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To whom the land belong? Land autonomy in the hill areas of Manipur through the ages

Saturday, July 5, 2014

/ Published by VIRTHLI
~Prof.  Lal Dena, VIRTHLI Columnist

The earth is the foundation of indigenous peoples. It is the seat of spirituality, the fountain from which our cultures and languages flourish. The earth is our historian, the keeper of events and the bones of our forefathers. Earth provides us food, medicine, shelter and clothing. It is the source of our independence; it is our mother. We do not dominate her; we must harmonize with her” (Julian Burger: Report from the Frontier, London, 1987:14).

In the past there was no proper land record in the hill areas of Manipur. For this reason we do not have accurate information on land use andownership among the people. Though there have been some studies on the subject, so far there is no comprehensive account of the tribal land use and land ownership pattern of the state.  As a result, there are divided opinions as to who really own the land. This paper therefore seeks to focus on the evolution of land ownership among the tribal people during the historical period beginning from pre-colonial period.

This paper hypothesises that there was no private ownership of land among the tribal people in pre-colonial period and privatization of land ownership was the creation of British colonial rule;and so the traditional land ownership system among the tribal people in pre-colonial era was based on the principle of communal ownership and the chiefs and their elders (councillors) were simply the custodian of the village lands.The migration and settlement pattern of any tribal groups in different parts of North East India was always based on clan or community consideration and obviously the places where they once settled were named after their clan’s names. Since all the tribal people practised shifting cultivation, they had to shift every year to a new site of land for cultivation. So this practice could not entail permanent ownership of land among them.In that stage of social development, there was no privatization of ownership of land and the ‘mine ’ or ‘yours ’ had just no place and everything was shared by all within the community. No monetized economy was known to them that there was no buying and selling in that period of time.. Even any animals shot or trapped were shared within the clans or community.Modern legal niceties cannot be applied to them. Their land contains their history and sense of identity and it ensures their economic viability as an independent people. Their oral history is more important than anything else. Go to the hills and you will come across many standing tombs of their forefathers on the road sides. Those are the living witnesses of their ownership of land. They are their documents.

The question of privatization of land ownership did not arise at all in that stage of tribal society. It was the bounden duty of the chiefs and their councillors just to allot lands among the clans or community members according to the size of a family. Of course every family was entitled to have homestead lands but no payment was ever made for such land for the simple reason that monetized exchange was not known to them. Perhaps the custom paying certain fixed quantity of paddy to the chief annually and also the surrendering of every hind leg of any animal to him (busung-sadar) might have started in pre-colonial period. But it must have been done so out of love, for everybody was concerned for mutual welfare and security.
But no human society is static.  In course of time in the evolution of society, there began gradual stratification of society on the basis of one’s status in society. As the people came into contact with the external forces likeoutside traders and colonial officials, no tribal society could remain the same. One fundamental fact of British colonial administration was the recognition or legitimization of the institution of tribal chieftainship. With the introduction of monetized economy combined with the consolidation of colonial rule in the hill areas of Manipur, tribal chiefs gradually became integrated with the colonial establishment. In their respective chiefdoms, a tribal chief was thus entrusted with the task of administering simple justice according to the customary laws.

The land holding system in the hill was completely different the valley. In the valley of Manipur the whole land belonged to the Meitei king since pre-colonial period. Those surrounding tribal chiefs who acknowledged the influence of the Meitei king might have rendered lallupservice or some kind of tributes to the latter. But the land taxation system which was prevailing in the valley was never extended to the hill areas. The British officials introduced regular land revenue system in the valley to maintain their administrative costs. But in the hill areas, they did not introduce any land tax as they did in the valley. Of course, they did introduce hill house tax of Rs.3/- only per house household instead of land tax. While patta system was introduced in the valley on the patterns of Assam, no patta system of land ownership was ever introduced in the hill areas.
J.Shakespeare who once served as political superintendent in Mizoram, was transferred to Manipur in 1905 as political agent and took up the task of demarcating tribal lands as land dispute was very common in those days. Shakespeare started issuing boundary papers (ramri lekha) in the name of Manipur maharajah to all the tribal chiefs.This boundary paper did not at all convey ownership of land. It only defined the boundaries of each and every chiefdom in the hill areas. But this gave a wrong notion that the whole land in the hill also belonged to the maharaja of Manipur. The boundary paper was wrongly interpreted as the recognition of chief’s right over the village lands. Since the boundary paper was also issued in the name of the Manipur maharaja, it was thought that the whole land within the boundary of Manipur belonged to the maharaja. In course of time, the tribal chiefs also began to behave as if they were the real owner of the village land. It was a colonial myth created by the British that the land in the hill villages were owned by their chiefs or the maharaja of Manipur. In this connection, Prof Gangmumei Kamei argues that it was convenient for the colonial authorities to deal with the chiefs in matter of house tax or maintenance of law and order or enforcement of lallup labour or forced labour and concludes that with the colonial legitimization, the semi-landlordism had been allowed to grow into an institutionalized system recognised by the statethereby pushing the poor villagers to the status of some kind of tenants.

