While much of India is roiled in protests over the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), something else took centrestage in Manipur. On December 20, 2019, the Manipur Assembly passed a resolution opposing, inter alia, “any kind of autonomy to any part of State, as a result of Framework Agreement leading to the resolution of Naga political issue”. Interestingly, rallies in Naga-dominated districts three days earlier had seen speakers predicting the creation of a regional Territorial Council (TC) for the Nagas of Manipur as part of the Indo-Naga accord. Territorial Council is a term used when the territorial limits of councils under Sixth Schedule extend beyond one district.
Anxiety over Manipur’s integrity has dominated politics in the Meitei-dominated plain areas for the last 20 years. As it becomes clear that the government is considering granting local autonomy in the form of the TC to the Nagas of Manipur in lieu of integration, the cry for protecting Manipur’s “territorial integrity” subtly transforms into preserving “the present administrative set up” of the state. Be that as it may, the idea of a Naga TC in Manipur needs close attention.
Manipur has been inhabited by three broad ethnic groups. The Naga and Zomi-Kuki tribes in the north and south have long claimed that they have never been part of Manipur historically and have demanded separation from it. The task of defending Manipur’s territorial integrity, therefore, falls on the majority Meitei community who occupy the middle plains. They have so far succeeded in preserving the status quo.
The Naga and Zomi-Kuki tribes’ demand for separation from Manipur is aligned with their aspiration for political integration with their cognate tribe-groups in the surrounding states and countries. The Nagas’ struggle for territorial integration is well known. Less known was a similar aspiration by the Zo tribes to politically re-unite their lands in present day Mizoram, the south districts of Manipur, and the Chin Hills of Burma. In fact, political reunification with their kindred tribes outside Mizoram was one major aim of the Mizo National Front (MNF) insurgency. The Indo-Mizo Accord of 1986 acknowledged this demand but didn’t accede to it. It took another 30 years for the Nagas to arrive at this point.
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Administratively, the major divide in Manipur is between the plain areas and the hill areas. The entire “Hill Areas”, covering both Naga and Zomi-Kuki tribes, always had a uniform structure of administration. In terms of local autonomy, there are the Autonomous District Councils (ADCs) set up by an Act of Parliament in 1971. There are six ADCs covering the hill areas of Manipur. Unlike the ADCs elsewhere, the ADCs in Manipur are not under the Sixth Schedule. Demands were made at various times for placing the Manipur ADCs under the Sixth Schedule, which will augment their powers. Yet, they remain unmet.
According to reports, the proposed Manipur Naga TC will be bolstered with provisions akin to Article 371A of the Constitution. Article 371A gives the Nagaland Assembly overriding powers over the Indian Parliament in respect of the Nagas’ customary laws, religious and social practices, and land and its resources. It remains to be seen how a special provision that empowers one state vis-à-vis the Union can be adapted to apply to a particular area within another state.
If the Naga TC is created, it will be the first time in Manipur’s history that the state’s administrative structure is rearranged on ethnic lines. Demarcating “Naga areas” from the rest will itself be a challenge because there are overlapping claims on territories. Manipur will take the form of three ethnic conclaves cohabiting out of necessity.
If this happens, then the existing ADCs will become redundant. Then, what will become of the rest of the Manipur hills? As it is, the Zomi-Kuki tribes, who make up the rest of the hill areas are also hoping for a TC on the lines of the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) in Assam. As was the norm in India’s Northeast, two militant groupings — United Peoples Front (UPF) and Kuki National Organisation (KNO) — as representatives of these tribes, are in talks with the Indian government. The UPF, in their detailed proposals recently submitted to the interlocutor, have laid claim to an area almost half of Manipur for their proposed Zomi/Kuki TC.
Reports of progress in the Indo-Naga talks and the idea of a Naga TC have kept people on tenterhooks. Recent days have seen mass rallies being taken out, asking the government to expedite the talks process with the UPF/KNO. It is likely that creation of a Naga TC will unleash dynamics that will make a parallel Zo/Kuki TC inevitable. Yet, the fight over claimed lands will likely consume the region, which will offset the gains from the Naga accord. It could derail the Act East Policy too.
One option is for the parties to agree to demarcating the boundary by a neutral body. Else, it may come down to upgrading the existing ADCs together and simultaneously to a higher status under the Sixth Schedule. Or, converting existing ADCs into a single TC covering the entire hill area. This will keep the boundaries ethnic-neutral and preclude fights over claimed ancestral homelands. It will assuage the Meitei’s fears on this score. Manipur will remain intact. This will, of course, be too little for some and too much for others. But under the circumstances, it may be the safest way forward.
The writer teaches political science at Churachandpur College, Lamka, Manipur. (Views are personal)
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