Justice Denied to Tribals in the Hill Districts of Manipur

July 12, 2010

By Bela Bhatia [1]. To appear in EPW.

Around 30 km from Kohima is Mao Gate, the border between Nagaland and Manipur. Mao Gate takes its name from Mao village that falls on both sides of the border and the Mao community of the Nagas that inhabits this region. Though this border area is part of Senapati district, which along with the adjoining Ukhrul, Tamenglong and Chandel districts comprise four of the five hill districts of Manipur, these districts are in fact a continuum of present day ‘Nagaland’ in every sense – topographically, socially and culturally. This southern stretch is now on the other side only due to the arbitrary boundaries that were created by the Indian state that chose to retain the British occupation of the historical political entity ‘Nagalim’ (the homeland of the Naga people) and its division between India and Burma (Myanmar), after its own independence from colonial rule. What was started by the British in the first part of the 19th century was continued and further exacerbated by India during the last six decades.

Nagalim today stands divided between India occupied Naga territory and the Burmese occupied Naga territory, the two parts separated by the Chindwin river, the international boundary line formalized as recently as 1972. As part of its occupation strategy, the Indian state further divided the Naga area under its control, despite it being a contiguous area, into (parts of) four states: Nagaland, Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh. Likewise, the Nagas under Burmese occupation were divided between Sagaing sub-division and Kachin state.

It is in the context of this historical injustice done to the Naga people that we need to understand the recent happenings between Manipur and Nagaland. The crisis that started on 1 May when the Manipur government banned Thuinglaeng Muivah, General Secretary of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim – Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM) from visiting Somdal, his village in Ukhrul district after more than four decades of being away is not about a person or a village but about the illegitimate power of a government over a people. It is about the quest of a people for their homeland that was unjustly wrested from them, the quest of a people for sovereignty that was not respected, when a legitimate demand was quelled by brute force, when every trick was used to sap their fine spirits and make them bend under the weight of an unjust rule. It is about the story of the Naga people during the last six decades under Indian occupation. And now after this history of pain, even when a formal peace process is on for the last 13 years, no consideration is shown towards the leader of a people by the state government though the central government is supposedly negotiating with NSCN at the highest level as an equal. How are a self-respecting people to understand this?

This is yet another instance when the government resorts to militarization allegedly to avoid tension and maintain ”law and order” but instead plunges the entire region into a full-scale crisis – social, economic and political. Its belligerent stand leads to protests that have by and large remained peaceful. The protests have however failed so far to make the government rethink its decision. Instead the government has stubbornly stuck to its original line thereby continuing to cause hardship to the citizens on both sides, fuelling the tension already created and sowing seeds for a possible larger conflagration.

In Mao Land

The story began on 1 May 2010 when all dailies announced that the Manipur government had denied permission to Muivah on the grounds that it might cause ”communal disharmony endangering the peaceful coexistence of different ethnic communities.” This decision came as a jolt since the Centre had already given its consent.

The tone was set the following morning, when a heavy deployment of hundreds of Manipur armed forces including police commandos, Manipur Rifles and Indian Reserve Battalion (IRB) personnel moved into the border areas and villages at Mao Gate (on NH 39) to prevent Muivah’s visit, scheduled for 3 May. One of the first actions of the forces was to pull down the traditional welcome arch and banners put up by the Naga community to welcome Muivah at Mao Gate. Soon after, Section 144 CrPc was imposed in Senapati and Ukhrul districts and curfew clamped. There were reports of harassment of travellers by the Manipur police personnel, who had severely restricted vehicular entry from Nagaland.

By then, a tense atmosphere prevailed at Mao Gate with police flag marches and armoured vehicles on display. People in the hill districts had started protesting against the imposition of Section 144 and the ban on Muivah’s entry. In Ukhrul town, there was a public meeting of over ten thousand persons followed by a candle light vigil. Women of nine villages around Mao started an indefinite protest in Mao village, as did women of thirteen surrounding villages in Tadubi. Even as news came of peaceful protests from all Naga inhabited areas of Manipur one also began to hear of more direct action like the attack by a group of women on a police station in Ukhrul and the torching of five stranded trucks with Manipur number plates by unidentified persons late at night on 3 May.

I visited Mao Gate on 4 May, as part of a women’s team.[2] Just outside Kohima our vehicle started climbing, the winding road taking us through villages and forests leaving the terraced fields at a distance below. We could see that the past loomed above and everywhere in many ways. The ”security” forces occupy entire hill ranges. We go past the Assam Rifles camp. The board outside boldly declares: ”Friends of the Hill People.” We go past Kigwema village and sure enough the Kigwema ”army” camp is right above. Be it the Indian army, paramilitary or the police there have been so many different armed forces and for so long – more than five decades – that for the Nagas this ”Friendship” under the shadow of the gun has become part of their daily lives and landscape.

A little beyond Viswema, 8 km before Mao Gate, we saw a truck burnt to cinders, and soon another four vehicles in a similar state. At Khuzama village, we met some members of the Naga Students’ Federation (NSF). We learnt that NSF is the oldest civil society organization, older even than the Naga Mothers’ Association (NMA) and the Naga Peoples’ Movement for Human Rights (NPMHR). Each tribe has its own students union, and all are under the NSF. The organisation also covers all the Naga youth in Nagaland as well as the Naga inhabited areas. Later, together with these NSF representatives, NMA women of the Mao area and some local media persons, we proceeded to the border.

We were stopped at the border by the Manipur police who said they had orders not to allow any ”media” to enter. Eventually they allowed us entry for a short while. We were able to visit the women’s protests in Mao and Tadubi villages, where we found impressive assemblies of thousands of Mao Naga women in traditional black and red shawls, of all ages, many with children, settled on both sides of the National Highway 39. These were “silent” protests, but not if one read the scores of placards women were carrying: “Muviah has a right to visit his birth place”, “Respect Indo-Naga Ceasefire”, “Down with the Ibobi government”, “We want peaceful settlement”, “Nagas are one”, “No more militarization”, “We want peaceful co-existence”, “Expedite peace process”, “Do not provoke peace”, amongst others.

