Row over traditional land ownership at Nagaland-Manipur border in focus | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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Prolonged row over traditional land ownership at Nagaland-Manipur border in focus

ByAlice Yhoshü
Mar 03, 2024 06:50 AM IST

The dispute is over traditional ownership of the "Kezoltsa" forest along the scenic Dzükou valley which stretches across Nagaland and Manipur states

A decades-old traditional land ownership dispute between three Naga tribal communities of Nagaland (Angami) and Manipur (Mao and Maram) has come into focus after the matter was raised in the recent state assembly session, with the state government assuring that it would protect the traditional land of the people.

Dzukou Valley Sacred Grove, Nagaland: The Dzukou Valley Sacred Grove is located on the border of Nagaland and Manipur. It is considered to be a sacred grove of the Angami Naga tribe(Instagram/@jitofalltrades) PREMIUM
Dzukou Valley Sacred Grove, Nagaland: The Dzukou Valley Sacred Grove is located on the border of Nagaland and Manipur. It is considered to be a sacred grove of the Angami Naga tribe(Instagram/@jitofalltrades)

The dispute is over traditional ownership of the "Kezoltsa" forest (also called Koziirii and Kazing in different Naga tribal dialects) along the scenic Dzükou valley which stretches across Nagaland and Manipur states.

Independent legislator Kevipodi Sophie who raised the matter in the House said that the issue was not an attempt to alter or change any political state boundary, though drawn without the consent of the local dwellers, but to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on whichever side of the arbitrary boundary it may fall.

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Nagaland deputy chief minister in charge of home and border affairs, Yanthungo Patton assured to protection of the traditional land of the people while calling for an amicable resolution of the dispute through the concerned tribal bodies.

The dispute

The ancestral and traditional lands lie across the Nagaland-Manipur political state boundary, which was drawn without the consent of the locals — living in the southern Angami villages of Nagaland under the banner of Southern Angami Public Organization (SAPO), the neighbouring Mao Naga villages of Manipur under Mao Council, and Maram Naga villages of Manipur under Maram Khullen.

As per the southern Angamis, who have traditional stewardship claims over the disputed area, Mao people have no traditional territory that borders with Kezoltsa and this is acknowledged also by the people of Maram of Manipur who share a common traditional ancestral boundary with the Angamis. The Mao people, on the other hand, say their traditional land extends to where the southern Angami had built a rest house in the Kezoltsa area, and alleged that the latter had encroached into the traditional land of the Maos.

According to the Mao Council, there is already a 1933 decree of the Manipur Darbar, settling the boundary between Maram Khullen and the Mao people. It claims that till 2016, the Kezoltsa/Koziirii issue was only between the Mao Council and the SAPO but the Maram Khullen came into the picture all of a sudden.

Also Read | Nagaland deputy CM assures to protect traditional land amid tribal communities dispute

The Mao Council asserts that Kezoltsa is within the Manipur boundary, however, it may be noted that the ownership claimed by the southern Angamis is of ancestral and traditional land, and not of disputing the political state boundary. The southern Angamis want recognition of the traditional rights and ownership of the people to protect and preserve Kezoltsa, and recognition of the same by both the state governments and the civil societies.

The row between the communities started more than three decades ago.

How it has played out over the years

There have been accusations and counter-claims of heavy logging, destruction and extraction of forest products in the disputed area which prompted the Southern Angamis to construct a rest house to monitor, protect and preserve the flora and fauna of the Kezoltsa forest. However, Mao volunteers from Songsong village of Manipur destroyed the rest house. The case went before the court of the Tenyimi People's Organization (TPO), an umbrella body of 10 Naga tribes that share a common kinship including the conflicting Angami, Mao and Maram tribes. In February 2001, the TPO ruled that the destroyed rest house should be re-constructed to its original shape by the accused Songsong village within 20 days.

Although tensions occur at intervals, in 2015, the Maos accused the southern Angamis of fresh encroachments into their territory in the disputed area which led to calls for economic blockade and counter-blockade between the two communities. The tensions gradually escalated into a serious law and order issue. The Manipur government deployed its armed forces and carried out various development activities within the disputed land, which further aggravated the situation.

Consequently, TPO, the apex body of the conflicting tribes, took the issue into its traditional court. In 2017, the SAPO of Nagaland and Mao Council and Maram Khullen of Manipur signed an “arbitration undertaking” under the TPO to resolve the matter through the Naga customary system.

