Last fortnight, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh explained to a delegation from Manipur led by the state Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh why President Pranab Mukherjee returned three bills the Manipur Assembly had passed on August 31, 2015. The contentious bills were the Manipur Land Reforms and Land Revenue (7th Amendment) Bill, 2015, the Manipur Shops and Establishment (2nd Amendment) Bill, 2015, and the Manipur Protection of Peoples Bill, 2015. Experts will now re-examine the first two bills for a “reasonable conclusion” and in the case of the third bill, legal and constitutional experts will re-examine it for a “new legislation taking into consideration all aspects of the hill and valley people of Manipur.” The question now is what steps should be taken to bring a mutually acceptable agreement.
The British colonial government had introduced the Inner Line Permit (ILP) to protect its commercial interests. Later, it was used as an instrument to protect the tribal people and their cultures. Since Manipur is not officially a tribal state, there are constitutional challenges to implementing the ILP system. Had the Manipur Protection of Peoples, 2015 bill become law and got implemented strictly, many of the hill people (the Kukis and the Nagas) could have found themselves declared non-Manipuris since the bill requires a person to have been enumerated in all three registers — the National Register of Citizens, 1951, the Census Report 1951, and the Village Directory of 1951. In 1951, most of the hill areas were not accessible by road and the situation remains the same in some places even today.
There is a lingering apprehension among the hill people that the state government would use the bills as a strategic political ploy to gain control over their land. The unwillingness on the part of the state government to implement the Sixth Schedule in the hill areas has exacerbated the concerns of the tribal people. Had the bills been enacted into law, they will be applicable across the state of Manipur, including the hill areas. But the drafting committee formed by the state government did not involve tribal legislators. People of the hill areas were not consulted in the process of drafting the bills.
The valley people (the Meiteis, who dominate state government) argue that the bills are largely misunderstood and misinterpreted by the hill people. They claim that the bills are not detrimental to the interests of the hill people. But the irony is neither the government nor the Meiteis took steps to convince the tribal people, or the Joint
Action Committee Against Anti-Tribal Bills (JACAATB), the body spearheading the agitation.
On December 29, 2015, Chief Minister Ibobi Singh met an 18-member delegation of the JACAATB, which requested the CM to convene a special session of the Manipur Legislative Assembly to review the concerns and apprehensions of the hill people. Singh then requested the delegation to list their concerns regarding the three bills in writing. Subsequently, on January 11 this year, the
JACAATB submitted a six-page document outlining what they thought was “anti-tribal” and infringement on the constitutionally guaranteed tribal rights in the bills. Since then, there has been no substantial talk between the two sides.
The classification of the Protection of Manipur People Bill, 2015 as a money bill was sinister, as it was done to bypass the Hill Areas Committee. The expenditure from the consolidated fund is only incidental and not the main provision of the bill. The Manipur Legislative Assembly (Hill Areas Committee) Order, 1972, states that “every bill, other than a money bill, affecting wholly or partly the hill areas and containing mainly provisions dealing with any of the scheduled matters shall, after introduction in the Assembly, be referred to the Hill Areas Committee for consideration and report to the Assembly.”
Given the deep division between the hill and valley people on the issue, it was a right decision on the part of the president to return the bills back for re-examination by legal and constitutional experts. The state government should now take steps to build trust between peoples of the hill and the valley, as well as the hill people and the state government. The government should take steps to initiate a dialogue between the representatives of the Joint Committee on Inner Line Permit System and the JACAATB. Meanwhile, the state government should act against police personnel responsible for the death of nine tribal people, whose bodies remain unburied for more than 250 days.
The recent pattern of violence in the state has the potential of not only dividing the people but also a danger of territorial disintegration if left unaddressed.