“Why was curfew and 144 imposed? There was no turmoil here, no reaction, even after they directly provoked us by pulling down our welcome gate,” said one member of the Mao Naga Women’s Welfare Association. Another woman in her thirties said: “I have never seen so many forces in the last three decades. Why have they been deployed? We are not having a war.” Other women and men said: “This is unconstitutional and undemocratic.” “Our future is threatened.” “Such actions are inviting ethnic clashes.”

Despite these democratic protests, the Manipur cabinet reaffirmed its earlier decision. Meanwhile feelings of indignation and anger were building up. The students were irked by the government’s stand and use of armed forces to deny entry to the public as well as to turn away Naga Hoho, NSF, NMA and NPMHR leaders from the border. [3] The NSF maintained that by denying them access to the Nagas on the other side and ”an entry in our own land” the government had insulted the entire Nagas. On 3 May, the NSF had issued an ultimatum demanding that the Manipur government revoke Section 144 in Naga inhabited areas and issue an apology within 24 hours, else there would be a bandh on all Manipur vehicles in these areas. Since these conditions were not met, the indefinite bandh started from the evening of 4 May.

On 5th evening a villager from Songsong was assaulted by IRB personnel. The next day, when women of Songsong and other villages protested against this assault and demanded that the forces should leave, they were tear-gassed by police commandos and then fired upon by IRB personnel. Two college students, Daikho Loshuo (23) and Neli Chakho (21) from Kalinamai village, were killed on the spot and Lokho, a postgraduate student from Songsong, was critically injured. As the public ran for cover, the security personnel fired tear gas, injuring at least 70 persons, mostly women since they were at the front, though the exact number of injured is not known since many fled to the jungles.[4] The IGP however denied the firing in a media interview, saying that “We did not have any firing order so there was no open firing.”[5]

A black flag march was held in honour of the martyrs at Mao Gate the following day and 6 May was proclaimed as ”Black Thursday.” Six Independent Naga members of the Manipur Legislative Assembly resigned. Meanwhile, fearing further armed action, hundreds of villagers fled from their homes and crossed the border. With just enough time to gather their children and no available transport, most of them took the jungle route. Initially the villagers of Khuzama, the first village across the border, sheltered them in the local church. Later they were shifted to Kisama. A headcount that week showed that there were 444 ‘internally displaced persons’ in the camp besides another 2000 who were reported to be in Kohima and Dimapur sheltered by relatives. The bordering villages of Mao Gate wore a deserted look after the 6 May incident.

Despite direct provocation, the reaction of the Naga organisations by-and-large remained nonviolent. Diverse forms of nonviolent resistance were used, such as press statements, public meetings, dharnas, rallies, bandhs, blockades, and solidarity actions in other parts of the Northeast and of India. However, the mainstream media failed to appreciate this entire spectrum of nonviolent resistance, the cause behind it, or the absence of an adequate response from the State. Instead, most of the attention was on the blockade, with the Nagas being shown as the culprits, calling for a closer examination of its origin.

The Case of the Two Blockades

First of all, it is important to register that it is not one but two blockades which started at different times and for different reasons. The first blockade was imposed on 11 April by the All Naga Students’ Association Manipur and All Tribal Students’ Union Manipur to protest against the elections scheduled for 26 May for the Autonomous District Councils (ADC) under the controversial Manipur (Hill Areas) District Councils Act (Third Amendment), 2008. The second blockade was imposed by the NSF on the evening of 4 May and was reaffirmed following the 6 May firing. Following this, a counter-blockade was imposed by the All Manipur United Clubs Organisation and United Committee Manipur on 6 May. Since the chronology of events clarifies the reasons behind the second blockade, let us examine the causes behind the first.

Administration in the Hill Areas

The five hill districts of Manipur cover around 90 per cent of the area of the state and are home to 29 government-recognized tribal communities (besides smaller communities that are not yet recognized).[6] According to the 2001 census, tribals are 34 per cent of the state population but 92 per cent of the population of the hill districts. The tribal population can be clubbed under two broad ethnic groups: the Nagas (18 tribes) and the Kuki-Chin-Zomi (17 tribes).[7] The Nagas are a little more than half of the tribal population, followed by the Kukis, Mizos and other smaller tribes. While the presence of Nagas is highest in Ukhrul (93 per cent) and Tamenglong (78 per cent), they are a little over half in Senapati (55 per cent) and almost half in Chandel (47 percent).[8] The Kuki-Chin-Zomi tribes are the majority in Churachandpur district. The Meiteis (often referred to as Manipuri), Pangals (Manipur Muslims) and other communities such as Bhamons make up the third ‘non-tribal’ group and live primarily in the state’s valley region; their population is 66 per cent of the total 23 lakhs (2001 census).

After independence, the government of India attempted to safeguard the interests and well-being of its tribal population by including special provisions in the Fifth and the Sixth Schedules of the Constitution. While the Fifth Schedule outlined the structure of governance of Scheduled Areas in tribal interests, the Sixth Schedule was conceived as an instrument of tribal self-rule. Tribal areas in nine states of mainland India are included under the Fifth Schedule and the Sixth Schedule covers such areas in four northeastern states: Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram (with special constitutional provisions as Article 371B in Assam and Article 371G in Mizoram). Arunachal Pradesh was in the Sixth Schedule but has subsequently adopted the Panchayati Raj (with some additional safeguards as in Article 371H) and Nagaland though theoretically under the Sixth Schedule was never governed by its provisions in practice and since 1962, when it became a State, has been governed as per Article 371A. The hill districts of Manipur however were not included in either the Fifth or Sixth Schedules. Manipur is the only state of the seven northeastern states where the provisions of the Sixth Schedule have never applied.

