~ By Maria Pa

Manipur valley has witnessed an intense agitation for almost 2 months starting from 2nd week of July, 2015 over the demand of Inner Line Permit System in Manipur. One precious live and, hundreds of men and women’s productive days were lost in the process. The massive movement finally culminated on August 31, 2015 with the passing of 3 (three) Bills namely, “The Manipur People Protection Bill, 2015”, “The Manipur Land Revenue & Land Reform (Seventh Amendment) Bill, 2015” and, “The Manipur Shops & Establishment (Second Amendment) Bill, 2015” in the special session of the Manipur Legislative Assembly in a record 10 minutes and 15 seconds time. The Manipur Legislative Assembly off course does not have many meaningful and elaborate debates on issues even in the past.

The reaction in the hill areas, Churachandpur in particular on the passing of the commonly known ‘ILP Bill’ is spontaneous. The residence of the Health Minister was burnt down along with those of the 5 MLAs of the district. The 3 (three) Kuki Legislators from Sadar Hills areas also did not escape from the spur-of-the-moment people’s anger as their houses also met the same fate that very night, though in a relatively lesser damage. The residence of the Manipur Outer Parliamentary Constituency MP who has nothing to do or say with the issue was also not spared either, as he also hails from Churachandpur. Nine live have been lost so far and some seriously injured are still being treated in Hospitals in Churachandpur and Imphal. Government offices and buildings including that of the Sub-Divisional Officer, Zonal Education Officer and the district’s Employment Exchange were also reduced to cinders in the aftermath of the violent protest. The claims and counterclaims on the merits and demerits and the manner of protest are unlikely to subside in the immediate future. They will also in no way help in bridging the already vast gap between the hill and valley people of the state. The state government is also not on enviable position as there will be a reaction in every action it takes with regard to the said Bills.

I prefer to set aside the content details and other technicalities of the Bills and dwelt on the general facts and figures from a layman’s perspective. First of all, the movement for the introduction of the Inner Line Permit System being spearheaded by a newly formed Civil Society does not have any visible and mandated tribal leader even though it was repeatedly claimed by the propagators that the issue is for the benefit of both the hill and valley peoples of Manipur. On the other hand, there are some stray incidents in the process of the movement where individuals and groups from tribals and other minority communities are being hurled with some explicit words and actions which are not definitely pleasant to swallow for those on the receiving ends. These, to some extent, are understandable as emotions and not rational thoughts rules during those days. Most tribal and other minority individuals and organizations also prefer to wait and watch instead of coming out openly with their thoughts and opinions on the issue. Few organizations wrote to the state’s Chief Minister and few more tactfully wrote to the Governor requesting him not to give his assent to the Bill that is coming to him in few days time. They also might have reveal to him that they dare not speak out while the Bill in the pipeline because of some reason or the other.

The Joint Committee on ILPS might not have a tribal. What is more surprising and insulting for the tribals is that the high level Committee of the state government headed by one of the senior most politician and a Cabinet Minister does not have any tribal Minister or Legislators as a member. To add salt to the wound, the various civil society leaders, academician and lawyers being consulted while preparing the draft bill are all from the valley and none from the hill. To officially and unofficially proclaiming that, the PMP Bill or the MLR & LR (7th Amendment Bill) will no way affects the tribals and their land at this present moment is not at all going to appease the targeted groups but will instead make them more and more furious and alienated.

Very few will expect the 20 tribal MLAs of the state to cohesively stand for the common cause of the tribals of Manipur as they are all preoccupied with their own tribe and constituencies. Such attitude is more relevant to those who hail from Churachandpur district and Sadar hills as the others are at least bonded under the Naga nationhood even if their political alienations and leaning differ from each another. Jokes and rumors going around in roadside tea stalls and private conversations is that very few tribal Legislators took time to go through the contents of the draft bill. Some of the junior ones are even made to learnt ‘bye-heart’ that the ‘Bill will not harm the tribals’. Inspite of knowing that their Legislators, majority of them from the ruling Congress, will not dare to even faintly make comment against the proposed Bill, most tribal apex bodies voiced their concern to their respective local/tribe or district MLAs over the manner in which the ILP movement was conducted and the Bill along with that of the always contentious MLR & LR Bill was about to be introduce and passed in the Assembly. One major and influential tribal body even goes to the extent of requesting all the tribal MLAs, the Hill Areas Committee (HAC) Chairman in particular, to boycott the Assembly session or at least raise their voice of protest officially in the floor of the house. They even announce their own form of ‘curfew’ to block the entry of tribal legislators in the state Legislative Assembly on the day the bill was supposed to be passed. The Prayer, Petition and Protest of the tribal peoples to their Legislators fails and the exactly opposite form of protest erupt on the same evening of the Bill being passed. Note that, Hill District Bandh on August 31, 2015 was jointly called by Kuki Students’ Organization (GHQ), All Naga Students Association Manipur (ANSAM) and the two factions of the All Tribal Students’ Union Manipur (ATSUM).

