Three bills were passed by the Manipur Assembly that have been at the centre of conflict between the hill and valley regions of the state for months now.
The Protection of Peoples Bill 2015 has been sent back by the Home Ministry in Delhi for re-examination and framing of a new bill which takes into account interests of the indigenous peoples. The two other bills have been referred for consideration of experts for a ‘reasonable conclusion’. As of June 26, 2016, an All Party Meeting has been held with the Manipur CM Ibobi Singh and a resolution taken to draft a new bill after consultation with constitutional experts.
But what can be expected from new legislation? Some believe there’s no hope.
“Manipur Tribal Fourm Delhi (MTFD) have been clear from the very beginning that the bills, though very important, are only the latest manifestation of the official discrimination of the tribal people in Manipur by the Government of Manipur and an attempt to violate their constitutionally-given rights,” an official from MTFD wrote on condition of anonymity.
“Given the present alignment of political power in the State, in which the valley Meitei people have 66.6 percent of the legislative seats and have full control of the capital city, and given the deep Hill-plain divide, there is no hope that the bill, in whatever form it is presented and passed, will help heal the wounds,” the official said.
And the MTFD sees only one way out.
“If we are serious about resolving the problems, the place to start is by addressing the legitimate demands of the tribal people for constitutional protection in the form of 6th Schedule or other autonomy models in the immediate term and address the numerous grievances that underlay the demand for total political separation from Manipur. Unless these demands are acknowledged and redressed, no solution will come,” he said.
Others like H Mangchinkhup, Chairman of the Joint Action Committee on Anti-Tribal Bills (Churachandpur) are a little more hopeful.
“The JAC will sit together and decide its stance on the June 25 resolution. After so many protests, they hope the valley people have learnt a lesson and will not frame bills that are detrimental to the interests of the tribals. Now the government will be more careful,” he said
“The tribals will decide if any kind of bill pertaining to their interests is to be supported or not. It is high time we the tribal people are able to decide on our own future,” Mangchinkhup said.
There are some who also urge caution that the peace process might be jeopardised.
"I think there is an extreme group which will not agree to any resolution on the matter and are pushing for a separate agenda in line with the Naga demand for a separate administration.
"There are many on either side who want a reconciliation and return of normalcy but this group will have nothing of it, as recent civil society peace overtures which were spurned by this group indicates," Pradip Phanjoubam, Editor of the Imphal Free Press said.
Both sides are hoping for a better legislation in the next session of the Assembly.
In Churachandpur, I witnessed a deliberation on June 20 between Mangchinkhup and a group of public-minded individuals who had come up from the valley to present a petition. In the wake of violence and the nine deaths in Churachandpur, they were anxious for peace and goodwill to be restored. At this meeting, the Chairman welcomed the call for dialogue.
In a later conversation with me, he added that 1951 census requirement (to be considered to be in the fold of ‘Manipuri People’) would disqualify many hill people and make them aliens in their own land.
He echoed what is written in the very first paragraph of deposition made by United Chief Committee’s (Churchandpur) deposition to the Union Government – that the Merger Agreement with the Raja of Manipur did not refer to the hill areas at all. Hence, logically, the hill areas were never legally added to Indian territory.
The deposition further states that the Land Revenue and Land Reforms (Seventh Amendment) Bill, 2015, infringes upon rights of tribal chieftains who control land in these areas and thus directly violates the special status given to these communities under Article 371C.
The Manipur Tribals’ Forum Delhi, in their petition to the Prime Minister, have pointed out that the provisions need to be referred to the Hill Areas Committee and that the term ‘native people of Manipur’ is not defined anywhere in the bills.
These are the main points of disagreement about the three bills. The demand made earlier from the hills has been for a separate hill administration.
“This unrest stems from a longterm feeling among hill communities of being discriminated by the valley. The hills have suffered acutely from uneven development and inadequate infrastructure.
"Many government posts (e.g. school teacher) are filled by someone from the valley who doesn’t want to come and live in the hills, so they get themselves 'transferred with post' back to the valley,” Chingya Luithui of the Naga Peoples Movement for Human Rights said.
The three bills evidently were the trigger-point for an old and growing rift. Whether they can be corrected with new legislation that is acceptable to both, remains to be seen.
Atreyee Majumder is an anthropologist conducting research in Manipur and Nagaland.
Feature image source: PTI