Instead, the dual system of administration for the Hills and the Valley that came into existence after the British annexed the independent kingdom of Manipur in 1891 continued after independence and even after 1949 when this kingdom along with the hills merged into the Indian union. During the period of Manipur’s transition from being a Union Territory to Statehood in 1972, a succession of Acts attempted to administer the Hill areas: The Manipur Hill People’s (Administration) Regulation Act, 1947; The Manipur Village Authorities (Hill Areas) Act, 1956; The Manipur (Hill Areas) Acquisition of Chief’s Rights Act, 1967; and The Manipur (Hill Areas) District Councils Act, 1971. Besides, a Hill Areas Committee (HAC) comprising of elected members of the Legislative Assembly from the Hill areas was in place since Manipur was a Union Territory. It would have ceased to be operative after Manipur became a State but was kept in place by the introduction of a special provision (Article 371C) through a constitutional amendment in 1971. Article 371C also empowered the Governor to report directly to the President regarding the administration in the Hill areas and stipulated that: “… the executive power of the Union shall extend to the giving of directions to the State as to the administration of the said areas.”

Though the stated objectives of the said Acts and provisions were “to safeguard the interests” of the Scheduled Tribes, the tribal communities did not believe this. They saw these Acts as an attempt by the State to extend its control in the Hill areas. For instance, the Village Authorities Act was seen as an attempt to weaken the customary basis of the village polity by introducing the concept of a village authority whose members would be elected and whose size would depend on the number of tax-paying households in the village (this was a change from the 1947 Act which upheld the customary system in this respect). This was in contrast to the traditional system based on clan representation (as in the case of Tangkhul Nagas where the representative is nominated or elected by his clan members and can be removed only by them and not even by the Chief) or nomination (as in the case of the Kukis where the Chief of the village used to nominate members). The Act also tried to weaken the powers of the Chiefs (for example the role they played in village courts). A government report asserts that: “This Act may be regarded as one of the first steps towards the democratisation of hill administration in Manipur. By placing certain restrictions on the powers of the Chief and by introducing adult franchise at the lowest level of administration … the common villagers became aware of democratic values and practices.”[9] But the tribals took a different view. The Act was opposed quite strongly by most of them, especially the Kukis, who believed that the Act was an attempt to “do away with the rights of the Chiefs over land.” It was this insecurity that led the Kuki National Assembly to demand for a Kuki State (within the Indian Union) in 1960.[10] The Act was however implemented in 1957 and 725 village authorities were constituted in seven sub-divisions of the hill districts.

The 1967 Acquisition of Chief’s Rights Act could not be implemented. As the name suggests, the Act aimed at abolishing the traditional system of Chieftainship, compensating the Chiefs, and extending The Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reform Act, 1960, to the hill areas thereby authorizing ”the State Government to acquire the rights, title and land in the hill areas.”[11] The Act was seen as a way of weakening the authority of the Chief and thereby the autonomy of the tribe and clan especially in respect to land.[12]

Resistance to The Manipur (Hill Areas) District Councils Act: 1972 to 2010

Such being the experience of the tribal communities with legislations, they could not greet The Manipur (Hill Areas) District Councils Act, 1971 with anything resembling enthusiasm. The Act met with severe opposition from its inception on the grounds that it posed a danger to the autonomy the tribal communities enjoyed under their traditional systems of self-governance in all spheres of life. The unified demand of all tribal communities (despite protracted tensions between some of them such as the Nagas and Kukis, Paites and Kukis, or Kukis and Zomis) was that the Act be modified to include the provisions of the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution.

Opposition notwithstanding, the Act was effected and six District Councils were put in place in the hill areas in 1973, though they could function only until late 1980s after which they had to be suspended due to continuous resistance. Things came to a head during the 1984 Assembly elections when the district councils started demanding greater autonomy. Until then (and even later) the 17 subjects that were supposedly under the “control and administration” of the district councils (as per section 29 of the Act) were not so in reality because the required devolution never happened (the Act mentions that these functions were “subject to such exceptions and conditions as the Administrator may make and impose”).[13] In the next two decades, council elections were successfully boycotted.

The government responded by taking one step forward and two steps backwards: in 1975 the First Amendment Bill was passed with some changes, followed by a more substantial move towards making the District Councils ”autonomous” by passing The Manipur Hill Areas Autonomous District Council Bill in July 2000. However, no further progress was made on this and a Second Amendment Bill was passed in March 2006 effectively revoking it. After another two years of silence, the Third Amendment Bill was presented in the Legislative Assembly on 19 March 2008. However there were allegations of irregularities in the processes that followed, and the Bill was eventually withdrawn. Two irregularities were pointed out:

(i) The State Assembly constituted an extra constitutional body called the Select Committee to work on [the Principal Bill 2008] introduced by the HAC. Three of the five members …are not elected from the Hill Areas of the state. (ii) Many clauses in the report of the Select Committee …were found in bad taste. [It] wanted to delete the word “Autonomous” from the title …. [replace] ‘Self Government” [with] “Local Self Governance”, “Tribals” [with] “People of the Hill Areas”…[14]

The Manipur government then attempted to get an Ordinance promulgated by the Governor. People wondered as to why this was being done because the life of an Ordinance cannot exceed seven-and-a-half months and it would have to be presented in the next Assembly session (within the first six weeks) as a Bill or it would cease to operate (Article 213: 2a). Moreover, this legislative power of the Governor was an emergency power for taking immediate action at a time when the legislature was not in session – and what was the emergency? However, the Governor having been “satisfied that circumstances exist[ed] which render[ed] it necessary for him to take immediate action”(Article 213: 1) gave his acceptance to the Ordinance, after the initial draft was amended, on 12 May 2008.[15] It should be noted that “An Ordinance promulgated under this article [has] the same force and effect as an Act of the Legislature of the State assented to by the Governor (clause 2) and “Notwithstanding anything in the Constitution, the satisfaction of Governor mentioned in clause (1) shall be final and conclusive and shall not be questioned in any court on any ground.” (clause 4).