The next groups of MLAs to be affected in the aftermath of the passing of the 3 Bills are the 4 Naga Peoples Front (NPF) Legislators who resigned from their position first through a Joint Press Communiqué and then personally. Another MLA from Churachandpur is said to have followed suit the next day. On the 10th September, the Chairman of HAC, a Cabinet Minister and a Parliamentary Secretary are reported to also have resigned but nothing is confirm till date as there is no documentary or official confirmation is there from their side nor from the Speaker’s office.

The other major point of discord of the tribals with regard to the said Bills is in the ‘Statement of Objects and Reasons’ part of the PMP Bill whereby it explicitly tags Manipur as a ‘small hill state’. This, the tribal feel is, to explicitly confirm the slow but stable intention of some people of the state who want to declare Manipur as ‘Hill State’ so that the plain-hill divide in matter of physical domination and control of land is being minimize. This will further pave the way for the already advanced community to reversed back to a Scheduled Tribe status and then enjoy all the privileges and benefits enjoyed by the tribals. Further, the use of a seemingly non-government but more of academics and poetic words, such as ‘roof over their heads’ in the ‘statement of objects and reasons’ part of the MLR & LR Bill; ‘maintenance of peace and public order’ as the reason for introducing the PMP Bill are some of the reasons what makes the tribals convinced that the entire Bills are being drafted not by the Law & Legislative Affairs departments and officials but by civil society leaders and their advisers.

Para 4 of the introductory part of MLR & LR (7th amendment) Bill 2015 mentioned that, ‘land belonging to an ST in the valley areas cannot be sold to a non-ST without the prior consent of the DC concerned’. What makes the common ST wonder here is that the total land owned by tribal as villages and localities in the valley areas will be only few square kilometers. Then, what is the reason of great concern for the state government to mention it in the introductory part of Bill. Besides, the huge vast of land measuring more than 90% of the total geographical land of the state is also owned by tribals and the same cannot also be sold to a non-ST. Should not this be more of concern if at all, if one wants to make residential plots available to all families of the state?

Para 5 of the same part also mentioned the government’s intention to make the limited available land in the valley area to all peoples of the state. Is it not at present, land in the valley areas available to tribal and non-tribals of the state? If it not so, there will be no tribal village and residential plots in the valley areas here and there? These doubts and interpretations of the sentences and words may not be confusing and doubtful for the learned lawyers and academicians who drafted the said Bills but, it certainly is for the common tribals whose representatives in the state Legislative Assembly are also not worth consulted during the drafting process of the said three bills.

One of the vastly agreed points of discontentment is the term ‘Native People’ which out of nowhere appears in Section 8, Clause (a) of the now hotly debated PMP Bill, 2015. The term needs to be properly defined as they (Native People) are the one (persons) to be exempted from the provisions of the Act. Or, does the term ‘Native People’ and ‘Manipur People’ which is clearly defined are all the same? Here, it is a known fact that the previous Draft Bill was known as ‘The Manipur Native People Protection Bill, 2015’ and the same clearly defined the term ‘native people’ and ‘non-native people’ in its Definition section.

When the ‘draft bill’ which incorporated the 5 points demanded by the JCILPS was made to the general public, a Public Discourse was conducted by the Committee on August 20, 2015 at MDU Hall, Imphal. Few more suggestions and objections to the ‘draft’ were raised by the participants and speakers of the meeting which was telecast LIVE by ISTV. A select group was entrusted to fine tune the present ‘draft bill’ on a war footing manner as the dateline for the passing of the bill was about to expire. The said team immediately works on it; held discussion with the government’s Committee and the outcome was ‘The Manipur People Protection Bill, 2015’ in which the term ‘Native’ was no longer there. It is now obvious that the committee, both that of the JCILP and the Government, in an oversight has forgot to delete the ‘native’ word as they are doing in a ‘hathu-hathu’ (without proper plan and hurriedly) manner. Ridiculous!

The sudden violent protest and loss of lives has surprisingly and positively brought the tribals, the Hmar-Kuki-Zomi groups of Churachandpur in particular closer than ever before. The bonhomie among the different close but apart tribes who hardly have any common issue before is amazing and is being compared by many as ‘baptism by fire’. For, ‘blood is always thicker than water’. What has happened has happened. The families who lost their near and dear ones will not be compensated monetarily as the death will not rise again. There is however, still room for negotiations and across the table talks for World Wars are also resolved across with pen, not gun.

Shouting at the top of one’s voice from one’s area of strength is not going to help at all. One may cite one’s 2000 years old history but the other may rebuke it by saying that, “Yes, Metei history might be old and adorable but the geographical map of the present Manipur state is drawn by the British as per their political conveniences and that, the hill and valleys are separately administered from ages and also that, the Independent India recognize this dispensation and as such inserted a separate provision for administration of the hill areas of Manipur under Article 371C in the Constitution of India which empowered the Hill Areas Committee”. Individual professionals, politicians or groups asserting their own positions will no longer help in the solution process but further aggravated it. Something needs to be done in a fast paced manner before it is going beyond reach.

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