Now, what could happen to Manipur !

Ngangom Junior Luwang *

Let’s be realistic about the possible scenarios in the next few days/weeks/months in Manipur, without an iota of emotion and community baggage. First thing first, it is important to acknowledge some plain facts.

First, the Central Government is now fully in charge of Manipur’s law & order and a potential political solution, evident from Article 355 invocation, presence of around 35 thousand Central Armed Forces personnel, Amit Shah’s recent visits to Imphal, Churchandpur, Kangpokpi & Moreh, his promised revisit for a viable political solution without compromising Manipur’s territorial integrity etc..

Second, Amit Shah’s reported commitment on non-dilution of Manipur’s territorial integrity in Imphal is a pointer in one direction, though devil lies in details and there could be many grey areas with far-reaching legal ramifications. Equally, the Hon’ble Home Minister’s reported pledge at Churchandpur to the Kuki community on a possible political solution without spelling out the nitty-gritties could still mean watershed political/legal reforms.

Third, against branding of some members/militants of a particular community as “terrorists”, the Chief of Defence Staff, India (Anil Chauhan) has gone on record that the present turmoil is purely an ethnic crisis, not a counter-insurgency operation. This could perhaps mean that the Central Government is looking at a political situation, rather than a military one.

Fourth, just as Amit Shah had met and heard Kuki MLAs in Manipur, 10 Naga MLAs had been summoned to New Delhi for talks with the Hon’ble Home Minister yesterday i.e. June 6, 2023 (which reportedly did not take place, but is likely today, June 7) and we can only guess that Amit Shah’s planned meeting could be to address the Naga Tribe’s concerns via a potential political solution.

All put in one frame, the above set of facts only leave us confounded with some perplexing scenarios that could unfold in the very near future – for better or for worse ! But before we delve into what could happen, it would be equally helpful to spell out WHAT MAY NOT HAPPEN OR ARE LEAST LIKELY TO HAPPEN!

First, given Amit Shah’s reported commitment on non-dilution of Manipur territorial integrity i.e. Manipur’s Constitutional Boundary as defined in Entry 19 of the 1st Schedule of the Indian Constitution (assuming no volte-face), a separate Union Territory or a separate full-fledged State for the Kukis or even for our other Tribal brethren out of the present Constitutional boundary of Manipur stands very remote.

Similarly, the purported demand of some Kuki tribe members for “Greater Mizoram” or by extension, Mizoram CM, Zoramthanga’s idea of unification of Zo tribe settlement areas would also be out of the zone of consideration for the same reason.

Second, the hue of the present political dispensations in the Centre and the State being the same, there is the least likelihood of President’s Rule in Manipur under Article 356 of the Indian Constitution. Had the Union Government wanted to impose President’s Rule in Manipur, it could have done so simultaneously at the time of invocation of Article 355 (perhaps a first time stand-alone step) and most importantly, given the upcoming 2024 Parliamentary elections, the Central Government may not want to embarrass itself by dismissing its own BJP Government in Manipur.

Third, the Central Government may not remove the current Chief Minister of Manipur in the near future, unless some serious findings are made against his administration by the three-member Commission of Inquiry recently constituted by the Union Home Ministry or some other earth-shattering evidence crops up out of the blue. The Union Government may not wish to be seen as succumbing to the current demand of a community in Manipur to remove the present Chief Ministers lest it infuriates a section of the Meiteis.

In fact, there are precedents where Chief Ministers were not removed even after serious riots and the present dispensation would most likely extend benefit of doubt to the current Chief Minister of Manipur, at least till completion of the inquiry by the just constituted Inquiry Commission.

Having ruled out some possible much talked-about scenarios, I wish to deal with WHAT COULD CONFRONT MANIPUR AND UNFOLD IN THE NEAR FUTURE! By all indications, what could be made available to the Kukis would most likely be made available to the Nagas as well for parity sake and the present narrative may be understood accordingly.

(1). The Central Government will not most likely act in haste, but instead wait & watch and maintain “Status Quo” to the extent possible; the shape and size of a long-term political solution will significantly depend on the law & order situation in Manipur in the next few days or weeks or months. Should law and order become normal in the near future, the Union Government may not intend to rock the boat by introducing high-voltage reforms.

It would be only in a situation of a staggering continuation of the serious current inferno that the Union Government would be compelled to venture into other possible solutions. Nonetheless, it should not be ruled out that the Central Government may choose to kill two birds with one stone by taking advantage of the more than 35 thousand Central Armed Forces personnel at present stationed in Manipur to introduce “Status Quo” changing ground-breaking reforms in Manipur, just as it had done in Jammu & Kashmir in 2019 under the Jammu & Kashmir Reorganisation Act, 2019.

(2). Should the Central Government move beyond “Status Quo”, two terms coined by the Hon’ble Union Home Minister during his last Manipur visit will be significant–“Political Solution” as reportedly expounded by him at Churchandpur and “No Compromise on Manipur’s Territorial Integrity”, as reportedly committed by him in Imphal.

Given such a context, the next logical question is- can the Central Government come up with a so-called win-win “Political Solution” without diluting “Manipur’s Territorial Integrity” and if so, what could be the likely permutations & combinations, acceptable to all the communities in Manipur !

Here, the Central Government is seemingly at a consultation drive, evident from the recent Kuki MLAs’ meeting with the Union Home Minister in Manipur, planned meeting with 10 Naga MLAs in New Delhi yesterday (though the meeting did not reportedly take place yesterday and is expected today i.e. June 7, 2023).

