On Monday, violence broke out in south Manipur after the state assembly passed three bills to protect the “indigenous people of the state”. According to news reports, the houses of Manipur’s Health Minister and five other lawmakers were set on fire because none of them objected to the bills’ passage through the House.

Signs of growing strife were already evident in the state. On August 18, clashes had broken out between Meitei and Kuki people at Moreh, a trading town on the India-Myanmar border, disrupting a rally in support of the implementation of the Inner Line Permit system in Manipur. The previous month, on July 17, the Meitei Society of Churachandpur, a tribal district, was made to abandon a peace rally in support of the Inner Line Permit agitations in Manipur after most tribal organisations in the district opposed the march.

Ignoring the portents, the Manipur assembly unanimously passed three bills on Monday – Protection of Manipur People Bill; the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms (7th amendment) Bill; and the Manipur Shops and Establishments (Second Amendment) Bill were passed – to regulate the influx of outsiders into the state.

They are in consonance with the raging demand for Inner Line Permits to regulate the entry of non-domicile citizens into the region. Those demanding the permits in Manipur want to restrict and regulate the influx of outsiders and internal migrants “to save the culture, tradition, identity and demographic structure of the indigenous people of the state”.

Besides underlining the distrust among Meiteis and the tribal hill people, these incidents highlight an important question: Why are the tribal people opposed to the demand of the Meiteis for the Inner Line Permit system in Manipur?

The hills-plains divide

It is important to note that though Manipur is not under the ILP regime (which is in operation in Nagaland, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh), there is a law that forbids non-tribal people from within as well as outside the state from buying and owning land in the tribal/hill areas in Manipur.

There is a special provision for Manipur under Article 371C of the Indian Constitution providing for the Hill Areas Committee. This commitee – made up of the 19 members elected to the state legislative assembly from all the tribal areas – was envisaged to be the guardian of tribal interests. The law dictates that it must be consulted in all legislative matters affecting the Hill Areas of the state. Further, the state governor must send the president annual reports on the administration of Hill Areas, and the central government has the power to give directions to the state government regarding administration of these areas.

Unlike Article 371A and Article 371G of the Constitution, which confer special autonomy on Nagaland and Mizoram, respectively, Article 371C relates only to the Hill Areas of Manipur. It is an intra-state asymmetrical federal provision. Also, while Articles 371A and 371G enhance the autonomy and power of the Nagaland and Mizoram state legislatures vis-à-vis the Indian Parliament, Article 371C limits the power of Manipur legislature vis-à-vis the Hill Areas of Manipur. It signifies a constitutional recognition of the hill-plain divide in Manipur. The constitutionally designated Hill Areas are inhabited by the tribal, or Scheduled Tribe, people of the state.

Interconnected issues

It is also important to bear in mind that the Meiteis, who are not tribal, have been demanding Scheduled Tribe status, emphasising their “indigenousness”, in addition to the Inner Line Permit system. The idea seem to be to convert Manipur into a tribal state (like Nagaland or Mizoram) by forcing the government to admit the Meiteis into Scheduled Tribe category and then place the entire state under a uniform ILP regime.

This will, in one stroke, level the constitutional division between the tribals and Meiteis in terms of land rights and other reservation benefits. Remember that even though the term “indigenous” is much used internationally, it is neither recognised nor used in the Indian Constitution as a description of social or cultural status.

The Meitei demand for Scheduled Tribe status itself is incongruous. Most Meiteis are Hindu, comprising both the twice-born Hindu castes and Scheduled Caste, though there are recent attempts to re-emphasise their traditional Sanamahi religion. They live in the plains, practice sedentary farming and are neither geographically isolated nor under-developed. Their language, Manipuri or Meiteilon, is recognised under the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution, which makes it mandatory for the government to take measures for its development.

There are other procedural issues with the Meitei demand. The hill tribals are sub-divided into more than 30 ST groups, based on dialect, clan relationships, mythical origin, etc. Do the Meiteis plan to enter the ST category as one homogeneous category? Else, what will be the basis for sub-classification?

Recipe for more strife

While some tribal people are ambivalent about the ILP demand – mainly because they are unaware about the details and its implications for them – they are united in opposing the Meitei demand for Scheduled Tribe category. They already have enough complaints about attempts to encroach on their land. For instance, the All Tribal Students Union Manipur, the apex tribal students’ body in the state, has often raised the issue of the surreptitious transfer of some villages within the Hill Areas to “plain areas”, which means that those villages will cease to be under the protective tribal-area laws. Complaints about flouting of reservation rules in favour of the plains people are common too.

