Updated: September 22, 2015 8:31:52 am
Perception matters more than fact in politics. This is painfully evident in the unfolding tribal upsurge in Manipur’s hills since August 31, which has already 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, including that of Phungzathang Tonsing, the state health minister, in Lamka (Churachandpur), the epicentre of the upsurge.
The immediate spark was the state government’s unusual haste to pass, against the warnings of tribal bodies, three bills within four days of their introduction in the assembly on August 31, without discussion or debate. The bills were the Protection of Manipur People Bill, Manipur Shops and Establishments (Second Amendment) Bill and Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reform (MLR&LR) (Seventh Amendment) Bill. Intended to address the anxiety and sense of insecurity of the burgeoning Meitei middle class, which has been feeling increasingly besieged by demographic pressures from non-Manipuri migrant “outsiders” on valley lands, the bills expose the fallacy and limits of the integration framework that the state proposes from time to time. In a tearing hurry to appease and cave in to pressure from majoritarian Meitei civil society groups to implement the inner line permit system in the state, the government leverages integrationist methods by being insensitive to tribal concerns. The passage of these bills without consulting the Hill Areas Committee (HAC) reinforces this. These bills may not only undermine but also violate legal and constitutional norms and orders pertaining to tribal rights to land and identity. The state’s approach is also absent-minded and insensitive to the deep hills-valley divide, a powerful motif of Manipur politics since colonial times.
Article 371C of the Constitution incorporates the HAC, comprising 19 elected tribal members of the Manipur legislative assembly. Modelled on the lines of the Hill Areas Standing Committee of the erstwhile tribal areas of Assam, it is an established constitutional norm in the state that the HAC is consulted by the government on tribal matters. However, the state cabinet, in its September 1 meeting, justified ex post facto the bypassing of the HAC on the ground that the aforementioned bills are not being extended to the hill areas and would not affect tribal rights, a stand reportedly endorsed by the HAC the same day. The state has since reiterated this position and contended that the tribal agitators are “misguided” and “misinformed”.
This may be partially true, as the Protection of Manipur People Bill seeks to protect all “native people” of the state. Yet, Section 2(b) spells out a deeply problematic timeline for defining “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”. Given that most tribal chiefs in the hill areas are illiterate, the limited tradition of written historical records in the 1950s and the remote location of villages where roads are conspicuous by their absence, it is impossible for census enumerators to cover and accurately record residents of all villages. Hence the fear that this could be used as a pretext by vigilante groups to transform tribal citizens into “foreigners” in their own land, signals of which already appeared in some national media, where the rationale behind this bill was explained in terms of the Meiteis wanting to secure the southern border of Manipur from “Kuki and Chin migrants from Myanmar”.
A close perusal of the Protection of Manipur People Bill also belies the position of the state, as Section 11 seeks to empower it to “remove difficulties” in the implementation of the legislation. Tribals see in this a historical pattern and sinister design to undermine and violate their constitutional and legal rights. That this provision may be subsequently used as a cover to extend, for example, the provisions of the MLR&LR Act, 1960 to the hill areas unleashed anxiety and fear among tribals. This act originally kept the “hill areas” outside its purview, though this is allegedly observed more in the breach. The minutes of the meeting of the HAC dated August 14, 2008, for example, noted its helplessness in tracing the relevant files on the transfer of as many as “17 hill pocket village/ mole hills” from the two hill districts of Churachandpur and Senapati to the three valley districts of Bishnupur, Imphal and Thoubal. This, and the fact that the extant six district councils in the hill areas are devoid of legislative and judicial powers, unlike their counterparts under the Sixth Schedule, is seen to reinforce tribal immiserisation and powerlessness.
A positive takeaway from the current tribal upsurge in the hill areas of Manipur is the rise of the “tribal” public, which cuts across clan, tribe and “national” divisions. Drawn from a class that has exposure to colleges and universities in metropolitan cities, this class makes skilful use of social media and their networks to rally for tribal rights, a task made easier by their common experience of discrimination in these cities and at home. It is this class that made possible the temporary shedding of competing political projects of the Kukis, Zomis, Hmars and Nagas. This tribal public has organised solidarity rallies and protests across Indian cities like Bangalore, Chennai, Delhi, Hyderabad and Shillong. They got a major boost as Lal Thanhawla, the chief minister of Mizoram, wrote a letter in support of them to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on September 4. Similar events are being organised in Washington and Yangon.
Given the unprecedented popular nature of this mass upsurge and the hardening of positions, it would be naive to assume that opposition to the bills is “misguided” and “misinformed”, and that they won’t affect the tribals. The popular upsurge and pillarised nature of society in Manipur underscore the importance of accommodating and not integrating the tribals. Towards this end, the bills should be withdrawn immediately, without waiting for the governor to exercise his discretion. Urgent efforts must be made to start a dialogue and consultations within and between the hill and valley communities by engaging the articulate tribal public and Meitei middle class, which has been conspicuously missing so far. Given that the state may be dead against the extension of Article 371A to the hill areas, one of the reported points of the Indo-Naga Framework Agreement of August 3, this provision must be made more robust by recalibrating it along the lines of the West Lothian question in the UK, where English parliamentarians cannot vote on matters pertaining to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. In the meantime, a more expansive framework for the Sixth Schedule must immediately be extended to the hill areas of Manipur to accommodate tribal aspirations and demands, and to break the current impasse.
The writer teaches political science at the University of Hyderabad
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines
- The Indian Express website has been rated GREEN for its credibility and trustworthiness by Newsguard, a global service that rates news sources for their journalistic standards.