There was some mention that the Cabinet had not consulted the HAC at this stage, there was also talk that the proposed Ordinance had used the special provisions of 371C to include the Bill under Article 243M of the Panchayat (73rd Amendment) Act, 1992 (to which the corresponding provisions in the 11th Schedule would apply) so that the district councils would be under the control of the state legislature; accordingly, the State Election Commission had been vested with powers of preparation of the electoral rolls while earlier it was the office of the Administrator who undertook this through the Hill Ministry of the state.[16]

On 10 October 2008, The Manipur (Hill Areas) District Councils (Third Amendment) Bill, 2008 was presented in the Legislative Assembly. As the following excerpt from the proceedings show there was little discussion on the Bill before it was passed.[17] A few members did raise dissatisfaction that the bill had been presented in the house after promulgating the Ordinance and referred to a select committee thus not allowing them a chance to have a discussion on the Principal Bill, one member even cautioned that “passing of the Bill without any discussion of the Principal Bill would have serious consequences”, there were suggestions that public opinion should be solicited, procedural lapses rectified, suitable amendments made and only then should it be passed. A question was also raised regarding a new insertion regarding a ”hill department.” But these objections and suggestions (of six MLAs) were brushed aside by the Chief Minister who argued that the Bill was not very different from the 1971 Act and hence could be passed without much discussion:

Shri O. Ibobi Singh, Hon’ble Chief Minister clarifying to the discussion pointed out the need for passing the bill in order to conduct the long pending election of the District Councils due to which development of the hill area had been hampered and added that the government had no intension (sic) to pass the bill arbitrarily. He further said that the present bill was the same Act of 1971 and the house had discussed it many times in the past and hence another discussion was not very necessary and therefore, appealed to the members to pass the bill unanimously in the interest of the hill people….[18]

Interestingly, D.D. Thaisii (Tribal Development Minister) reiterated that the Bill needed to be passed “in the interest of the hill people …..and the necessary amendment can be done later on.” The opinion of the Chief Minister and the Tribal Development Minister (both of the Indian National Congress) along with one Independent MLA prevailed over the opinion of the six MLAs (four of whom were from the Manipur People’s Party, one from the National People’s Party and one from the Indian National Congress) who had demanded further discussion, rectification or amendment. After deleting the words “the hill department of” the Manipur (Hill Areas) District Councils (Third Amendment) Bill, 2008, was passed that day.

How should we understand this? What was the need to hurry on an issue which has waited for nearly 40 years for a fair resolution? Especially considering that the original Act was not only rejected by the people but in a sense by the government too since it introduced a new version in the form of the 2000 Bill (even though the changed version was also subsequently revoked). A review of the Act is called for in order to comprehend why it has been termed ‘dangerous.’ [19]

Why is the District Council Act deemed ‘dangerous’?

Even from a quick look one can see that there is much in this Act that would justifiably make any freedom loving tribal nervous. First, the District Councils as envisaged in the Act are certainly not Autonomous. In fact they are under the control of the Deputy Commissioner of the ”autonomous district,” who would be appointed by the ”Administrator” (one understands this position to be that of the Governor). For instance, the Deputy Commissioner would have the power (Section 46: 3) to suspend the execution of any resolution or order of the District Council and prohibit the doing of any act if he may see it to be “in excess of the powers conferred by law” or “likely to lead to a breach of the peace, or to cause annoyance or injury to the public or to any class or body of persons.”

Second, while there is scope (under Section 29 (1) of Chapter 3) for the District Councils to have various executive functions such as maintenance of schools, dispensaries, roads and also some aspects of the management of land and forests, this is only in so far as these matters are entrusted to them by the Administrator in consultation with the HAC. The Act does not confer any legislative powers on the councils although Section 29 (2) authorises them to make recommendations to the Government on specific issues such as appointment or succession of Chiefs, inheritance of property, and social customs. All judicial powers remain with the state government. Similarly, all cases in the district would have to go to the district court for adjudication. To sum up, the powers of the District Council are rather limited:

The district administration exercises supreme control over the district council in executive, legislative and judicial matters. The proposals for framing rules, regulations and by-laws, developmental works and executive and judicial matters are submitted to the district administration after these are passed in the district council. The district administration has to approve the proposals. Generally, the important executive, legislative and judicial activities are carried out by the district administration. …. the district council does not posses the financial, administrative and functional powers of an effective local self-government. …. Thus, the autonomy granted to the district councils under the Act remains elusive.[20]

In these and other ways the Act vindicated the fears of tribal organizations that it could seriously jeopardize the rights of the tribal people who would be at the mercy of the Deputy Commissioner who had overwhelming power over the District Council even though it was a body of elected representatives; also since the District Council for its part had the power to curtail the decisions of the village authority. As one commentator put it ”the Manipur government turned the district councils into its agents instead of truly autonomous bodies.”[21]

Sixth Schedule Denied

As mentioned above the tribal communities of Manipur have been waging a protracted struggle for the hill areas to be included in the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. It is quite striking that there is almost no specific mention of the hill areas of Manipur in the significant debates and documents on the subject.[22] Even though the hill people of the areas that were included in the Schedule had expressed reservation at the time of inclusion as admitted by Rev. JJM Nichols Roy during the Constituent Assembly debate (“….these hill people feel that even this Sixth Schedule has controlled them too much and that they have not got enough [of] what they would like to have”), and the last decades have borne this out to some extent, nevertheless the Sixth Schedule is clearly superior to the 1971 Act in its vision, philosophy and content.[23]

