Manipur has seen simmering tensions for more than three months over the introduction of a new bill that seeks to give more powers to the autonomous tribal councils in the state.

Tribal bodies have held intermittent protests, economic blockades and shutdowns demanding that the Manipur (Hill Areas) Autonomous District Council Bill, 2021, be passed. Most recently, on December 19, the All Tribal Students’ Union Manipur called for a 12-hour shutdown in the hill districts while tribal students from the state held a rally in Delhi.

Manipur’s coalition government, headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party, has staved off tabling the bill so far. Chief Minister N Biren Singh claimed it had to be examined whether the bill was constitutional and whether the state government had the authority to pass such a legislation.

Yet the bill has been proposed by the hill areas committee – a body consisting of 18 legislators from the tribal hill districts – of whom five belong to the BJP.

The debate over the bill is not just about constitutional procedure or even party rivalries. It cuts to a deeper political divide in Manipur – between the Imphal Valley, where the Meitei community forms a majority, and the hill districts that surround it, home to several tribal communities.

“It is all about having equitable development between the hills and valley,” said SR Andria, general secretary of the All Tribal Students’ Union of Manipur, claiming the bill would improve living standards in the hill districts.

Individuals and civil society organisations rooted in the Imphal Valley feel differently, protesting that the bill would create a “state within a state”.

“The bill will benefit some particular communities in the hills area,” said Pheriojiam Nando Luwang, president of the All Manipur United Clubs’ Organisation, which is based in Imphal but claims to represent all communities in the state. “All the clauses are controversial so we informed the state government that it should not be tabled.”

According to Luwang, the bill had become a means for “some groups” to “get political mileage” as Manipur heads into assembly elections early next year.

So what exactly is the new bill and what makes it so contentious?

Kangpokpi district in the Manipur Hill is shut down in protest on Decembr 19. Picture by special arrangement from the All Tribal Students' Union of Manipur.

‘Disproportionate development’

The tribal hill districts of Manipur enjoy special protections under Article 371C of the Constitution. It stipulates that all laws affecting these districts must be vetted by the hill areas committee.

The roots of the current bill go back to the Manipur (Hill Areas) District Council Act of 1971, passed by Parliament since Manipur was a Union Territory at the time. It became a state in 1972 – the hill districts account for about 90% of Manipur’s area but only 20 seats in the 60-seat legislative assembly since they are more sparsely populated than the Valley.

The 1971 law provides for the creation of autonomous district councils in the tribal districts, whose members have certain administrative powers and are elected through separate council elections. For years, leaders in the tribal districts have demanded greater autonomy for the six tribal councils, covering 10 of Manipur’s 16 districts.

The new bill proposed by the hill areas committee seeks to “repeal and replace” the 1971 law to ensure more autonomy to the hill areas committee and to the tribal councils.

“Despite several amendments to the Manipur (Hill Areas) District Councils Act, 1971,” the hill areas committee argues, “there are “deficiencies which resulted in disproportionate development between the areas of the hills and valley of Manipur over the years”.

The bill wants greater autonomy and financial powers for the tribal councils. It also wants to increase the number of constituencies in each council from the existing 24 to 31.

No authority?

The hill areas committee wanted the bill to be passed in the assembly session that started in August.

But overall, the Manipur government has tread cautiously. On September 15, the chief minister announced that the government had set up a committee to look into the modalities. That includes the questions of whether the state assembly could pass such an amendment, since the original 1971 law had been passed by Parliament.

In November, as tribal organisations continued to agitate for the bill to be passed, Biren Singh said the government might consider increasing the powers of the autonomous district councils but would not cave to “vested interest groups”.

Tribal student bodies, which have backed the hill areas committee’s demand to table and discuss the bill, have rejected the state government’s contention that it has no authority over the matter.

“The state government is resisting it with support of valley-based MLAs and organisations – this was expected,” said T Romeo Hmar, convener of the Manipur Tribal Forum, which represents 34 tribes of the state.

Sandria pointed out that the 1971 law had been amended before, in 2000 and 2008. “It is misleading to claim it is a parliamentary act and can’t be repealed,” he said.

A Valley-based politician, speaking off the record, argued that the previous changes were minor amendments while the proposed bill seeks to replace the 1971 law altogether. Either way, the state government is yet to clarify its legal position.

Women protest against three contentious bills in Churachandpur district in 2015. Picture credit: IANS

A ‘bifurcation’?

The other objection raised by Valley-based organisations is that the proposed bill could amount to a “bifurcation” of the state. The powers sought in the bill, some claim, are similar to those conferred under the Sixth Schedule, which enables decentralised self-governance in the tribal areas of Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura. The autonomies granted under the Sixth Schedule are stronger than those under Article 371C.

“How will the bill disintegrate Manipur?” Andria demanded. “In Assam, there are sixth schedule autonomous councils. Do these autonomous district councils divide the state of Assam?”

The old faultline

The bill has touched off old differences between the hills and the Valley. These date back to colonial times, points out Richard Kamei, lecturer at Royal Thimphu College. Under the British regime, the Imphal Valley was under a provincial government while the tribal hill districts were left largely unadministered. “It is around this fault line that the hill and valley find themselves opposing each other,” said Kamei.

The hill areas have long alleged neglect by the state government, with its nerve centre in Imphal. “The hills feel the bill will offer them a path to secure their governance properly and realise balanced growth and development,” Kamei said.

Other grievances have surfaced once again with the bill. “The distribution of assembly seats is also not fair,” Andria said. “The tribals have a population of around 40 per cent and there are only 20 seats.”

But groups in the Imphal Valley resent that non-local residents are not allowed to settle in the hills because of the special protections granted to the tribal districts. Meanwhile, the valley has become overcrowded with waves of settlement, they feel.

An election issue

In 2015, the hills had erupted in protest over three proposed bills that they felt would dilute protections under Article 371C. As the state police cracked down on protesters, nine people were killed. For over 600 days, tribal groups refused to bury their dead as a mark of protest. Anger over the bills and the shootings was still fresh when the states went into polls in 2017.

Author and journalist Pradip Phanjoubam, former editor of the Imphal Free Press, said brinkmanship between the hills and the valley was common before state elections.

“Normally elections are fought on this highly sensitive issue,” he explained. “The hill politicians will demand something very drastic and then the valley will oppose it. It is to whip up sentiments to get votes by both sides.”