By all indications, the Union Government seems to be attempting a solution by putting Kukis and Nagas at one pedestal and Meiteis at another. In any case, a Political Solution, without diluting Manipur’s territorial integrity, may open the Union Government to two board options, though each is fraught with serious risks and potential flare-ups, this time unwittingly dragging the Nagas into the scene.

(3). The first possible attempt of the Central Government as a long-drawn political solution could be further devolution of more powers to the already existing Hill Areas Committee established under Article 371 C of the Indian Constitution and Hill Areas District Councils established under the Manipur (Hill Areas) District Councils Act, 1971 in lieu of Meiteis’ land ownership & settlement rights in hill areas.

Further empowerment of the existing Hill Areas Committee and Hill Areas District Councils would, in my opinion, be of lesser sensitivity for the Meiteis if at all they are to be given land rights in the hill areas.

But the bigger question is whether our Tribal brethren would accept Meities’ land rights in the hills with as less a concession as devolution of more powers to their existing tribal bodies or whether majority of the Meiteis will stop short of demanding the ST tag and be satisfied only with land ownership rights in the hills!

Independent of such concerns, the Union Government could be most happy with such an arrangement since it would only involve possible minor alterations in Article 371C of the Indian Constitution, the Manipur Land Revenue & Land Reforms Act, 1960, the Manipur Land Revenue & Land Reforms Rules, 1961 and the Manipur (Hill Areas) District Councils Act, 1971.

The Union Government, by all indications, would be hesitant to immediately concede to the Separate Administration (which can only mean 6th Schedule Autonomous Councils, not a separate Union Territory or a full-fledged State for reasons mentioned above) demand of the Kuki community or the ST Tag demand of the Meiteis–either separately or as part of an integrated one-stop political arrangement.

Equally, going by Amit Shah’s statement on the Manipur High Court order of March 27, 2023 in Writ Petition (C) No.229/2023 having been partly or wholly responsible for the present Manipur turmoil, the Central Government is certainly aware of the serious repercussions of such a step. In other words, Amit Shah may not wish to stir the hornet’s nest and be blamed for further “ST tag” related law & order deterioration.

Nonetheless, “NOW” is the perfect time for the Meiteis to demand ST tag, but the Union Government will certainly expect the Meiteis to give major concessions to our tribal brothers in lieu of such a ST tag. But there could be a very thin line between such concessions and Manipur’s territorial integrity/administrative autonomy !

(4). Should the above-contemplated arrangement be not acceptable to any of the communities involved or cannot be rolled out for any reason, the optimum extent or the other option, the Union Government could go for, in my opinion, offering Sixth Schedule Autonomous District Councils to our Tribal brethren on the lines of such Councils in Assam, Mizoram, Meghala and Tripura in lieu of land ownership rights for the Meiteis and/or ST tag for the Meiteis.

The Central Government may well justify such a move as not infringing on the territorial integrity of Manipur but giving more administrative powers to the Kukis and Nagas in lieu of ST tag and/or land rights in the hills for the Meiteis.

But still the bigger question remains – whether our tribal brethren would accept Meiteis’ ST tag in lieu of Sixth Schedule Autonomous Councils or whether establishment of Sixth Schedule Autonomous Councils could be construed as transgression on Manipur’s territorial integrity and firmly opposed to by the Meitei community ?

As mentioned above, technically, the Union Government could come up with an argument that creation of Sixth Schedule Autonomous Councils does not or will not amount to dilution of Manipur’s territorial integrity and that Meiteis should be happy with the long-demanded land rights in hill areas and/or ST tag.

(5). Apart from Meiteis’ possible opposition, creation of Sixth Schedule Autonomous Councils in hill areas could further compound the existing territorial issues between the Nagas and the Kukis, more specifically at Kangpokpi, Tenoupal, Chandel, Kamjong etc. In other words, such a move could revive and exacerbate the old wounds of the Nagas and Kukis of the 1990s.

In addition to the above contemplated steps, one cannot see any good reason for the Central Government to restrain or interfere with the Manipur Government in introducing NRC, continuing its war on drugs and drive against deforestation nor do I see any good for any of our tribal brethren to oppose any such moves since there is nothing communal about it.

The above having said, today, more than 35 thousands of Central Armed Force personnel are in Manipur and Manipur could be facing a watershed moment, just as it happened in Jammu & Kashmir in 2019, though likelihood of another State or Union Territory out of the present Manipur is almost nil, but certainly more empowered Hill District Councils and Hill Areas Committee or Sixth Schedule Autonomous Councils are strong possible realities with ST Tag and/or land rights for Meiteis after amendment of the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms Act, 1960 and Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms Rules, 1961 (either by way of giving hill areas ownership rights to the Meiteis or narrowing down the definition of ‘hill areas’).

Perhaps, this is the best time for the Union Government to go for long term big ticket reforms in Manipur thanks to the presence of more than 35 thousand army personnel in Manipur, which could be well used to deal with any consequent law & order issues and equally this is the best time for all communities to push forward their agendas for optimum accommodation under a viable political solution.

We can only keep our fingers crossed and position our narratives accordingly and here, your guess will be as good as mine !

* Ngangom Junior Luwang wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer is an Advocate, Supreme Court and a Corporate Lawyer
This article was webcasted on 10 June 2023.

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