The Sixth Schedule allows for greater autonomy in the structure as well as the functions of the Councils.[24] It has divided tribal areas in the states of Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram into autonomous districts and empowered the Governor to further divide the districts into autonomous regions (if there are different Scheduled Tribes in the district) as well as to change the size and number of existing districts. Each autonomous district would have a District Council of not more than thirty members, four of whom would be nominated by the Governor and the rest elected, and each autonomous region would have a Regional Council.
The Schedule gives legislative powers to the District and Regional Councils, where the District Council would have the power ”in respect of all areas within the district except those which are under the authority of Regional Councils, if any …” (paragraph 3). The Regional Council therefore would be free to make laws related to the use of land (except land lawfully acquired by the Government for public purpose), management of any forest (except reserved forest), use of water, regulation of shifting cultivation, policing, appointment or succession of Chiefs, inheritance of property, marriage and divorce as well as social customs. However these laws would come into effect only after the assent of the Governor. Likewise executive powers for the administration of basic services and judicial powers have been accorded to the Regional and District Councils within a framework of rules that are to be worked out jointly with the Governor. Besides, amongst other powers the District Councils would be able to make regulations for the control of money lending and trading by non-tribals, and for the collection and sharing of land revenue, taxes and royalties (including mining of minerals).

For our purposes a crucial difference between the 1971 Act and the Sixth Schedule is that even though the latter does not grant complete autonomy (Regional and District Councils are subject to approval, consultation, correction, suspension and dissolution by the Governor), nevertheless, it offers a ”charter of autonomy” and a real potential for democracy. For instance, under the Sixth Schedule there is no single officer like a Deputy Commissioner with power over the District Councils, and the Councils have not only executive but also legislative, judicial, developmental and financial powers and functions that are mandatory. Additionally, while in the present administrative structure in Manipur, the HAC offers some protection to the tribals under Article 371C, much depends on the initiative and energy of the MLAs from the hill areas who are its members. In fact, tribal communities recognize that the complacency of the HAC members has contributed to their adverse situation.[25]

The case for the Sixth Schedule has also been made by many high level government committees but has been disregarded. For instance, the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution (chaired by Justice M.N. Venkatachaliah, former Chief Justice of India) in its report submitted in March 2002 recommended that the Sixth Schedule be extended to the hill districts of Manipur.[26] Nearly a decade earlier (1994) another government report of MPs and Experts had bemoaned the fact that these areas had been excluded from the Fifth and Sixth Schedules.[27] State cabinet meetings have endorsed this demand not once but thrice (13 May 1991, 17 August 1992 and 28 March 2001) though with an inserted clause (“… with certain local adjustments and amendments”) about which the central government has sought clarification many times.[28] Besides, the HAC has also passed resolutions recommending the Sixth Schedule, as early as in 1974.[29]

Despite the legitimate claim for the Sixth Schedule, and the rejection of the Act, it became clear to the tribals in March-April 2010 that the state government was planning to hold the ADC elections soon. This led to a revival of the earlier agitation on the issue. Chief Minister’s announcement of the election schedule (on 26 April) caused the current uproar. The Manipur Tribal Joint Action Committee and All Manipur Tribal Union declared the day as ‘Black-Day’ in the history of the tribal people of Manipur, accusing the Chief Minister of attempting to get the ADCs in place ‘manipulatively.’[30] Other tribal organisations like the Kuki Inpi Manipur (the appex body of the Kukis) reiterated the objection and demanded that the elections be held under the provisions of the Sixth Schedule “to fulfill the aspiration of the tribal people of Manipur and to protect the integrity of the State.”[31]

The tribal organizations then approached the governor, prime minister and home minister and sought their urgent intervention. The governor told them to cooperate with the election process and said that all necessary amendments would be made after the elections! This was unacceptable to these organisations who maintained that nothing short of the Sixth Schedule would be acceptable. They believed that once the elections were held under the Act, “the tribal people would be victims of economic and political exploitation and stagnation for another generation to come.”[32]

Hence the blockade continued and later merged with the other blockade, started after Muivah’s visit was blocked by the armed forces. The two blockades are two ends of the same story. A step-by-step escalation in response to the decisions and actions of the state government, these blockades raise the crucial question about how should a people express disaggrement and dissent in our democracy. As in this case, the government completely disregarded the sustained nonviolent democratic movement by tribals. Nothing came of decades of resistance or self-imposed deprivation (under suspended district councils, little planned development happened after 1988). Instead, it chose to revert to the 1971 Act, the root of the problem. If this is not undemocratic governance, what is? What must a people do to register their protest and be heard?

Humanitarian Crisis vs. Humanitarian Crisis

These two blockades, and the third blockade (which has existed for so long that it has become part of everyday life and therefore invisible) of the State against the tribal people where the democratic rights of the citizens of hill areas have been trampled upon with impunity for decades, make us face the fact that any mention of ‘humanitarian crisis’ caused as a consequence of the road blockades should not also forget the other ‘humanitarian crisis’ caused due to years of neglect, discrimination, political marginalisation and subjugation that has been the lot of the tribal population in general and Nagas in particular in Manipur.
This is not to undermine the negative effects of the recent road blockades. As a consequence of the blockades the prices of essential commodities including food, fuel and medicines shot up, causing much inconvenience to the people, especially of Imphal valley. However, it is unfortunate that the media projected this as a conflict between Nagas and Meiteis. The blockades were against the seat of government, and if the seat had been elsewhere no doubt the direction of the blockades would have changed too. While the ill-effects of the blockades necessitate rethinking of this mode of agitation (or at least of how long it can be stretched), one should not lose sight of the political question and injustice that led to the agitation in the first place. Nor should one overlook the fact that neither the blockades nor their adverse effect had any impact on the state government’s stance.

