It is said that there are always two sides to every story and the truth lies somewhere in between. But in Manipur, the truth lies not only somewhere in between, but it is unfailingly wrapped in several layers of conflicting interpretations.
Take, for example, the simmering Churachandpur case. The tribal-hill district erupted on August 31, after the state legislature passed the Protection of Manipur People Bill, 2015, and two amendments: The Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms (7th Amendment) Bill and the Manipur Shops and Establishments (2nd Amendment) Bill. The Bills were the culmination of an agitation by the non-tribal Meitei in the Imphal valley for introducing an Inner Line Permit system to regulate and curtail the entry of ‘non-Manipuris’ into the state. The hill people, mainly tribals, did not take part in these agitations.
While the Congress government claims that the three Bills were drawn up after a thorough consultation with all MLAs, including tribal representatives, tribal groups deny it. They allege that they were not consulted and that the Bills will lead to an encroachment of tribal areas by the people of the plains — mostly Meitei.
The tribals versus Meitei issue is an old one in the state; tribals allege that the hill districts are under-developed as compared to the Imphal Valley. This allegation is not untrue. While the tribals have land, the Meitei people have political power — 40 seats in the 60-seat legislative assembly are Meitei seats.
The passage of the three Bills led to protests by tribal student groups on August 31 and September 1 in Churachandpur. The police over-reacted and shot several locals. It has been 245 days since the killings but tribals are refusing to bury nine protesters, six of whom were allegedly killed by the police. They want a rollback of the three Bills.
“The police never use live bullets during protests in the Valley. But in the hill district they have done so repeatedly,” T Romeo Hmar, convener, Manipur Tribal Forum Delhi, told me when I met him at BJP MP Tarun Vijay’s residence recently.
Hmar was leading a delegation comprising the mothers of some young men killed to the residence of Vijay, who has taken a keen ‘personal interest’ in the issue. “These people want a solution within the constitutional framework of the country and a panel must be set up to look into the issue … Their voice must be heard in Delhi,” Vijay told me.
Though Vijay said that his interest in the matter had nothing to do with the assembly elections in 2017, not many are buying the argument. They are still not a force in the state but in November, the party won two by-elections in two assembly constituencies and opened their account in the assembly.
Vijay said that he would impress upon the government to set up a panel to look into their demands and promised to take them to meet home minister Rajnath Singh, who said he would look into it but is yet to give any concrete solution. Two days later, Hmar said: “We have been let down by both the state and central governments. When will the tribals of Manipur be given the protection as enshrined in the Constitution?”
In Imphal, of course, the Congress thinks the Centre is instigating the unrest. “It is a law and order situation and we will sort it out,” Manipur Pradesh Congress president Biren Singh told me, adding that the Centre must ensure that the underground groups that have ‘suspended operations’ are confined to camps and are made to follow ground rules, referring mainly to the ‘machinations’ of the NSCN(I-M), which signed a peace pact with the Centre last year.
How to break the logjam now? No one seems to have an idea and every stakeholder is busy securing his own corner. The government says it wants to talk, the tribal leaders say that’s not the indication they have got. Journalists in Imphal say they don’t know where things are going, and those on the ground in Churachandpur don’t want to comment, lest they upset the tribal groups. The tribal community is still holding on to their stand that they will not bury the bodies without any resolution.
It’s now a question of who will blink first.