In Manipur, an 'explosion of anxiety' stalks hills and valley

  • Prashant Jha, Hindustan Times, Churachandpur/Imphal
  • Updated: Sep 09, 2015 12:44 IST
Members of JAC in Churachandpur look at bills and allege it is anti-tribal. (Prashant Jha/HT Photo)

On Monday afternoon, it appeared as if the entire town of Churachandpur had descended on the district hospital.

Hundreds waited inside, a majority of them women, and many climbed up the emergency and trauma centre building, peering out of windows. Young men had their mobile phones cameras on as they stood patiently at the gate. A convoy of motorbikes, SUVs, and finally, a large jeep of the Young Vaiphei Association drove in.

En Khankhup was brought back home – but in a coffin, with a white shroud and a cross.

Women wailed and men broke down as the body was brought out and kept in the middle of the hospital. Community leaders paid their respects and then made a public address. Khankhup joined eight others, fellow protestors who had been killed during an agitation last week in Churachandpur, in a morgue.

Lacking cold storage facilities, the morgue has been equipped with two ACs, with 24-hour electricity supply arranged, as the dead men wait for a political solution they failed to achieve in their lives.

"Public opinion here is that we must not conduct the burial ceremony till the government acts and fulfills our demands, repeals the three laws, and gives us a separate administration. We cannot trust the valley anymore," says Sasang Vaiphei of the Kuki Students Organisation.

Meitei push for regulation

Manipur has been in the middle of political unrest for over two months now. At the heart of it lie the three laws, which Vaiphei referred to, and competing narratives around the issue between the Meitei dominated valley and tribes dominated hill region. And underlying it is a sense of fear on both sides, fueled by misunderstanding and power imbalance.

People in the Imphal valley – Meiteis – had been agitating for the introduction of the Inner Line Permit system. This permit would regulate the entry of non-Manipuris into the state as well as bar them from acquiring assets. One student was killed in police firing on July 8 and this only gave the movement a further fillip.

Those leading the protests claimed there had been a massive influx of outsiders in the state, and their opportunities were being squeezed. An Imphal police constable told HT, "The Biharis, Marwaris, and Punjabis are doing business in the capital. We will be reduced to a minority in our land."

There is an 'explosion of anxieties' in the valley, says Pradip Panjhoubam, editor of the Imphal Free Press, a respected Manipur daily. "They feel under siege. In the north, Naga districts want to carve out and merge with Nagalim. The Naga accord has only made people in the valley apprehensive about the implications for the state's territorial integrity. Across the hills, they cannot buy land even though people of the hills can buy land here. They also see what has happened in other northeastern states with outsiders coming in. All of this has added to paranoia and fear of being marginalised."

Eventually, the government passed the three bills to meet the concerns of the protestors. Among them two are contentious.

In The Protection of Manipur People Bill, 2015, the 'people of Manipur' have now been defined as those whose names are there in the official records since 1951. Severe restrictions have been imposed on outsiders - they now have to register with a directorate of the government as soon as they entered the state and they would then be issued a pass for six months, subject to extension. The directorate would also keep track of all tenants.

A second act – which was actually an amendment to the Manipur land revenue and land reforms bill – made land transaction for non-Manipuris across the state contingent on state approval.

At the Churachandpur district hospital, a big crowd receives En Khankhup, the ninth dead after violence last week. (Prashant Jha/HT Photo)

Tribal backlash

This, however, triggered a backlash from the tribal groups in the hill districts of the state – primarily the Kukis, Zomis and Chins, as well as the Nagas – who saw it as 'anti-tribal'.

There is a historical context here. Tribal groups have been deeply resentful of the Meitei domination of the Manipur state structure, the overwhelming concentration of resources and 'development' in the valley, and have demanded separation from it. They also see the demand for the ILP as a precursor to Meiteis asking for ST status since the other states which have ILP are all tribal states. If Meiteis get it, this would eat into the share of other tribal groups in reserved categories.

Thuampi, an advocate in Churachandpur, explained to Hindustan Times the tribal case against what he saw as inter-related bills. It did not help that the government pushed ahead with the bill without consulting authorised bodies like the Hill Areas Council.

The first issue was the decision to have 1951 as the cut-off date – those registered in official records before that year were to be people of Manipur, and those after would be considered foreigners. "Very few tribals, if any, would be registered in the Census. There was no access to the hills, very little communication. If this is passed, we will all become foreigners."

This was the most widespread refrain we heard during conversations with the tribals, angry that despite being here for generations, they were facing the prospect of being termed outsiders. This in turn would deprive them of services, access to opportunities and right to procure assets.

The second objection, Thuampi said, was that the amendment to the land revenue and reforms act did away with the distinction between the hills and the valley.