It would have been useful if the people of the valley had also taken up the cause of the tribal people as their own and restrained the government from taking recourse to militarization and going ahead with district council elections, which it could do with almost no opposition from the valley districts. But this is perhaps too much to ask: there is a conflict of interest here, and in the face of one’s own interests, few can stand firm on principles, values and duty. The fear and insecurities displayed by the chief minister and his colleagues are largely shared by the people in the valley districts. This is the fear of a dominant community which is restricted to around 10% of the total land area of the state – not because they were pushed to this state of confinement by the hill people but because this is the way it always was. The valley districts have a functional panchayat system since 1960 (later enhanced with the 73rd and 74th amendments) and there has been sustained development there even if its pace and quality have been unsatisfactory. But for their future expansion the hill territories would be important.

The tribal people feel that one significant reason why they have been denied the Sixth Schedule so far is so that the State can gain control over their land through other means. They want to protect themselves from laws that could exploit them and alienate them from their land and other resources. This is not just a matter of livelihoods but also a safeguard of their way of life since their economic, social and political systems are interlinked. No survey has been done of land ownership in the hill areas since the land is mostly collectively owned. In the absence of land records and titles not only are people unable to get loans from the government, they are also vulnerable to “outsiders” (i.e., non-tribals, if the consitutional protection that they have so far is lifted or circumscribed). Already, the government has made several attempts to extend The Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms Act, 1960, to the hill areas. When it was first enacted, the hill areas were clearly exempt. But later (in 1967) the government made an abortive attempt to cover the hill areas through the Chief’s Act. Subsequently, the sixth amendment to the Land Reforms Act (in 1989) attempted to open a passage to the hills by inserting an exception to the exempt clause that allowed the state government to extend whole or part of any section of the Act to any of the hill areas by a notification in the official gazette. This filled the tribals with dread.[33] This amendment however was opposed and could not be implemented. Nevertheless, the 1960 Act was able to make a move into the hill territories. The Act meant only for plains was extended also to the plain areas of the hill districts. Since the Act involved conducting a survey, conferring ownership rights and collection of revenue, its implementation led to privatization of land in some plain areas of three hill districts.[34] During the last few years, there has also been a campaign for a uniform land law for the entire state. Tribals have been opposing it and demanding a separate land law for the hill areas but nothing has come of it. This fear of land alienation into non-tribal hands is quite real since this has been the experience in most scheduled areas of the country. Also, there are international examples of how demographies of “occupied territories” (eg, West Bank) can be changed over time by precisely similar state-sponsored settlements and corresponding laws in their favour, that overtime leave the original residents with a fait accompli that they are then made to accept as “reality”.

The tribals are also wary of land being taken away in the name of ‘public purpose’ as is happening in many other parts of the country, often without any compensation. Already large “development” projects are located or planned to be located in the hills and inroads have been made by contractors into their forests. At the root of all these problems, in their view, is a structure of governance that does not allow them to be in control of their present and future. The struggle for the Sixth Schedule is therefore a fundamental struggle for their very existence and way of life.

Nobody can deny that the demand for the Sixth Schedule in the hill districts is a valid one, and is pertinent for all the tribes and not only the Nagas. Fear of the Sixth Schedule is an old one – even the Constituent Assembly debates on the subject reveal the feudal mindset of some legislators and leaders who believed that by allowing the tribals to be autonomous one would lose them to China or Burma or they would go the Tibet way; one member even warned that “[t]he Communists will come and they will have a free hand … [and] we will have no government there”![35]

In Manipur, granting of Sixth Schedule for the hill districts is often seen as tantamount to acceding to the demand of Nagalim and a separate Kuki state (conversely, Naga and Kuki insurgents have started viewing “the Sixth Schedule as a means of suppressing their demands…”).[36] But the state cannot have it both ways – refuse to grant the Sixth Schedule and also talk about “territorial integrity” at the same time. The government has lost all moral integrity on which to rest its case. It could have done so if it had treated its tribal citizens (including Nagas) justly. By not conceding Sixth Schedule and by forcing the district council elections the government has only alienated the tribals further. The hill areas have been deprived of what is due to them for decades – this can hardly be a motivating factor for them to stay within the fold. The disenchantment with the Manipur state is not of Nagas alone. Through its actions the state government has only exposed its own fear psychosis – the fear of the wrongdoer.

Some may view recent developments as an indication that the conflict was over. The elections to the district councils were held as per schedule, the blockades were lifted, and police and paramilitary withdrawn from the border villages. But in crucial respects the situation has deteriorated. The Naga civil society organisations have declared the elections in the Naga inhabited areas as “null and void.” Further, they have affirmed that they were severing all ties with the Manipur government and would like the central government to make alternative arrangements. This kind of breaking point was expected. In the absence of a suitable self-governance structure, no response from the state government to their democratic resistance, and the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958 (AFSPA) still being in force in the hill districts (the ceasefire agreement notwithstanding) the Naga organisations had started a civil disobedience movement against the Manipur government in 2005: United Naga Council submitted hill house tax of 93,227 households for 2006 to the prime minister in June that year; prescribed textbooks for secondary schools were surrendered and 156 private schools adopted the Nagaland Board of Secondary Education syllabus; and schools and colleges in the Naga inhabited areas sought affiliation with the Nagaland Board and Nagaland Univeristy.[37] The struggle with the state government however had not disrupted relations with the people in the valley, especially the Meiteis. However in May this year when the crisis around Mao Gate and the blockades was escalating, especially after the firing incident, and there was little solidarity from the Meiteis (who are the dominant community not only in society but also in the state government and legislature) the Naga Hoho announed that the Nagas could no longer continue to relate with the Meiteis. This unfortunate development is the result of the recent deadlock, created by the Manipur government in the first instance but also the central government which continued to watch while the situation worsened without making any timely or meaningful intervention.

Peace without Justice?

One would like to think that control by denying basic democratic rights cannot last forever, but in this case it has already lasted for more than six decades. The conflict(s) in Manipur can be resolved if there is political will, if the government respects the rule of law, and if it is willing to treat all its citizens equally. And above all if it does not resort to militarization. There has been militarization here for long years as in few places in the country, and it has not solved anything – on the contrary. Yet, no lesson has been learnt.