It may be pointed out that there were settlements regulated by the colonial officials. But even where such settlements were made with permission of the maharaja or the state, the ownership of the land was granted by the state to the village in the name of its community. It was never done so in an individual’s name. Registration of land in an individual’s name was only later development. It may also be pointed out that there were many villages which had been in existence for centuries quite oblivious of the independent kingdom of Manipur maharaja. In such cases, the land belonged to the village community or the clans who first established the village. As we have already pointed out, migration and settlement was always done in the remote past on the basis of clan or community consideration. For want of security, no isolated individual settlement ever took place in the past.

Now the question is: who managed land, its allotment and distribution among the members of the village community all through the historical period? The chiefs and his council members did the work without any outside interference. Self-rule was the basic ethos of indigenous people through the ages.If autonomy means self-rule, then right to autonomy or self-government means internal management of local affairs including culture, religion, education, economic activities, land and resources free from outside interference.
Following India’s Independence in 1947, the Government of India placed Manipur, then a princely state with mixed populations of tribal people constituting about 36 p.c. of the total state population under the Fifth Schedule on the basis of the A.V.Thakkar Sub-committee’s report.  That means that the tribal people of Manipur do not have the constitutional safeguard which aims at maintaining the traditional pattern of self-governance by giving the tribal areas concerned, certain degree of autonomy to deal with and preserve their way of life, their land, their customary law, etc. through the Sixth Schedule Autonomous District Council.
At the same time, the Government of Manipur enacted the Manipur State Hill Peoples (Administration) Regulation Act, (MSHPAR),1947 which divided the whole hill territory into circles. In each village of tax-paying 20 households or above, there was a village authority consisting of chiefs and elders. Above the village authority, there was circle authority comprising one circle officer appointed by the government and a council of 5 members elected by the village authorities falling within the circle. To encourage people’s participation in the local administration, the Manipur (Village Authority in Hill Areas) Act was passed in 1956 which introduced for the first time election of members to the village authority on the basis of adult franchise by repealing the earlier MSHPAR Act, 1947.In 1967 the Government of India abolished the privy purse, and the Manipur State Legislative Assembly also passed the Manipur Hill Areas (Acquisition of Chiefs Rights) Act on 14 June, 1967 which authorized the state government to acquire the rights, titles and interests of the chiefs in the hill areas of Manipur. According to the Act, the chiefs were to be compensated on the basis of the following criteria: (1) the area of land under chiefs; (2) total number of households within each chiefdom; and, (3) compensation in instalment or lump sum.  But because of the objection raised mainly by the Chiefs’ Union (CU) among the tribal chiefs, the Act could not be implemented till today. Almost all the tribal chiefs still talk about retention or reform of the institution of chieftainship even though the privy purse was abolished in the valley of Manipur and other states of India since 1967.

When Manipur attained statehood in 1972, the Manipur (Hill Areas) District Council Act, 1972 was passed by the state government. Unlike their counterparts in Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura, no provision under Sixth Schedule was extended to the so-called autonomous district councils in Manipur. The district councils solely depended on the financial support of the state government. They have no judicial and legislative powers. Because of public demand for extension of the provisions of the Sixth Schedule, the district councils were dissolved for some time. The 7th Manipur Legislative Assembly had passed the Manipur Hill Areas Autonomous District Council (Amendment) Bill on 25th July, 2000 again without Sixth Schedule provision. They are just constitutional make-believe..

