A faux pas in Manipur's three bills

As tensions surrounding the controversial issue of the three bills passed by the Manipur State Assembly in August last year continue to grip the state, relations between the peoples of the hill and the valley are gradually becoming divisive.

The movement for implementation of the bills, which has been spearheaded by the Joint Committee on Inner Line Permit System (JCILPS), took another turn when its convener Khomdram Ratan was declared wanted by the Manipur police on June 3.

I have previously argued that the fundamental problem of the bills lies in its interpretation. The valley people, who are predominantly Meiteis, view the bills as a mechanism to protect the state and its people from outsiders.

On the other hand, the hill people (the Kukis and the Nagas) see the bills as a threat to their rights over identity and land. They fear that the bills would legally allow the valley people to encroach their land.

The hill people also fear that if the Manipur People, 2015 bill becomes law and is implemented strictly, many of them could be excluded as 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

Whatever the misconception and misperception are, one thing is clear that the Manipur government is making a faux pas on the issue.

The state government (dominated by the majority Meiteis) and the valley people argue that the bills are largely misunderstood and misinterpreted by the hill people. They claim that the bills would not disadvantageously affect the hill people.

But the irony is that the government has not taken the necessary measures to convince the tribal people, not even the Joint Action Committee Against Anti-Tribal Bills (JACAATB), which is spearheading the agitation.

The state government, chaired by Chief Minister Ibobi Singh, met an 18-member delegation from the JACAATB on December 29 last year but did not follow up with any seriousness.

In the meeting, the JACAATB delegation requested the chief minister to convene a special session of the Manipur Legislative Assembly to review the concerns and apprehensions of the hill people.

Ibobi Singh then requested the delegation to give in writing about their concerns regarding the three bills that would potentially affect the interests of the hill people.

Subsequently on January 11 this year, the JACAATB submitted a six-page document outlining the points which they see them as 'anti-tribal' and an infringement on the constitutionally guaranteed tribal rights.

Since then, there has been no substantial talk between the two sides. While the state government claims that the JACAATB is refusing to talk, the tribal leaders say they have not received any invitation for talks from the government. The state government is also against holding any tripartite dialogue with JACAATB and the central government.

As the hill-valley confrontation continues in Manipur, an all-party delegation led by the state chief minister has reached the nation's capital to meet with the central leadership, including the prime minister and the home minister.

The only two tribal legislators in the delegation are Deputy Chief Minister Gaikhangam and President of the Manipur Pradesh Congress Committee T.N. Haokip.

Volunteers of the Manipur Tribals' Forum, who are opposing the three bills, welcomed the arrival of the all-party delegation with protest in front of Manipur Bhavan. Another group of students from Manipur gathered in support of the bills.

Meanwhile, the JACAATB, which refuses to bury the 9 tribal dead bodies, in its meeting on June 3 reiterated its demand for the immediate withdrawal of the three bills.

The other demands of the JACAATB are the implementation of sixth schedule in the hill areas as a short-term measure and a separate administration from Manipur which they believe is the only way forward to bring lasting peace and development in their region.

One major weakness of the hill people, particularly the Kukis, is that their representatives in the state assembly did not oppose the passage of the three bills. Nor do they speak out publicly in support of the agitation led by the people who elected them.

Given the deep division between the hill and valley people on the issue, it would be an ill-advised action on the part of the central government to accept the bills in its present form.

The Modi government should advise leaders of the Manipur Legislative Assembly, who are camping in New Delhi, to return back to Imphal and hold dialogue with leaders of both JCILPS and JACAATB to come to some sort of agreement.

The Manipur government should also arrange a series of meetings between leaders of the hill and valley people. Moreover, as per the constitutional requirement, the bills should go through an independent scrutiny of the Hill Areas Committee.

Giving his assent to the bills by President Pranab Mukherjee, without taking into consideration the concerns of the hill people, could potentially bring irreparable damage to the peaceful co-existence of peoples of the hill and the valley, which would be a greater headache for the central government.

Nehginpao Kipgen is Assistant Professor and Executive Director of Centre for Southeast Asian Studies at Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University, and the author of 'Politics of Ethnic Conflict in Manipur'.