A large part of the present crisis has been due to the heavy deployment of armed forces at the border. Several additional companies of the paramilitary were sent by the Centre to lift the blockade (though this decision came at the same time as that of the blockades being lifted) with the intention of stationing two companies permanently. At the most this would mean that blockade as a form of protest will be curtailed, but will the cause of the conflict be addressed through this? The mere presence of armed forces in large numbers is likely to cause problems. We have to only recall the way the armed forces opened fire on villagers in Tamenglong (in May) without much thought when the truck carrying essential commodities that they were escorting slipped off the road on its own accord. These hill districts have been a site of many serious human righs violations in the past. One has to only pick up a NPMHR report to see the scores of instances of killing, rape, torture that are part of the memory and that have shaped the psychology of the people of this region. The ceasefire agreement between the Government of India and the NSCN does not apply to Manipur. AFSPA is still in force. During the present crisis people have protested peacefully and with restraint – by deploying such large contingents of armed forces is the government not being provocative? And if there is slippage would that by default be attributed to ”rebel forces” and all toll on human life dismissed as ”collateral damage”?

In the present conflict, the State has missed an opportunity to strengthen peace. It does not require an exceptionally discerning eye to see that this was a completely avoidable turn of events. The stance and actions of the governments made a mockery of the ongoing peace process. Practicing peace requires another kind of sincerity and commitment than talking peace. The simple desire of the Naga leader to visit his village could have been met in a dignified manner. Despite the fact that central questions like the NSCN demand for Nagalim is on the negotiating table, the Manipur government in an early announcement said that it would not allow Muivah to enter Manipur until the demand for Nagalim was withdrawn! Or that Muivah could enter if he was simply going to visit his home but not if he had a political agenda. Can one really expect a political person to go anywhere without his politics? The fear of course was that he would speak about integration of the Naga inhabited areas of Manipur with Nagaland. And this could not be allowed especially at the time when the district council elections were due. But isn’t there freedom of expression? Muivah’s visit was going to be only for four days. Even if he did speak about integration during the four days, which he surely would, what was stopping the Manipur government from campaigning on ‘territorial integrity’ for the remaining 361 days?

No peace can be achieved without the ability to respect the other and in the present context this would necessarily mean being respectful of the rights of the other. The Naga people have a right to live together (a desire that has been expressed since 1920), which would mean redrawing state borders. Borders are seen to be sacrosanct in a worldview where a people may well get divided but the border must stay intact. As the Naga leaders have emphasised, the land they are asking for is theirs and not an inch of anybody else’s land . Why should then this just claim be denied? The Naga quest for justice should of course not obviate consideration of other tribes residing in the same regions or neighbouring ones. However, the recent trajectory of events has reaffirmed the struggle of the Nagas to redraw the borders so that no authority can turn a Naga away from her home or land. Peaceful co-existence is possible only with the fulfillment of rights.

Notes

[1] I am grateful to Ao Milen in Mokokchung and Panos South Asia in Guwahati for use of their office space while writing and North Eastern Social Research Centre (Guwahati) for occasional dips into their library.

[2] Vani Subramaniam was the other team member. Thanks are due to Rosemary Dzüvichü and Neikesanuo Sorhie for their generous help before and during the fact-finding.

[3] Naga Hoho is the apex body of all the Naga tribes be they in Nagaland, Manipur, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh or Myanmar.

[4] This figure is from the community hospital at Kalinamai.

[5] Sagar (2010).

[6] Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes Lists (modification) Orders 1956, Part X Manipur.

[7] There are altogether 68 Naga tribes (including those in Myanmar). Kuki is the term for the Zo or Chin who migrated from the Chin Hills of Myanmar though the generic name ‘Kuki’ has become controversial and many ethnic groups are now struggling for recognition of their own identities (Shimray, 2009, p. 91).

[8] These estimates are according to the 1991 census.

[9] Institute for Human Development (2006: 240). (http://manipur.nic.in/planning/DraftMSDR/
Draft_SDR_pdf/Chapter%2018_Decentralisation.pdf)

[10] Gangte (nd), cited in Takhellambam (2009: 148).

[11] Shimray (2009: 92). The Act met with disfavour also because it had been pushed “despite a difference of opinion between the Hill Areas Committee and the Legislative Assembly ..…..the former did not agree with several provisions of the Bill.” Institute for Human Development (2006: 240).

[12] See Kamei (2009) for the resistance of the Kuki-Chins to the Act because of which it could not be implemented in their areas.

[13] This also had other worrying consequences, e.g. that development projects could be sanctioned in the hill areas without the district councils having any say. See Chamroy, 2008.

[14] Chamroy, 2008.

[15] Zolengthe, 2008.

[16] Chamroy, 2008.

[17] Bulletin Part I (No. 48), Manipur Legislative Assembly Secretariat, 10 October 2008.
(http://manipurassembly.nic.in/html/9thAssem/Bulletin/Bulletin10thOct%2008.pdf). Only 11 of the 60 MLAs in the Legislative Assembly participated in the discussion.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Mashangva, 2010. Also see Chiphang, 2010, amongst others.

[20] Institute for Human Development, 2006: 242.

[21] Chakma, 2010.

[22] See e.g. the compilation by Justice B.L. Hansaria (revised by Vijay Hansaria) (2005).

[23] See in particular the ”Bardoloi Sub-Committee Report on the North-East Frontier (Assam) Tribal and Excluded Areas” on which the Sixth Schedule is based and the ‘Constituent Assembly Debate Relating to the Sixth Schedule’in Hansaria (2005).

[24] The version of the Sixth Schedule referred to in this section is as it existed on 29 April 2005 included in Hansaria (2005).

[25] This is not unlike the experience with the Tribal Advisory Councils in the Fifth Schedule areas.

[26] See Chapter 9 (Part D) of the report in Hansaria (2005).

