Manipur unrest : Before 3 Bills and beyond ; Manipur, a broken society, needs mending or break-up

Jalun Haokip *

ILP : Tribal Unity Day marking one year of protest against 3 Bills at Churachandpur  :: August 31 2016
ILP : Tribal Unity Day marking one year of protest against 3 Bills at Churachandpur on August 31 2016 :: Pix - Thangpu Simte

More than a year has passed since the passage of the 3 contentious bills returned later in June 2016 by the President for re-examination yet there is no abatement in the equally forceful movements for and against the bills, and the bodies of the 9 'tribal martyrs' who were killed while protesting in the immediate aftermath of the passage of what the tribals call 'anti-tribal bills' in Manipur Assembly on August 31, 2015 are still unburied, awaiting justice.

Meanwhile, Manipur government has presented a new draft bill 'Manipur Regulation of Non-Local People Act, 2016' almost identical with the previous PMP Bill except the 1972 cut-off year instead of 1951.

Whereas the tribals, who are still on full protest mode, have decried the new bill as 'a slap in the face', the State government's failure, despite its earlier assurance, to introduce an ILPS (Inner Line Permit System) bill in the Assembly session that concluded on September 5 has infuriated ILPS supporters who have been rallying en masse and even attempted to storm the Assembly and other important government offices, sticking to their demand for an ILPS with 1951 as base year.

There are serious drawbacks in the new bill despite the claim to protect the indigenous people of Manipur from the influx of outsiders. Section 1(2) of the bill states, "It shall extend to the whole of the State of Manipur", meaning it covers both the valley and the hills, with no exception to tribals or hill districts.

Section 2(b) defines 'Local People' as "Persons who are citizens of India and who have been ordinary residents of the State of Manipur immediately before the attainment of Statehood on January 21, 1972, and their descendants residing in Manipur". Who qualifies to be an 'ordinary resident' is linked to names entered in the electoral rolls for 1972 or the nearest subsequent years. Section 2(c) defines Non-Local People as "a person who is a citizen of India but is not covered by clause (b) of this section".

The definition of 'local people' will exclude not only other Indian citizens, but also many indigenous people of Manipur both in the valley and the hills instead of protecting them. The tribals are more susceptible due to poor literacy or recording system, non-registration in electoral rolls due to being non-mandatory, loss or damage of electoral rolls, printing or spelling error or deletion or variation of names and particulars on electoral rolls and concealment or falsification of information.

The eligibility criteria for local people should be more inclusive to ensure no original person of Manipur is missed out. As done in Assam for updation of National Register of Citizens, apart from electoral rolls, admissible documents for eligibility could have included Land/Tenancy/Court Record, Citizenship/Domicile/Service/Employment Certificate, Passport, LIC, Any Government issued License/Certificate, Bank/Post Office Accounts, Birth/Educational Certificate etc.

Alternatively, the purview of the Act could be confined to the valley, to the exclusion of hill districts and all tribals of Manipur, to remove tribals' concerns.

The power of immunity accorded to State government authority under sections 5, 7 and 9 is highly concerning as there is no room for checks and balances, or avenue for redress of grievances, thus encouraging abuse of power by authority. The government could be reduced to a totalitarian regime.

A close look at section 5 reveals that while the State government is unaccountable in enforcement of the Act, it has unrealistic expectations and puts the pressure on local people, who the bill claims to protect. The requirements for local people/house owner to report about non-local people and tenant every fortnight and the slapping of penalty (Rs.2000-5000) for non-compliance would prove to be burdensome, unachievable, breeding corruption and discriminatory. The government should be accountable rather than harassing the people.

Section 10(3) states that every rule made under this Act shall be laid before the Manipur Legislative Assembly. No part of the bill makes mention of Hill Area Committee (HAC), the only legislative provision under article 371C of Indian constitution for protection of tribal interest in the 60-member Assembly where non-tribal representatives outnumber tribal representatives by three to one, leaving them at the mercy of the valley people. Similar is the case with all major political parties. Like the previous one, the new bill is apparently designed to bypass HAC, undermining tribal rights and interest.

