Around 25 people were injured on Tuesday after the Delhi Police launched a lathi charge on protesters massed outside Manipur Bhavan. The protests had been organised by the Manipur Tribal Forum Delhi. They demanded a hearing from Manipur Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh, visiting the capital this week.
“We just came out,” said Thankgkanlal Ngaihte, an independent researcher based in Delhi who was also at Tuesday’s protest. “They detained around 60 of us at the Chankayapuri station for one day.” Several protesters had been injured seriously, he said.
“At first it was peaceful but then Manipur police stationed inside the bhavan started throwing stones, so the crowd also took up stones,” Ngaihte claimed. "That’s what the other protesters said." He had joined the protests late and was on the fringes of the crowd when he was picked up by the police.
Said Ninglun Hanghal, who is affiliated with the Manipur Tribal Forum Delhi: “Apparently, the chief minister said that a delegation of two or three people could go into the bhawan and talk. But the student leaders did not agree. They said he had to come out. Even if the chief minister did not come forward, there were many other ministers in the bhavan. One of them could have come out. It makes a lot of difference. The matter could have been resolved peacefully.”
The hills and the plains
Earlier that day, Singh had met Union Minister Rajnath Singh, impressing upon him the need for presidential assent for three controversial bills passed by the Manipur assembly last year. The Congress chief minister was accompanied by an 18-member delegation from Manipur, comprised of political parties across the spectrum, from the Bharatiya Janata Party to the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
This new push to get the three bills enacted comes barely a week after fresh protests broke out in the Imphal Valley, dominated by the Meiteis. Student groups in the valley were demanding that the bills be turned into law. The Protection of Manipur Peoples Bill, 2015, the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms (Seventh Amendment) Bill, 2015 and the Manipur Shops and Establishments (Second Amendment) Bill, 2015, were passed on August 31 last year.
The state government asserted that the bills were meant to protect the rights of the “indigenous people” of the state. Taken together, they would put in place restrictions akin to the inner line permit system. Those who do not qualify as “Manipur people” would need official permission to enter the state and find it difficult to buy land there.
The bills set off a wave of counter protests from tribes living in the hills of Manipur. The hill areas are cordoned off from the Valley and enjoy a separate set of protections. These new bills would dilute the existing protections and endanger their land rights, the hill tribes feel. Since September last year, Churachandpur, a town at the threshold of the Manipur hills, has been the epicentre of the hill tribes’ protest. A joint action committee against the “anti- tribal bills” was set up to coordinate the agitation.
According to tribal agitators, the Ibobi Singh government has ears only for the Meitei protesters in the Valley. “The tribal movement has been protesting for about 283 days. The joint action committee submitted a point by point critique of the bills to the state government but still it refused to talk,” said Ngaihte. “ Yet only three days after the Meitei protests started agitating to expedite the bills, the government called an all-party meeting and decided to take a delegation to Delhi.” Political players like the Naga People’s Front were not part of it, said Ngaihte, so it would be wrong to call it an all-party delegation.
“The problem with Manipur is that whatever happens in the urban centres gets covered,” said Ngaihte. “Imphal is a big city, whatever happens there will be covered.”
In Churachandpur last year, people had taken to the streets soon after the bills were passed. In the clashes that ensued, nine people lost their lives. At least six of the protesters were killed as security forces opened fire. Nine months later, the bodies have still not been buried. They lie in the Churachandpur morgue, a mark of the town’s dissent against the state government’s legislation.
After the initial bout of violence, the media shifted its gaze, as did the government. So the tribal protesters have taken their grievances directly to Delhi.
The Centre and the state
“The MTFD was formed last year to put pressure on the government in Delhi. There is close coordination between leaders of the tribal organisations here and student groups based in Delhi,” said Mary Beth Sanate, a women’s rights activist based in Churachandpur and a former member of the joint action committee set up to coordinate the protest against the bills.
The Manipur Tribal Forum Delhi is a collective of Manipuri tribal student organisations in Delhi. The protests on Tuesday also saw a number of young professionals from the state who live in the capital. “We have become the engine of the movement,” said Ngaihte.
Large numbers of Manipuris have moved to Delhi for jobs and an education, swelling the ranks of protesters there. Besides, the movement wants to take advantage of the bully pulpit that is the capital. Delhi is the seat of the national media, it allows easier access to members of Parliament and information spreads more easily to the rest of the country. “Our voice becomes louder,” said Hanghal. "And unless the Centre does something, the state will not act."
The Centre also offers immunities from a state government that is perceived as partisan. “In Manipur, they can stop people from entering Churachandpur, but here they can do nothing,” said Ngaihte.
The agitators outside Manipur Bhavan may have demanded a sighting of the chief minister, but it is unlikely they had great hopes of him. “Things are so polarised between the hills and the plains that it is impossible to expect he will act like a neutral chief minister,” said Ngaihte. “He will have to take the side of the Imphal valley. It’s more about making a point, making our opposition clear to them.”
Already, the Centre has taken note of dissent, the protesters feel. On Wednesday, it sent the three bills back to the state for reexamination. The Protection of Manipur Peoples Bill will have to be scrutinised by legal and constitutional experts.
Meanwhile, in Churachandpur, the police action in Delhi has injected new life into the protests. In the weeks after the shooting, normal life in Churachandpur would come to a halt after 2 pm. The Joint Action Committee enforced a "public curfew” as Churachandpur’s tribal residents headed for various dharna points across the town. Months later, the fervour cooled and the curfew was been lifted. The dharnas have shrunk to two main centres, says Sanate, the morgue where the bodies are kept and the local community centre where a makeshift memorial to the dead has been erected.
Now, the fires are lit again. On Wednesday, the JAC called for a “24-hour Total Shutdown on all tribal areas of Manipur from the midnight of June 8 to protest against the unprecedented use of excessive force against un-armed peaceful tribal protestors”. Medical services, telecom services, the electricity department, schools and universities in the middle of exams and vehicles going to and from the airport would be exempt from the shutdown.
But the big ticket demonstrations will still be moved to Delhi. On June 26, the tribal protest against the bills will complete 300 days, and the families of the dead are supposed to travel to the capital for a huge rally.