At the outset, the bill frames the debate in terms of hill versus valley question – while the valley area is 10% of the state, and hills comprise 90%, 60% of the people live in the valley which has a density of 730 while in the hills it is 61. The bill then states that non-Manipur persons and entities who want to purchase any land 'in the state of Manipur' shall submit an application to the deputy commissioner of the district where the land is to be purchased. The DC will solicit recommendation from the local bodies and make inquiries and submit the application and report of the inquiry to the state government and it is the state cabinet which will have the authority to approve the transaction.

"Earlier, in the case of the hills, Autonomous District Council was the final authority for land transaction. This power has been given to the cabinet," said Thaumpi. This in turn has given rise to a perception among tribal activists that the land arrangements in the state are almost being reversed; that since they would be categorised as non-Manipuris under the first act, it would make it impossible for them to purchase land.

"And while it makes it difficult for us to buy and sell land even in the hills, the valley people can penetrate into the hills with state permission. They want to commoditize our land, and destroy our culture," Lianzamung Tunsing, a member of the Joint Action Committee in Churachandpur, told HT, a little distance away from the district hospital.

The JAC is the umbrella civil society body of tribals negotiating with the government in the town now.

Violence to uneasy calm

It was in this backdrop that the violence erupted.

HT spoke to government officials, who wished to remain anonymous, protesters, and members of civil society to piece together the turn of violence in Churachandpur.

On August 31, student outfits had called a bandh. It went off peacefully and at 5pm government officials breathed a sigh of relief. But within an hour, they began receiving calls from ministers and MLAs of the region from Imphal, who said their homes were close to being burnt.

Tribal protesters were angry at these leaders for not opposing the bills in the legislature. It was also a rare moment when different tribal student and civil society groups – especially Kukis and Nagas who have been adversaries and rivals – had come together against the bills.

Thousands had surrounded the homes of five MLAs and one MP. The deputy commissioner's car was burnt while he was on his way to the troubled sites. At some point, there seems to have been a request for reinforcements and paramilitary forces were called in. Clashes erupted and by the end of the evening, four people had died. Two were killed in firing; one arsonist died when he could not come out of one of the burning houses and one protester died in an accident.

Protestors put up placards during a demonstration in Churachandpur. (Prashant Jha/HT Photo)

The next day, protesters had again engaged in mass demonstrations and defied the curfew. Even as the government and civil society were negotiating, protests intensified. Here, narratives diverge.

Officials say that after a two-hour scuffle, agitators burnt down a police station gate and were marching in. To defend themselves, police personnel had no choice but to shoot, and four more people were killed. Tribal activists, however, say that it was the police which had been provocative, and engaged in ruthless suppression. To support their version they show a video which indicates that cops were kicking protestors with the butt of their rifle unprovoked.

The police response has fed into the tribal perception of being discriminated.

"For the valley, they use rubber bullets; for us, they use live bullets. In the valley, one person dies after two months of agitation; in the hills, nine people die after two days of protests. In the valley, they use tear gas sporadically. In the hill, they even use expired tear gas," a woman activist of a human rights said on the condition of anonymity. She told HT they had decided only JAC members would speak to the media.

Local officials are very keen to restore order, and know they cannot do it without the citizens cooperating. The Imphal government has sent the additional DGP to Churachandpur; he belongs to the district and is a tribal. Authorities have reached out to the JAC, which is keen on maintaining peace as well.

The most striking element of the current peace approach is the presence of women's groups at the forefront in all sensitive areas in the town. They carry placards, which speak out against the bills and the police response; but they are also a layer of protection from mob action and are protecting public property. A police official says, "We are relying heavily on them rather than deploying security forces. Their presence deters the younger radicals."

Government clarification

But while there is uneasy peace, what remains unresolved is the politics.

A full week after the violence had erupted, N Ashok Kumar, secretary to the chief minister of Manipur, issued a detailed clarification on Monday.

The government statement asserted that as far as the 1951 cut-off in the protection of manipur people bill was concerned, this was intended only 'for outsiders/non Manipuri persons who migrated into the state since 1951 and does not apply to the people of Manipur who were born and lived in the state'.

Pointing to a provision of the act which says it does not apply to the 'native people' of the state, the government said that native people include all sections/tribes living in the hills and valleys of Manipur.

"The apprehension that the tribal people who were then residing but not registered in the Census of 1951 cannot live in Manipur is totally false and misleading."

The government has added that in case this clarification does not convince people, they would be willing to amend the act, and so there is 'no need for panic'.

On the issue of the land bill, the government has said that this only applies to the areas where the original act is enforced.

"The bill does not affect the tribal areas of Manipur… MLR&LR does not extend to the hill areas of Manipur and the present seventh amendment does not, in any way, make any provision for the extension of the Act to the Hill Areas."

It added that the people living in tribal areas need not fear at all.

Whether this clarification will work and how Imphal balances the demands of the Meiteis with that of the deep grievances – real or perceived – of the tribals will determine when peace returns to the state as well as the nature of Manipur's future political order.

The dead men in the morgue are waiting.

Women at a protest site in Churachandpur. (Prashant Jha/HT Photo)

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