Nearly ten months have passed since nine Manipur tribals were killed in police firing and the subsequent violence that erupted in the state following the passing of three bills by the Manipur state assembly. But the nine bodies, including one of an 11-year-old boy, continue to remain in the district morgue of Churachandpur. This is being done as a mark of protest against the police action.
“Media has ignored our story. The response of the national media is very slow. If what had happened here with our sons had happened somewhere in mainland India, the issue would have been addressed in a much bigger way,” Damzaching told ScoopWhoop.
She is the mother of 23-year-old Khamsianmuan whose body has not been buried yet after he was killed in August.
About 60 kilometres south of capital city Imphal, hill district Churachandpur has become the epicentre of the protests led by tribal people who view the bills as an “infringement” on their identity and land rights. For the last 288 days, people from the tribe converge at the district morgue “to remember their martyrs” by shouting slogans, singing hymns, offering prayers and taking vows to carry on the struggle till their fight is not over.
“The dead bodies are waiting for justice,” H Mangchin-khup, chief convener, Joint Action Committee Against Anti-Tribal Bills (JAC) told ScoopWhoop.
“Justice will be done when the central government intervenes and scraps these anti-tribal bills. If these bills become acts, we will lose everything,” he said.
Aimed at providing protection to indigenous people of the state from outsiders and illegal immigrants, the Manipur state assembly passed three Bills – The Protection of Manipur People Bill, 2015, The Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms (Seventh Amendment) Bill, 2015 and The Manipur Shops and Establishments (Second Amendment) Bill, 2015 – after a agitation by people from the state’s valley districts.
“It was an agitation for Inner Line Permit (ILP) system, as per which an outsider will be allowed to enter the state through a special permit for a limited period of time. But the demand translated into the passage of three bills that would turn all the tribal people of the state as non-state subjects,” Mangchin-khup, a former student leader and tribal activist for 20 years, explained to ScoopWhoop.
Of the total nine districts of Manipur, five fall in the hill region and the rest, including the capital city of Imphal, form the valley region of the state. According to the official records, the hill districts, inhabited by dozens of tribal groups, occupy about 90 per cent of the total area of the state. The remaining 10 percent geographical area, dominated by the ethnic group Meitei people, is part of the valley.
“It’s a divide between the hill region and the valley,” Dr R Sanga, a leading tribal activist from Manipur told ScoopWhoop. “The bills are very much political in nature. Meiteis dominate the political establishment in the state. Since tribal people inhabit most part of the state, the Meiteis want to grab the land and resources of the hill region.”
Among the many reservations Manipuri tribals have against the bill, is a clause in the Protection of Manipur People Bill, 2015. The bill defines “Manipur people” as “persons of Manipur whose names are in the National Register of Citizens, 1951, Census Report 1951 and Village Directory of 1951 and their descendants who have contributed collective social, cultural and economic life of Manipur.”
According to the tribals, most of them will lose their Manipuri citizenship if the bill becomes an act.
“Many parts in the hill region are still inaccessible in the state. How could it would have been possible for the tribals, some 66 years ago, to come down to the valley and get themselves registered in the census,” Romeo Hmar, convener of Manipur Tribals Forum in Delhi, told ScoopWhoop. “Deciding the definition of Manipur people based on a 1951 cut-off is not only illogical but discriminatory.”
Moreover, Hmar asserts, the hill region of the former princely state was always administered separately, even during the rule of British.
But it’s not just the members of the tribes who are complaining. In the current constitutional arrangement, the people from hill region can buy and own land in the valley, but the same does not apply to the people of valley. The tribals believe that the residents from the valley, with their political power base, might use the bills to gain access over their land.
“The 60-member Manipur state assembly is dominated by the MLAs from the valley,” Sanga said.
“While as 19 assembly seats are reserved for tribals form the Hill Area Committee, they acted as mute spectators when the bills were tabled in the assembly. There’s no semblance of democracy remaining in the formation of Hill Area Committee, it’s the ruling party which decides who’ll be the representative of Hill Areas in the house,” he said.
Within hours of the three bills being passed last August, tribal protesters burnt down houses of six MLAs and sparked large-scale violence and nine persons were killed when the police retaliated.
“Through this struggle, I want the whole world to know that the tribals of Manipur have since time immemorial been oppressed and discriminated by the dominant Meitei community. The three bills and the killing of my son is only manifestation of the subjugation of tribals in Manipur,” Vungching, the mother of 30-year-old Thangzalian Phaipi, who was killed in the police firing last September, said.
Even though 58-year-old Vungching is unrelenting in her struggle, she is aware that not many know about their plight.
“We shout and cry our grievance from the hills of Manipur and the government could not hear our voice,” she said.
It’s for this reason that Delhi-based Manipuri tribal activist Hmar decided to bring the struggle of Manipuri Tribals to the national capital. The result was Manipur Tribals Forum Delhi, which according to Hmar, comprises of students and professionals from the 34 tribal groups of the state who have been protesting everyday at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar since November 2015.
It made headlines on June 7, when nearly 700 Manipuri tribal citizens clashed with Delhi Police outside Manipur Bhawan in the Chanakyapuri area of New Delhi. More than three dozen demonstrators were injured in the lathi-charge and nearly 60 were detained.
The flashpoint was the fact that earlier that day, a delegation led by Manipur Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh, had met Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh to stress on the need of a Presidential assent for three Bills pertaining to the (ILP) system.
“We wanted to ask them how can they claim to represent us. How was it an all party delegation?,” Hmar asked. “In Manipur, not a single one of them has even visited the dead once. Don’t they know our dead are still waiting for justice?”
Feature image source: PTI