Manipur on the Brink

Just three days since I wrote "The fractious demand for ILP in Manipur" about the possible impact of constitutional changes imminent in the State, violence has erupted in the tribal districts after the Manipur Legislative Assembly passed three bills - Protection of Manipur Peoples Bill, 2015, the Manipur Land Revenue & land Reforms (Seventh Amendment) Bill, 2015 and the Manipur Shop & Establishment (Second Amendment) Bill, 2015.

When the special session of the Manipur State Assembly, which began on August 28, announced that it would pass the bills on August 31, three major tribal bodies of the State - the Kuki Students' Organization, the All Naga Students' Association Manipur and the All Tribal Students' Union Manipur -- had called a 12-hour total bandh in all hill districts.

The Protection of Manipur Peoples Bill was introduced by Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh. The Manipur Land Revenue & Land Reforms and the Manipur Shop & Establishment Bills were moved by Revenue Minister Thoudam Debendra and Labour Minister Irengbam Hemochandra respectively. All three belong to the dominant Meitei community.
The Land Reforms Bill is perceived by many among the tribal Kuki and Naga communities as attempts by the Meitei community to gain access to scheduled hill districts. They argue that outsiders are never a real threat since they can neither own land in the valley areas, nor are they competitors for government jobs.

Under Section 158 of the Manipur Land Revenue & Land Reform Act 1960, land belonging to a Scheduled Tribe in the valley areas cannot be sold to a non-Scheduled Tribe person without the prior consent of the Deputy Commissioner concerned.

Further Clause 2(b) of the Protection of Manipur People Bill, which defines "Manipur People" as "Persons of Manipur whose names are in the National Register of Citizens, 1951, Census Report 1951 and Village Directory of 1951 and their descendants who have contributed collective social, cultural and economic life of Manipur" has justified apprehensions among the tribal groups.

If the bill is enacted into law, a person needs to have been enumerated in all three registers -- the National Register of Citizens, 1951, the Census Report 1951 and the Village Directory of 1951 -- to be considered as belonging to the State. Conversely, being registered in just one or two registers/directories means he or she has not met the criteria. Hence if the bill becomes a law and is implemented strictly, many people in the hill areas face the prospect of being excluded. In 1951, many of the remote hill areas were cut off, without proper communication and transportation systems --still the case for some far flung areas

Since Manipur attained Statehood status only in 1972, there is a possibility that many of the local people may be listed as outsiders because of their inability to provide the required documents. If such a situation arises, who should be blamed - the people or the government?

There is also an apprehension that the definition of "Manipur People" could be used in other Acts/Bills to deny services, facilities and amenities to the people of Manipur, especially the tribal people, in seeking government jobs, admission to schools, colleges or in case of State quota in medical and engineering admissions.

Despite the tension and violence, I still believe that one possible amicable solution for the government is to implement the Sixth Schedule in the hill areas. Under such a political arrangement, the Kukis and Nagas would enjoy autonomy in their respective areas but remain within the State of Manipur.

The extreme scenario could be that the Indian government intervenes to redraw the Manipur State boundary to allow the Kukis, Nagas and Meiteis to govern themselves under separate administrations.

Whatever the long-term solution, the immediate need is to restore peace and normalcy in the State at the earliest possible, more importantly to prevent the further loss of lives which can aggravate the already tense situation.

Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen is a U.S.-based political scientist and author of
Politics of Ethnic Conflict in Manipur. The article first appeared in The Hindu newspaper.