In the valley of Manipur, modern panchayat system was introduced since 1960. For the gram panchayats and nagar panchayats, there is the state finance commission which makes a comprehensive study for the improvement of funds and resource mobilization. Again for the panchayat bodies, there is also consolidated fund directly funded by the state government and the central government. The district planning committee under panchayats initiates planning right from gram panchayats. But the district councils in the hills have to make planning in consultation with the planning department of the government. What is conspicuously absent in the district councils and village authority councils are women participation. Under the panchayat bodies, not only 36 per cent seats are reserved for women; besides specific quota of pradhans and up-pradhans in the gram panchayats and adhyakshas and up-adhyakshas of zilla parishad are also reserved for elected women. Altogether there are more than 22 women in the five zilla parishads and some adhyakshas are women. Of the 1556 gram panchayats, 567 are women and of whom 55 are women pradhans. But women participation is completely absent both at the district and village level councils in the hill areas.

On the whole, the level of operation of panchayats is much higher than the district councils. Even if Sixth Schedule provisions are extended, the district councils can manage primary schools and dispensaries, whereas the panchayats are entitled to exercise control over higher secondary schools, hospitals and those long list of powers under the 11th schedule of the Indian constitution. In the final analysis, while the district councils are under constant threat of the Democle’s sword of the state, the panchayat bodies have been undergoing a liberalizing process of federalism and democratization at the district level. Besides, the adhyakshas, up-adhyakshas, pradhans and up-pradhans are entitled to monthly salaries and the members of the zilla parishads and gram panchayats also get sitting allowances.

The village authorities in the hills do not have such allowances, not to speak of salaries. Deeply aware of the deficiencies in the constitution and functioning of the district councils and village authorities, the Chief Minister’s Advisory Committee on Social Policy was formed in1995-1997 in which the author of this paper was one of the members. Of the committee’s recommendations, only the Manipur State Human Rights was implemented so far. Other recommendations regarding conceptual draft on tribal land law and the proposed amendment of the village authority councils for the hill areas of Manipur are still kept in the cold storage
The question which merits special consideration is this: Could the institution of tribal chieftainship protect indigenous tribal land rights? It seems not. One clear example is the accelerated processes of tribal land alienation consequent upon the introduction of the Manipur Land Reform and Land Revenue Act (MLR&LRA),1960 which is amended from time to time. Despite the opposition from tribal leaders, as we are all aware, the act is extended to (1) 89 villages of Churachandpur district in 1962, vide notification no.142/12/60, dated 22-2-1962; (2) 14 villages in Sadar Hills of Senapati district, vide notification no. 138/4/64, dated 25-2-1965; (3) 809 hectres in Tamenglong district, vide notification no. 3/12/83, dated 14-11-1987and 92 villages in Jiribam sub-division (vide notification no.142/12/1960-M, dated 12/2/1962). Another point which deserves careful consideration is that a non-tribal staying in a tribal village can apply for allotment of the land which he has possessed or occupied for generations without any hitch. This is what had actually happened in Saikot village of Churachandpur district. The MLR&LRA is solely meant for the valley of the five valley districts of Manipur. In other words, the MLR&LRA does not suit the topography of hill areas and is against the traditional tribal land use. So the immediate need of the hour is the introduction of new separate land law for the hills. Right now there is no record of land rights and no land in the hills is a mortgageable commodity. As a result, no tribal farmer can apply for loan from financial institutions for improvement of his agricultural activities.

To conclude, the North Eastern Region Vision 2020 also puts forward in its plan of action the need for land reforms, distribution, updating of land records and their computerization, codification of customary laws, land tenure system and recognition, laws related to use of forests, maximizing self-governance which means the strengthening of the self-governing institutions and empowerment of the people. In order to protect the age-old tribal customary rights on land and also to ensure maximum people’s participation in the decision-making processes of government at the grassroots level, introduction of separate land law for hills and amendment of the Manipur (Hill Areas) Village Authority Act in the context of the 73rd Amendment of Indian Constitution are longoverdue.

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