Manipur and Its Demand for Internal Autonomy

Manipur and Its Demand for Internal Autonomy ~Thangkhanlal Ngaihte
Economic & Political Weekly | Vol - XLVIII No. 16, April 20, 2013
Reviewing the fraught political situation in Manipur with the diverging demands for autonomy, which revived after apparent progress and near closure of the talks with the Nagas, this article assesses those demands and traces their origins. Arguing that the government has now an opportunity to force a compromise solution on all parties, it calls for a proactive role of the government to bring about lasting peace in the region.

enp logoRecent days have seen much commentary on the festering turmoil in Manipur where different ethnic groups are making competing autonomy demands. These demands were always there, but they were given a fresh lease of life by the ongoing Indo-Naga political talks. The Indo-Naga talks are actually more about Manipur than about Nagaland, as the issues discussed impinge directly on Manipur and its territorial integrity. The proverbial sword of Damocles hangs over Manipur’s head. These talks have meandered for the last 15 years, still with no solution in sight. There is a sense of exasperation all around. But, there is also anxious expectation that the talks are nearing their end, and this produces its own feelings of dread since it seems implausible to expect a solution that will satisfy all those concerned, given the diverging nature of interests stressed by them. It is this tense, nail-biting moment that has given rise to the long-standing grievances and demands coming to the surface.

But, how do we make sense of these diverging demands within such a small state? And, what is the nature of these demands?

According to H Kham Khan Suan, a scholar, Manipur has been contending with diverging “totalising projects” by the three major ethnic groups, namely the Meitei, the Naga, and the Zo (the last-mentioned also known as Kuki, Chin or Mizo). The Meitei constitute about 65% of Manipur’s population and are politically predominant even as they occupy just 10% of the area, the central plains. The Naga and the Zo are politically marginalised, even as they occupy the hill ranges that ring the Imphal plains, constituting about 90% of the total area. While the Meitei’s current preoccupation is to preserve the status quo, the idea of separation from Manipur and integration with their ethnic brethren in the neighbouring states has always been central to the political mobilisation of the Naga and the Zo.

While the Naga first broached the idea of “separateness” and “integration” to the Indian Statutory Commission (also called the Simon Commission) in 1929, the Zo look further back to 1892 when, during the Chin-Lushai Conference at Fort William, proposals were first made for integration of the entire “Chin-Lushai country” under one administrative unit, though the aim then was colonial administrative convenience. The Naga pursued their case in the Akbar Hydari Agreement, 1947 and the Sixteen Point Agreement, 1960, leading to Nagaland’s statehood. The Naga National Council (NNC) actually declared independence for the Naga regions in 1947. The first general election in 1952 was boycotted. The history of their struggle since then has been well known.

What was not known about much till now were the parallel struggles of the Zo. These people, presently spread contiguously over the Indian states of Manipur and Mizoram, the Chin state of Burma and the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh speak mutually intelligible dialects, have shared customary practices, religion, social structure and myths of common origin. The Mizo Union, an organisation representing the Zo in the colonial “Chin-Lushai country”, submitted a memorandum to the Government of British India and its Constituent Assembly on 26 April 1947 demanding “territorial unity and solidarity of the whole Mizo population and full self-determination” within the province of Assam. The same demand was put forward to the States Reorganisation Commission (SRC) in 1954. Since then, and till the early 1990s, at least five other memoranda demanding integration have been submitted to the Indian government. However, nothing came out of these representations.

Integration of all Mizo/Zomi-(“mi” meaning people) inhabited lands has also been a central goal of the Mizo National Front’s (MNF) armed movement for independence (1966-86). It was at the start of the Mizo movement, when MNF declared independence in March 1966 that the Indian Air Force bombed Aizawl, the only instance in which air power was used to quell internal rebellion in independent India’s history. In the Memorandum of Settlement signed between the Indian government and the MNF on 30 June 1986, which effectively marked the end of Mizo insurgency and the birth of the Mizoram state, it was recorded that “the question of Unification of Mizo inhabited areas of other States to form one administrative unit was raised by the MNF delegation”, but that the Indian government declined to make any commitment on the issue. The major aim here was to slice off the Zo-inhabited parts of Manipur, mainly Churachandpur district, and integrate them with Mizoram. However, the MNF leadership apparently prefers to leave the issue for another day as insistence on it would imperil the peace agreement itself.

What makes things worse for Manipur is, even as the separate identity of the hill tribals as distinct from the Meitei people of the valley was recognised historically with the Constitution providing for their separate administrative structure (for example, Article 371C), these hill tribals have been deprived all this time of basic autonomy provisions like the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. Initially, Manipur and Tripura were left outside the purview of the Sixth Schedule, ostensibly because they were “princely states”. The provision was later extended to Tripura, but the Manipur hills remained excluded despite repeated demands and recommendations for its inclusion. The state government itself has also recommended its extension at least two times in the past. But, these recommendations never get implemented, further adding to the feeling of discrimination and subjugation.

As it is, these three totalising projects have recently revived with renewed vigour. The Meitei, gripped as they are with a panic and siege mentality since 2001 at least, are blindly intent on preserving the state’s territorial integrity and have shut themselves off to any dissenting voice from the hills. The National Socialist Council of Nagaland–Isak Muivah (NSCN-IM) and its over-ground affiliates, while maintaining a cease-fire agreement with the Indian government, are demanding “alternative arrangements” for areas dominated by them as an interim arrangement, and periodically shuts off the state from the outside world. Talks are ongoing. Presently, the Zo’s political demands came in two forms; while one group, coming under the Kuki National Organisation (KNO), demanded a separate Kuki state to be sliced off from Manipur, the other group, coming under the anodyne name of United People’s Front (UPF), demanded an “Autonomous Hill State (AHS)” for the tribal hill areas, loosely based on Article 244A of the Constitution. This idea was first mooted by the Zomi Council, the apex body of the Zo tribes. What is envisaged here is a mini hill-state within the existing Manipur that covers all the hill tribals without affecting the state’s territorial integrity. Its proponents say that its approach is non-communal, does not demand a partition of the state, and is, hence, most feasible under the present circumstances. Others wonder how a structure that groups together the Naga and the Kuki (a dialect group within the Zo), who are themselves at loggerheads, will work in practice. Interestingly, both the UPF and the KNO are maintaining a Suspension of Operations (SoO) and initiating talks with the Indian government.

Desperate Urge for Peace

The situation can no longer be neglected or delayed. In fact, it is the neglect and suppression of the legitimate demands thus far that has led to this fraught situation. But, it is important to note that these demands are no longer about secession or for integration across countries. The Indian Constitution, as scholars of federalism keep reminding us, is capacious enough to accommodate these autonomy demands. Also, people are extremely weary of conflicts. They just want to be able to live their lives. As for insurgent groups who spearhead these demands, given the overlapping and cross-cutting nature of the demands, and with no one able to impose its will on the other, there is a kind of stalemate, an impasse amongst them too. All of them are loath to return to the jungles. All they want, I would say, is a compromise formula that will save them their face. But, that proposal – and the will to implement it – has to necessarily come from the government. It is the government alone that can cut through the drift and bring about a compromise solution. The government should, for once, jettison its risk-averse nature and take the initiative for peace, not only for the Naga, but for all.

[Thangkhanlal Ngaihte (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.) is a freelance writer based in New Delhi].