The contending tribes agreed to maintain a peaceful atmosphere till the matter was resolved by TPO's "Board of Arbitrators". In December 2020, a massive inferno broke out in Dzükou spreading on either side of the two states. During this, the Mao Council reportedly allowed the Manipur government to construct a road, a security station, electrification and carry out jungle-clearing in the area. In October 2021, the Manipur police reportedly demolished the two decade-old SAPO rest house, leading to protests.

Against this backdrop, the TPO, along with the heads of its arbitration panel, SAPO, Mao Council (MC) and the Maram Khullen wrote to the chief minister of Manipur in November 2021, explaining that those actions were in contravention of the “arbitration undertaking” signed by the owners of the land who had agreed to not allow any activity in the disputed area pending resolution.

“The action of the Manipur government over the present disputed land is violative of the rights of the tribal people over their land. By operation of law, the land holding system in the tribal belt is totally different from that of the cadastral land. In cadastral land, the land belongs to the state whereas the land in tribal area belongs to the community, village, clans or private individuals as the land falls under non-cadastral land. Thus, the state government cannot take up any activities in the ‘tribal land’ without prior approval from the land owners or by adopting land acquisition process,” the joint representation said, and asked the Manipur CM to withdraw the state police personnel from the land in dispute.

The present status

The SAPO and MC rejected the TPO’s verdict delivered last year. Since then, tension between the communities has persisted. Meanwhile, taking serious note of the situation, the Angami Public Organization (APO), the parent body of SAPO, approached all three parties and obtained their consent through several rounds of talks in order to resolve the decades-old chronic land disputes amicably.

The APO maintained that while it exercised the best of its wisdom and influence to SAPO to refrain from taking any extreme measures against the Mao people, it observed that the Mao people appear to be taking the advantage of the goodwill and spirit of brotherhood shown to them. Towards this end, the APO on January 20 issued an ultimatum to Mao Council, that it must take full responsibility to withdraw the Manipur police and all its security apparatus stationed at the disputed area on or before February 20 to enable the TPO and APO leaders to go and oversee the complete range of dispute and scope of pronouncing an agreeable and honourable solution. It cautioned that in the event of failure to comply with the Mao Council, the APO shall support any action taken by SAPO.

Subsequently, on February 1, Mao Council wrote to chief minister N Biren Singh requesting to issue necessary order for withdrawal of the Manipur security forces and security apparatus stationed in the disputed area to enable smooth conduct of visit of the area by the APO and the TPO officials and thereby facilitate the resolution of the dispute and the restoration of relationship between the conflicting communities.

On February 10, the MC wrote to APO informing that it had met the CM.

"The Chief Minister responded by stating that the police force/government property has been set up for the protection of the state boundary. But, as requested, the matter will be looked into," MC wrote. In addition, it stated that for finding a resolution to the land dispute amongst kindred tribes as per customary law and practices, Singh assured of the state government's cooperation including lifting of the 144 CrPC under promulgation in the area. The prohibitory order has been rescinded by the district administration of Senapati.

Ultimatum date expires

Now, in view of the expiry of the APO ultimatum and the Manipur police forces yet to be withdrawn, APO on Wednesday held a marathon meeting in Kohima. Officials of the organisation did not wish to comment on the matter, but it has been learnt that APO reaffirmed its decision mentioned in its ultimatum.

Attempts made to reach out to Manipur government representatives failed while Mao Council president N Athikho Joseph has also refused to comment on the matter.

Meanwhile, MLA Sophie who is a representative of the southern Angami region, suggests that the key to drawing an amicable solution is for the state governments to recognize and respect the traditional ownership.

"This traditional ownership by the Maos is duly acknowledged by the Angamis of Nagaland and the latter has never claimed this traditional land of the Maos even though it falls within the political boundary of Nagaland. Not only that, since some portion of the Khuzama TB hospital of Nagaland Government stands on the land of the Maos, even 15 post of Grade IV post were granted to the Mao people of Manipur by the government of Nagaland at TB Hospital as acknowledgement of their ownership even though Mao is not a recognised tribe of Nagaland. Such instances of traditional ownership across the arbitrary state boundary exist not only in this Angami area but also under Phek district of Nagaland," he said.

Towards this end, the MLA underscored the need for the Nagaland government to find means to facilitate and resolve the issue with due recognition of genuine traditional owners through the prevailing customary and traditional laws.

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