Although the question of constitutionality of the bill may rest with experts or court, I believe that in a democratic country a marginalised group has the right to demand a special protective law. For example, in Australia the Aborigines (the indigenous Australians) got back significant land and cultural rights under different Acts after decades of indigenous rights movements. There are permit systems in many Aboriginal communities where non-Aborigines, including government servants, are required to obtain a permit to enter.

Surely the year-long tribal uprising, and continuing, has to do with the passage of the 3 bills, which was the trigger point for the uprising, but there is more to it than the bills. Given the tribals' deep sense of historical and ongoing mistreatment and systemic discrimination by Manipur Government which is devoid of balance of power, it makes sense and touches the heart when they chanted slogans like "tribals have no future in Manipur". Just as the valley people have the right to feel safe, secure and protected of their land, culture, identity and of their future, so do the tribals.

Clearly the existing safeguards for tribals, such as the toothless HAC, the Manipur Land Reforms and Land Revenue Act, 1960 (which originally excluded, but later on extended to some parts of, hill (tribal) areas), the Manipur (Hill Areas) District Councils Act, 1971 (false autonomy) and other laws supposedly for protecting tribals have failed to protect them.

As if the tribals have not felt discriminated against enough, attempts to introduce bills after bills considered by the tribals as targeted at them and the vocal demand for Schedule Tribe status for the dominant and relatively advanced Meitei community (valley people) is only adding insult to injury.

The tribals' legitimate discontent and demand for separate administration will not disappear but heighten in the absence of autonomy at least under 6th Schedule, a special constitutional safeguard [under Articles 244 (2) & 275(1)] with legislative, executive and judicial powers for protection of tribal people's interests and rights to their land, culture, identity and development.

6th Schedule is extended in tribal areas of Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram, but not Manipur till today due to the State government's refusal to devolve power to the tribals despite Centre's keenness which was again demonstrated in its letter dated May 7, 2015 to Government of Manipur under the subject 'Extension of the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution in the Hill Areas of Manipur'. The history of Manipur tribals' demand for 6th Schedule dates back to 1978 when the HAC consisting of all tribal MLAs unanimously passed a resolution demanding 6th schedule.

It is essential that the government and valley people acknowledge tribals' concerns. Likewise the tribals should acknowledge valley people's legitimate concern about the fast-growing demographic imbalance against the backdrop of unregulated influx of outsiders into the state, especially in the valley.

Restless Manipur, a broken society, needs to be either mended or split for lasting peace and stability where every community can feel contented and happy. If the trend of rampant corruption, violence, misgovernment and lawlessness a legacy of the 15 year-long Ibobi-led Congress misrule continues to be normal daily life experience, the future is bleak.

The government needs to acknowledge and appreciate the inherent differences between hill and valley peoples, and, with a political will, try and solve their respective issues by working with them in the spirit of mutual respect and empathy, and justice and benefit for all.

The best way forward to resolve the long-standing problems of the tribals and valley people, and to move on, I believe is, as I have pointed out in my previous article 'ILPS for valley, 6th Schedule for tribals', to introduce a protective mechanism like ILPS in the valley and extend 6th Schedule to the hill districts of Manipur for the tribals without further delay.

A government that cares and is genuinely serious about solving the problems besetting Manipur and protecting the state's emotional and territorial integrity cannot overlook this option.

However, if this is not a workable solution, then a total hill-valley break-up is inevitable better to live separately peacefully than to live together fighting like cats and dogs.

* Jalun Haokip wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer, a native of Manipur and a graduate of Master of Social Work from Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia is an Australia-based social worker with experience of working with mainstream as well as indigenous Australians in different areas of social work, including statutory child protection and community health services, and he can be reached at jalunhaokip(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was posted on September 20, 2016.

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