these interiors still remains a distant dream, government schools’ performance is pathetic, quality of primary health care systems is abysmal if not non-functional. The 60-seat Manipur state assembly has only 20 tribal legislators.Even though the assembly has a separate Hill Areas Committee, comprising tribal representatives, the committee is redundant in terms of influence and relevance. Surprisingly, Manipur’s tribal areas do not come under the 5th schedule or the 6th schedule of the Indian Constitution.Last year’s uprising and subsequent agitation exposed the obvious socio-economic cultural and political inequalities in Manipur. The valley Imphal, also the capital, inhabited by the non-tribals is the centre of economic activity, academic capital and administration’s nerve centre. Thus, the insecurity over the influx of migrants was felt strongly in the valley.Recently, the state government came up with a new draft bill “Manipur Regulation of Non-Local Bill 2016”.  The new bill made 1972 as the “cut off” year for identifying or defining a “local Manipuri”. In an attempt to right their wrong, this time state government placed the draft bill in public domain for comments.The new bill is not likely to calm the unrest in the hills of Manipur. It is clear that tribals in the hills will not accept the bill completely in its present form. Moreover, with the nine dead bodies still lying unburied, the tribals in the hills have not given up on their demand for a “separate administration”.Symbolically, Aug 31 will be observed as “Tribal Unity Day”. Several forms of agitations are expected, as the protest now turns into a movement for a ‘separate administration’. Spearheaded by the Joint Action Committee and Outer Manipur Tribal Forum, the impasse does not seem to end soon.