In the eyes of the tribal people, there is a hidden design behind the recent demands and protests. They see the demand for the ILP regime as a Meitei issue. To begin with, none of the four members in the Committee set up by the Manipur Government on July 21 to draft a new ILP Bill for the Assembly were tribal.

Secondly, the proposed ILP regime seems designed to target not just mainland Indians or recognised outsiders, but also “internal immigrants” from Myanmar, etc. Impossible to implement, this will be a sure-fire recipe for social strife.

Most of the hills people do not have official papers to prove their identity and ownership of their land, and in much of the region the government’s presence is minimal. More than this, the idea will be anathema to the tribals since many of their cognate tribes live across the porous border in Myanmar. In fact, there has been a political integration movement amongst the Zomi-Kuki-Chin tribes, parallel to the Naga integration movement, with the goal of uniting all these cognate groups under one political authority. This is one unfulfilled goal of the Mizo National Front whose independence movement is still hanging fire.

Unanswered questions

So many crucial questions remain about the proposed ILP regime. Is it meant to cover the entire state, including the Hill Areas? If so, how would it be reconciled with the existing intra-state constitutional safeguards that apply to the Hill Areas? Will the existing safeguards that the Hill Areas enjoy vis-a-vis the plain areas be affected in any way? How will the cut-off year of 1951, for detection and deportation of outsiders, be enforced?

A memorandum submitted by the Joint Committee on Inner Line Permit System, a conglomeration of Meitei groups spearheading the ILP demand, to Manipur Chief Minister on August 8, ignores the constitutionally-sanctioned distinction between the Meiteis and the tribals. Instead, it resorts to the all-encompassing, nebulous term “indigenous peoples of Manipur”. One demand in the memorandum proposes the insertion of a new provision in section 158 of the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms Act, 1960:
“No transfer to land by a person who is a member of the Scheduled Tribes and Indigenous peoples of Manipur and ‘Non-indigenous Domicile’ to a person who is not a member of Indigenous Peoples of Manipur or ‘Non-domiciles’ of Manipur. No land transfer should be made without the consent of members of the indigenous peoples and further, without the previous permission in writing of the Government of Manipur.”

The memorandum was accepted by the state government.

Trust deficit

On another level, the recent events underscore the lack of  trust between the Meiteis and the tribal hill people. The political demands of the Zomi-Kuki group ranges from full-fledged Kuki state to the Autonomous Hill State. But the Meiteis will countenance none of this. They are opposing even the long-running demand for upgrading the existing Autonomous District Councils to the status of Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, a demand which the Manipur Cabinet itself had agreed to and recommended at least twice in the past.

The bitterness runs deep. Everything is seen as a zero-sum game. Both sides talk past each other. From 2000 to 2005, when I was a journalist reporting out of Lamka, I saw this bitterness express itself frequently. Like, when Meitei militants attacked security forces in the tribal areas whose collateral damages were borne by the people living nearby.

In one such instance, the militant group said its attack was a “new year gift” to Churachandpur. Public appeals by tribal bodies against such attacks in civilian areas were unheeded. Then, there was the issue of planting of landmines by Meitei militants in the tribal areas, leading to more than 60 civilian casualties from 2002 to 2006. When the Justice Jeevan Reddy Committee submitted its report on the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, it noted that though most people want the law to go, many tribal people in Manipur were equally insistent on the need for the army to stay. Many people were flummoxed. I was not.

Multiplying grievances

At the moment, with various forms of agitations overwhelming the Manipur plain areas, it is not surprising that the Joint Committee on Inner Line Permit System has been able to dictate terms to the state government and browbeat the chief minister into accepting them. However, that may turn out to be the easier part.

For the proposed legislation to become law, and if the Hill Areas are to be within its ambit, it will require the consent of the Hill Area Committee, which is unlikely to happen. The bill, even after passage in the assembly, will have to go to the governor and the central government, where it will most probably get stuck. And by the time the matter reaches that level, the tribal people will probably start giving expression to their opposition.

For the tribals, the threat in terms of demographics and land ownership comes not from outsiders, it comes primarily from the Manipur plainspeople. Any tampering with the existing safeguards of the Hill Areas will be unacceptable to them. Given this situation, it is difficult to see how the plan will work. Whatever the outcome, grievances will multiply. The end result of this will be more trouble, not less.

The author is an independent researcher based in New Delhi.