It has been 160 days since the bodies of nine tribals (six allegedly killed in police firing) have been lying in the district morgue of Churachandpur, about 60 kms south of Imphal, the capital of Manipur. Some of the dead were part of the protests held on August 31 and September 1, 2015, against three bills passed by the state government – the Protection of Manipur People bill, Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms (7th Amendment) bill and the Manipur Shops and Establishments (2nd Amendment) Bill.
The bills are seen as ‘anti-tribal’ in the state’s tribal Hill areas, and the people refuse to bury the dead who, they say, had died for a cause.
“The first bill infringes on the identity of tribals, the second infringes on land rights and the last infringes on our economy,” says Sang Lethil, a member of the Joint Action Committee (JAC), which is leading the protests. In the Valley, however, people see the proposed legislation as a means to safeguard the rights of Manipuris from ‘outsiders’.
Almost six months after the event, Churachandpur still mourns its dead, who have been accorded the status of martyrs. Everyday, people converge outside the mortuary, where six symbolic coffins are placed under a tent. They light candles, sing hymns, shout slogans and pray to God for the central government to intervene.
“On other days we used to think about our daily chores. Now, when it strikes 10, we leave for the morgue. We sit there, tears follow and we look at where they (the bodies) are. It’s very difficult,” says 58-year-old Vunching, mother of Thangzalian Phaipi, 33-year-old school van driver who was killed in the protests.
At first, the morgue had no cold storage. The local people installed three air conditioners. Everyday, they would procure 16 blocks of ice from Moirang, a town 30 kms away from Churachandpur, and place them in the morgue to bring down the temperature. It wasn’t enough. This went on for 100 days during which time, three men, Pausonlian (21), Joseph (22) and Thangzamuan (24) took care of the bodies. Fitting the rigid and bloated bodies into coffins was a task. And then there was the smell. Locally grown ash gourd and lemon grass were used to dispel the odour, but that wasn’t enough.
“We had to seal the coffins after a month. The body had started decomposing excessively, with body fluids oozing out and leaking from the coffins. We wrapped them [coffins] with aluminium foil to be sure,” says Thangzamuan. The state sent a cold storage well after the bodies had decomposed and fallen apart.
“It sometimes gets to you. They all died such gruesome deaths,” Thangzamuan says showing videos from the protest as we sit around a bonfire outside the morgue. One video showed two boys being shouted down by armed men in uniform. As the policemen slap the boys, a soldier (who seems to be from the Indian Reserve Battalion) rushes up and strikes one of the boys with his rifle butt. “This is what angered everyone. How can they do that to an unarmed boy?” asks one of the men around the bonfire. Another video shows a victim on his death bed, his burnt body wrapped with only his face visible, responding to his sister’s prayers with Hallelujah and Amen! In their grief and their determination not to forget, those holding the vigil outside the morgue watch these videos every day.
In November, the JAC suspended its daily progammes outside the mortuary and requested people to resume their normal lives. Twice, the community leaders, JAC and tribal organisations even tried to give the dead a decent burial. This was not well received by the general populace for whom the dead have become a symbol of something larger. The JAC later resolved to resume protests, with daily sit-ins being organised now outside the police station where they still refuse to register FIRs. “Our sons didn’t die of poverty or illness but because of the agitation, especially Khaijamang, he was so young. Did the police see him as an enemy? He was shot dead and after all this the government refuses to register FIRs,” says Nemneilhing Touthang, mother of the 11-year-old Kuki boy, who was killed in the firing. A widow, Touthang, who sells vegetables and weaves clothes for a living, refuses to stop protesting. Others spoke about militants attempting to coerce the group to bury the bodies.
At the crux of the agitation against the bills -- that led to the targeting of state buildings and the torching of the houses of the MP from Outer Manipur, Thangso Baite and six tribal MLAs, including the state health minister Phungzathang Tonsing, and the death of the nine individuals who remain unburied -- is the issue of ethnicity that continues to plague Manipur. “The spontaneous violent reaction was because of the accumulation of our grievances over decades. Grievances of lack of development, security and opportunity. If these bills don’t get approved, it doesn’t matter. Another will come,” says JAC convener H Mangchinkhup Guite.
The tribals believe they are discriminated against not just in the Imphal valley, but in the mainland too. J Mavio, the co-convener of Manipur Tribals’ Forum Delhi (MTFD) says they are never considered as part of Manipur. Mavio, a Naga from Manipur’s Senapati district, says his district is neglected just like the others in Hill areas. “They never developed the hill areas. The districts of Churachandpur, Chandel, Senapati and Ukhrul are all part of Manipur. You can’t just be a chief minister of the Imphal valley,” he says. “If you have a garden, will you only develop a part of the area and neglect the other part?” asks T Romeo Hmar, MTFD convener and a tribal from Churachandpur.
While members of the Hill tribes worry about losing their land, similar concerns plague those in the valley, who fret that their culture is being overwhelmed by the influx of ‘outsiders’. The valley, which comprises the four districts of Thoubal, Bishnupur, Imphal East and West is home to the mostly Hindu Meiteis. The Land bill mentions that 10 percent of Manipur’s area lies in the valley; the rest is in the hills. However, 60 per cent of the population lives in the valley. As a result of the pressure on land, groups in the valley have been lobbying for a change in the old land laws and to keep a check on migrants. The Joint Committee on Inner Line Permit System (JCILPS), an umbrella organisation of 30 civil society bodies, demanded that the government introduce the Inner Line Permit (ILP), a colonial-era regulation that allows the government to regulate movement in protected areas. The ILP was originally used by the British to safeguard their commercial interests.