[27] Report of MPs and Experts to make recommendations on the salient features of the law for extending provisions of the Constitution (73rd) Amendment Act, 1992, to Scheduled Areas.

[28] Shimray (2009: 112).

[29] Haokip (2009: 321).

[30] Newmai News Network (2010)

[31] Correspondent (2010)

[32] Correspondent (2010)

[33] So great was the resultant apprehension that it led to the formation of the Kuki National Front in 198889 “with the view to … perpetuate the political demand of the Kuki National Assembly…[for] the creation of a Kuki Homeland (Kuki State), within the framework of Indian Constitution…” (Gangte as quoted in Takhellambam, p. 149).

[34] The extension was made in 84 villages of Churachandpur (in 1962), 14 villages of Senapati (in 1965) and 14 villages in Tamenglong. (Dena, 2010).

[35] Constituent Assembly Debate in Hansaria (2005: 285).

[36] Haokip (2009: 321-22).

[37] Memorandum submitted to the Prime Minister of India in June 2006.

References

Chakma (2010): ‘Why the road blocks really started’. Hindustan Times. 23 May

Chamroy, N (2008): On Autonomous District Councils in Manipur. 6 May. (http://www.tangkhul.com/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=1201)

Chiphang, Addie (2010): ‘Ukhrul denounces ADC 2008 Act.’ The Sangai Express. 6 April.

Correspondent (2010)‘KIM for ADC polls under 6th Schedule.’ The Lanka Times. 28 April.

Correspondent (2010): ‘Manipur ADC poll hits wall of protest’. The Telegraph. 12 April.

Dena, Lal (2010): “Manipur Hill Tribes ‘still waiting for justice’.” Mizoram Express. 20 May.

Fernandes, Walter and Sanjay Barbora. eds. (2009): Land, People and Politics: Contest Over
Tribal Land in Northeast India (Guwahati: North Eastern Social Research Centre).

Gangte, Thangkhotinmang S (nd): Land Problem and Ethnic Tension in Northeast India with special reference to Manipur, a monograph.

Hansaria, B.L. (revised by Vijay Hansaria) (2005): Sixth Schedule to the Constitution. Second edition. (Delhi: Universal Law Publishing Company).

Haokip, T.T. (2009): “Critically Assessing Kuki Land System in Manipur” in Singh, Priyoranjan. ed.

Horam, M. and S.H.M. Rizvi (Singh, K.S. General editor) (1998): People of India: Manipur. Vol. 31. (Calcutta: Anthropological Survey of India and Seagull Books).

Institute for Human Development (2006): Manipur State Development Report. Sponsored by the Planning Commission, Draft Report. (Delhi: Government of India.)

Kamei, Gangmumei (2009): “Ethnicity, Identity and Land in Tribal Manipur” in Singh, Priyoranjan. ed.

Mashangva, Somi(2010): ‘Why Manipur District Council Act is ‘dangerous’ for hill tribes’,
Mizoram Express. 27 May.

Newmai News Network (2010): ‘April 26 to be observed as Black Day for tribals,’ 28 April.

Newmai News Network (2010): ‘Tribal righs body says, rules under ADC Act full of errors’, 17 April.

Nongkynrih, A.K. (2009): “Privatisation of Communal Land of the Tribes of North East India: Sociological Viewpoint”in Fernandes, Walter and Sanjay Barbora. eds.

Sagar, Narain (2010): ‘Mayhem in Mao, 2 Students Killed.’ Eastern Mirror. Dimapur, 7 May.

Singh, Mangi S. (2009): “Land, Ethnic-Relations and the 9th Assembly Elections in the Hills of Manipur” in Singh, Priyoranjan. ed.

Singh, Priyoranjan ed. (2009): Tribalism and the Tragedy of the Commons: Land, Identity and Development: The Manipur Experience (New Delhi: Akansha Publishing House).

Shimray, U.A.(2007): Naga Population and Integration Movement (New Delhi: Mittal Publications).

Shimray, U.A. (2009): “Land use system in Manipur Hills: A case study of the Tangkhul Naga” in Fernandes, Walter and Sanjay Barbora. eds.

Takhellambam, Bhabananda (2009): “Contesting Space, Competing Claims, Shaping Places: Violent Conflicts and Development in Manipur” in Singh, Priyoranjan. ed.

Zolengthe (2008): ‘ADC ordinance promulgated after governor’s assent.’ 14 May. (zspdelhi.wordpress.com; source: Imphal Free Press).

5 Comments »

5 Responses to “Justice Denied to Tribals in the Hill Districts of Manipur”

  1. Thugak Says:
    August 24th, 2010 at 12:31

    This article is a bullshit. No understanding of the real history of Naga. naga is a name which came in 90s particularly in Manipur. Tangkhul tribes were not Naga. Even the term Tangkhul is a new name given by Petigrew, an English man. tangkhul were called Hao Community.

  2. Mr. K A Khrasi Says:
    September 2nd, 2010 at 00:40

    The Truth shall prevail sooner or latter. And this article clearly reflects to the readers that justice has to be met and it has started on its way. All right-thinking people will surely appreciate to the one who has contributed this article.

  3. tongtong Says:
    March 6th, 2011 at 12:31

    Funny article!
    Remember, the existing political/emotional chaos in Manipur is shades of gray – not black and white as seen in your color blind eyes.

  4. Rakesh Says:
    July 26th, 2011 at 19:36

    A very balanced article. Some people might not like to see the truth but the truth will always remain. But who cares i don’t care, in democracy the will of the majority is right and in manipur we are the majority and what we says goes. The Haos can go to Nagaland if they want, nobody is manipur is stopping Nagas from going to nagaland.

  5. Apao Bunii Says:
    July 30th, 2012 at 05:59

    A very systematic, thorough articulation on the condition and live of the tribal in Manipur. The Author knows the truth about the tribal in general and Naga in particular. This contribution on the part of the author is highly appreciated and will add as a treasure for the tribal in future too.

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