The blood-letting and violence in Manipur after the state assembly passed three bills to protect the “indigenous people of the state” may have subsided a bit. The minister of health and eight other members of the legislative assembly have resigned, bowing to public pressure. It may well be only a matter of time before other tribal MLAs and ministers also put in their papers. But what remains unchanged is the anxiety of the tribals in the hills of the state.

If anything, these anxieties have only increased as a closer look at these bills reveals some glaring loopholes. For instance, while the Protection of Manipur Peoples Bill, 2015, clearly defines many terms, including “Manipur People” or “Non-Manipuri people” there is no definition of “Native people of the State of Manipur”.  There is simply no provision in the Bill that any member of the hill tribes of Manipur will be exempted.

“Manipur People” are defined in this bill as
“Persons of Manipur whose name are in the National Register of Citizens, 1951 Census Report 1951 and Village Directory of 1951 and their descendants who have contributed to the collective social, cultural and economic life of Manipur”

And a “Non-Manipur person” is defined as a person who is not covered by the above “and who intends to visit the state of Manipur with a pass issued under this bill.

Just these two definitions above are enough to lead to several misgivings and apprehensions because anyone who is not found in the 1951 baselines can be tagged as "non-Manipur person". And there is a high chance that many who have been in Manipur for hundreds of years may not be found in the records. It is also possible that many who just recently moved to Manipur can also be “found” in the “Great Books” depending on their affinities, political clout and money.

This Bill thus appears to be no more only about influx of so-called "outsiders" from mainland India but seems to have changed into something bigger that also targets the tribal communities of Manipur and their holdings.

That two of the the newly inserted Sections 14A and 14B in the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms (Seventh) Amendment Bill 2015, along with Manipur Shops and Establishments Act (Second) Amendment Bill 2015, add more teeth to the above clauses adds to the anxieties of people.

No discussions

Even though the government had called for comments and response to the draft bills before they were passed, very little time was given for people to respond and there was also a total failure in proper dissemination of the draft bills, especially in the hill districts. This deprived many people of crucial information and the opportunity for timely response.

This is not all. The subject of all the three bills appears to be that of the scheduled matter as defined in the Manipur Legislative Assembly (Hill Area Committee) Order, 1972. Under the provisions of this 1972 order,  the bills before their final passage should have been referred to the Hill Area Committee for its consideration which, unfortunately, was not done.  It is perhaps because of these lapses that the Manipur government has been trying to offer an alternative by saying that the bills can be reviewed in a more transparent, accountable and inclusive manner to make them more acceptable to the hill peoples of Manipur. There is little or no positive response to this proposal as yet from the tribal leaders.

Valley concerns

Meanwhile, it is of paramount importance for the hill tribals to try to understand the valley Meiteis’ predicament. The Census Report of 2011 clearly shows the rickety position of the Meitei peoples. As Linda Chhakchhuak argued recently, they are indeed a beleaguered people hemmed in by dozens of problems, the least of which is being officially categorised as “non-tribal”, settled on the fulcrum of a tribal volcano of resentment.

While the available land area in Imphal is being put under extreme pressure because of increasing Meitei population, the situation is made worse by the increasing tribal population migrating from the hills mostly in search of better opportunities. Unlike the Meiteis who cannot buy lands in the hills, the tribals are allowed to buy and possess landed properties in the valley.

Although the tribal communities cannot be blamed for this as they are not the ones who gave themselves such privileges, which were constitutionally given to them, the realities of Meitei lands shrinking remains unchanged and so are the increasing multiple issues they have to contend with. Therefore, it is no surprise to find the Meitei community getting more protective of their lands and exploring options to ensure their continuity.

Who can deny them this right?

Hill concerns

Similarly, it is also of paramount importance for the Meiteis to also try to understand the tribals’ sentiments. Leaving aside the 90% hills territory they occupy, the tribals do not find enough representation in employment by the state, nor do they get adequate access to crucial and basic services and infrastructures such as health, education, transport and communication as per legal provisions. The deprivations, therefore, are one of the main factors behind the large migration of tribals to the valley and also contribute to the various tribal autonomy movements in the hills of Manipur.

To make matters worse, several areas in the hill districts have come under the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms Act 1960. While the Act does not apply to the hill areas of the State, it had a specific provision:
“Provided that the State Government may, by notification in the official Gazette, extend the whole or part or any section of this Act to any hill areas of Manipur also as may be specified in such notification”.

The tribal inhabitants of hill areas that were covered by this Act very much resented the above being exercised and considered it a challenge to their rights. The recent amendment, instead of rectifying the anomaly, has ended up reaffirming it.

While the ministers, MLAs and some civil society leaders from the valley have been quick to issue assurances that the Act will not affect the hills, the hill areas over which the Act has been extended will clearly be affected and there are concerns that other areas may also get covered in the near future.

Need for a dialogue

Being in denial on the hill-valley divide clearly will not serve any purpose. It is more prudent to accept the divide and make conscious efforts on how to address the concerns of the different ethnicities in Manipur. It can only be done through an inclusive and comprehensive dialogue to arrive at a meeting point for both the valley and the hills. One way to explore could be critically reviewing the whole administrative setup of Manipur to give more autonomy to the hills, while implementing the newly passed Protection of Manipur Peoples Bill, 2015 in the valley, but only after critical review and clearly defining the “Native people of the State of Manipur.” There is need to also allay the concerns of all Kuki, Naga, Mizo, Zomi and Meitei communities by formally declaring them as Manipur peoples, even if they came after 1951.

Similarly, there is need to amend the provision listed above from the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms (Seventh) Amendment Bill 2015 that allows the Act to be extended to any hill areas of Manipur.

It is time to realise that the the hills and the valley of Manipur cannot exist without each other. The two areas may have legitimate concerns, but it is equally important that legitimate processes and methods be employed to address them.