In March 2015, the Manipur government introduced and passed the Regulation of Visitors, Tenants and Migrant Workers’ Bill, which required the monitoring of the entry of ‘outsiders’ to the state. Hardliners believed the bill lacked teeth and forced the government to withdraw it in July. The JCILPS was not convinced that the earlier bill would be enough and it had neglected to protect land in the valley. Historian Lokendra Arambam, who drafted the ILP memorandum to the state government, believes the protests are a result of “the consciousness of a demographic crisis”, adding, “Look at the way foreigners are dealing with locals in Assam, Tripura and Sikkim.” Arambam refers to the Assam language movement, the communal conflict there, and the Tripuri communal riots, and says the history of the two neighbouring states acts as a lesson to Manipur. “There is a need to put a check on outsiders taking over the structure of power, trades, business interest and others,” he says. And then there is politics. Former chief minister Radhabinod Koijam believes the current Manipur CM Okram Ibobi Singh made a grave mistake by taking the debate to the streets. The issue simmered until finally, in July 2015, violent protests broke out in Imphal valley. The protestors wanted a quick passage of the ILP. On July 8, a 17-year-old student from the valley died when police fired tear gas at the protestors.
While those in the valley were clamouring for the new bill, the many tribals in the Hill areas – Naga, Kuki, Paite and Hmar, among others, who are mostly Christian – believe the land reform is an attempt to take over their land. They fear they will become foreigners in their own land. Arambam disagrees. He says the hill-valley divide is a new phenomenon, which was created by forces outside the state to tackle insurgency in Manipur. “There was a massive anti-AFSPA movement in the 1970s and 80s and the hill people joined in their traditional dresses to show their solidarity. It was a period of great union because we were equally affected,” he says. The tribal communities blame state politics for the divide and are demanding that the centre intervene.
POLITICS OF IDENTITY
“We don’t want a separate state, only separate administration and extension of the Sixth schedule,” says Hmar. The Sixth schedule of the constitution, enjoyed by the tribal areas of Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram, gives more autonomy to manage tribal affairs. Incidentally, Manipur already has six Autonomous District Councils (ADCs) administering the tribal areas and a Hill Areas Committee, that comprises 19 MLAs from tribal areas. The locals allege the ADCs are largely powerless and the MLAs have been “bought over” by the valley. Many in Imphal ask why they didn’t speak out when the bills were tabled.
The state’s politicians think the tribes are unnecessarily wary of the bills. Thangso Baite, the MP representing the tribal areas of Outer Manipur says the state government is ready for discussions. So why isn’t there a dialogue? “They want the central government to intervene and refuse to discuss it with the state. There are some sections in the Hills who don’t want it to happen,” says Baite. What about demands of a separate administration? “They cannot demand everything,” he says adding that the Naga peace talks would not have a fallout on the issue. But several politicians voice Manipuri apprehensions about the Naga accord. They see it as a threat to their territorial integrity. When RN Ravi, interlocutor between the centre and the Naga militant outfit NSCN (IM), went to Imphal in September, he was welcomed with placards of “Stop Delhi’s conspiracy theory” and shouts of “Go back RN Ravi”. The visit was seen as an attempt to further divide the hills and plains. Meitei leaders see it as part of the centre’s attempts to unite warring tribal communities.
The point of contention that further divides the people of the hills and the valley is the Manipur government’s decision to establish who exactly is a Manipuri. ‘Manipur people’ says the Protection of Manipur People Bill, ‘means Persons of Manipur whose names are in the National Register of Citizens, 1951 Census Report 1951 and Village Directory of 1951 and their descendants’. According to the Bill, these descendents are also expected to have contributed to the collective social, cultural and economic life of Manipur. The Hill people contest that if 1951, a period when many tribal areas were hardly accessible, is considered a benchmark, a large number of them would be declared foreigners. So then who is a Manipuri? “We’re not Manipuri. We’ll never be Manipuri. It refers only to Meitei, not the tribals,” says R Sanga, a JAC member. “We were always independent. Our lands, our rights, our identity was not given to us by Manipur, by India, or the British. It was a god-given land to us,” says Romeo Hmar, who does not see himself as Manipuri.
The people of the valley, however, don’t see the hills as separate. “The people in the valley trace their origins to the hills in the protohistoric past before they were detribalized,” says Arambam. “The hill and the valley were once the same.”
What all this means is that each side tries to protect its identity. In this ongoing theatre of conflict, what remains forgotten are the nine decomposed bodies in Churachandpur’s morgue. Why doesn’t the state government address this issue and order a judicial inquiry or register FIR, you ask. “It’s not possible. An inquiry will not be done unless things are properly discussed,” says former CM Radhabinod, who later adds that the nine deaths are being used as a bargaining chip. MP Baite has similar views, “An inquiry is not necessary. If they demand and discuss the issue, then there can be one, only if it is necessary,” he says. The politicians are reluctant to anger the valley. The elections are next year.