The Fire in Churachandpur
The Churachandpur violence that killed eight people this week was a reaction to three Bills passed unanimously by the Manipur Assembly on August 31. 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, were brought in as substitutes to introducing the Inner Line Permit, or ILP. (Explained below)
The day before the special House session, tribal organisations across the state came together for the first time in years to call a strike across the five Hill districts. On August 31, highways, schools and businesses were closed and, around 6 pm, within hours of the Bills being passed, protesters clashed with police on the streets of Churachandpur town. Churachandpur is the headquarters of the tribal Churachandpur district, which is dominated by the Kuki tribe, but is also home to Paiteis, Zomis and Hmars.
According to tribal bodies, the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms amendment has been brought by the “communal Manipur government” to acquire tribal land in the Hill districts. Land in the Hill districts is protected by Article 371C of the Constitution, under which the land and its resources are controlled by its tribal inhabitants. No non-tribal can buy land in Manipur’s tribal areas.
The Protection of Manipur People Bill, 2015, has identified original inhabitants of Manipur as those who settled in the state before 1951. Churachandpur is especially affected because the Kuki and Zomi peoples belong to the same Indo-Chin racial stock as the Burmese people — and many Burmese families are believed to have entered the state and settled in Churachandpur.
The ILP Agitation
For the past three months, Imphal valley has been gripped by agitations under the umbrella of Joint Committee on Inner Line Permit, demanding that ILP be introduced to prevent or restrict the entry and movement of non-Manipuris in the state. The ILP, introduced by the British to protect their interests in tea, oil, etc. in the Northeast, is still applicable in Nagaland, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh. Manipur and Meghalaya have seen sporadic demands for its implementation.
The agitation in Manipur escalated after 17-year-old Robinhood Sapam was killed by a teargas shell fired by the police at protesters on July 8. The government gave assurances, and withdrew the Manipur Regulation of Visitors, Tenants and Migrant Workers Bill, 2015, which the JCILP had strongly opposed on the grounds that it didn’t fulfill the demand for the ILP. But the protesters were not pacified.
The Land Law
While Manipur is yet to make public the contents of the Bills that have been passed, a government source said the contentious amendment in the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms Bill, 2015, simply puts strong restrictions on the sale of land to outsiders. According to the amendment, an application must be made to the Commissioner of the district, which must then by passed by the Manipur Assembly. The Bill does not, however, specify whether the law will be limited to the four districts of the Imphal valley, or will be applicable to the entire state, the source said.
Tribal organisations maintain that as long as Article 371C exists, no land Bill brought by the Manipur government can be applicable in any of the five Hill districts. An assurance by Manipur Education Minister and spokesperson M Okendro that the law will be applicable only to the four valley districts has failed to convince the tribal bodies.
The State’s Demography
Nearly 60% of Manipur’s population of just over 27 lakh comprises Meiteis; the Naga, Kuki and Zomi tribes make up the rest. Meiteis are dominant in the Imphal valley (the four districts of Imphal West, Imphal East, Thoubal and Bishnupur), which covers only 2,248 sq km (10%) of Manipur’s total 22,327 sq km. The Meitei population is largely Hindu; the tribals are mostly Christian.
The five tribal Hill districts are the Naga-dominated Ukhrul, Senapati and Tamenglong, the Kuki-Zomi district of Churachandpur, and Chandel, where both Nagas and Kukis live. Among themselves, Manipur’s 33-odd tribes (40% of the state’s population) own 90% of its land — and this is where the source of tension between the Hills and valley peoples lies.
The Tribes’ Suspicions
When the ILP agitation — simmering since 2012 — took a violent turn some months ago, the tribal population of the state stayed away. Their land protected by the Constitution, they perceived no threat from outsiders (or mainland Indians). The ILP remained a largely Meitei demand, which tribal organisations suspected was the first step in a Meitei plan to acquire Scheduled Tribe status, thus rendering the tribal privileges in the state meaningless.
The tribals have traditionally felt marginalised by the dominant Meiteis, who control the fertile valley and its businesses, dominate the administration, and occupy 40 seats in the Assembly — double the number of Hills MLAs.
The Hill districts are underdeveloped and poor, and tribals have for decades complained that most development funds are hogged by the valley. The Hills have only sporadic, if any, electricity supply, few roads, enterprises, and schools, and follow traditional jhoom cultivation practices.
Hills vs the Valley
The tribals’ suspicion that the Manipur government, and the Meiteis, are attempting to grab the one thing that they have — their land — has ruptured Manipuri society into two seemingly irreconcilable parts. For the first time in decades, hostile rivals Nagas and Kukis have come together to fight whom they consider their common enemy — the Meitei. They have formed a coordination committee under the umbrella of All Tribal Students Union of Manipur to continue their agitation.
The Meiteis’ grouse is that apart from land, 22% of government jobs are reserved for the tribes and Scheduled Castes. The pressure on land in the Imphal valley has been the main driver of the ILP agitation, as well as the reason for hostility towards tribals. Because, while Meiteis can’t buy land in tribal areas, tribals can — and often do — buy land in the valley.