Why are Manipur Tribal people opposing the demand for ILP?

-Thangkhanlal Ngaihte, Columnist Zogam.com

In the aftermath of the clashes between Meitei and Kuki people at Moreh, a trading town in the India-Myanmar border, on 18 August, 2015 (http://ifp.co.in/page/items/28002/ilp-rally-sparks-clashes-at-moreh-as-police-remain-mute-indefinite-curfew-clamped), where a rally in support of the Inner Line Permit (ILP) system for Manipur was disrupted, an intriguing question has come to the fore: Why are the Manipur tribal people opposed to the demand (of the Meitei people) for Inner Line Permit (ILP) system in Manipur?

It has to be noted that Moreh is not the first case in which proposed rallies in favour of ILP were opposed in the tribal hill districts. On 17 July, the Meitei Society of Churachandpur, another tribal district, planned to organise a ‘peace rally’ in support of the ILP agitations. Most tribal organization in Churachandpur district opposed the proposed rally, and the rally was eventually not held. It would be safe to also presume that had any rally been proposed in the Naga-dominated hill areas, the same would also be opposed.

Hill - Plain divide

It is also important to know that though Manipur is not under the ILP regime (which is in operation in Nagaland, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh), there is a law which forbids non-tribal people from within the state and outside from buying and owning land in the tribal/hill areas in Manipur. There is a special provision under Article 371C of the Indian Constitution which provided for the Hill Areas Committee (HAC), which of all the 19 members of the state assembly from the tribal areas. The HAC was envisaged to be the guardian of tribal interests; this Committee is to be consulted in all legislative matters affecting the Hill Areas of the state. Further, the Governor of the state is to give annual reports to the President of the administration of hill areas of the state, and the central government has power to give directions to the state government regarding administration of the said areas.

Unlike Article 371A and 371G which confers special autonomy provisions for Nagaland and Mizoram respectively, Article 371C relates only to the Hill Areas of Manipur. It is an intra-state asymmetrical federal provision. Also, while Article 371A and 371G enhanced 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 Meitei people, who are not tribal, have also been simultaneously demanding Scheduled Tribe (ST) status, emphasizing their ‘indigenousness’. 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 ST and then place the entire state under ILP regulations. This will, in one stroke, level the constitutional division between the tribals and Meiteis in terms of land rights and other reservation benefits. Here, it is important to note that even though the term, 'indigenous' is much used at the international level, it is neither recognized nor used in the Indian constitution as a description of social or cultural status.

The demand for ST itself is an incongruous one. Most Meitei people are Hindu, comprising both the twice-born Hindu castes and scheduled caste, though there are recent attempts to re-emphasize their traditional Sanamahi religion. They live in the plains, practice sedentary cultivation and are neither geographically isolated or undeveloped. Their language, Manipuri or Meiteilon, is an 8th schedule language. There will also be other procedural issues. 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 into ST as one homogeneous category? Else, what would be the basis for sub-classification?

While some tribal people are ambivalent about the ILP demand in itself - mainly because they are unaware about the details and its implications for them - they are united in opposing the Meitei demand for ST category. They already have enough complain about the attempts to encroach on their land. For example, the All Tribal Students Union Manipur (ATSUM), the apex tribal students body in the state, have frequently 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 plainspeople are common too (http://e-pao.net/epSubPageExtractor.asp?src=news_section.opinions.Politics_and_Governance.A_scandal_at_Manipur_University_By_Thangkhanlal_Ngaihte). They suspect that there is a hidden design in all these demands and protests.

As for the demand for ILP itself, the issue has always been seen as a Meitei issue. None of the four members in the Committee set up by the Manipur Government on 21 July, 2015 to draft a new ILP Bill for the Assembly were tribal. Though the JCILPS memorandum claims to speak on 'behalf of the people of Manipur', the tribals were never part of the demand. In fact, as stated above, they have been opposing it.

Secondly, the proposed ILP regulations seem designed to target not just mainland Indians or recognized outsiders, but also ‘internal immigrants’ from Burma, etc. This will be impossible to implement and is a sure recipe for further social strife. Most of these hillspeople do not have official papers to prove their identity and ownership of their own land to begin with; in much of the region, the government's presence is minimal. Apart from this, the very idea will be anathema to the tribals many of whose cognate tribes live across the porous Myanmar border.

In fact, there have 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 (MNF) during its independence movement which is still hanging fire.

So many crucial questions remain. Is the proposed ILP meant to cover the entire state including the hill areas? If so, how would it be reconciled with the existing intra-state constitutional safeguards which applies 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 be enforced?

The Memorandum submitted by the Joint Committee on Inner Line Permit System (JCILPS), a conglomeration of Meitei society groups which is spearheading the demand, to Manipur Chief Minister on 8 August, (http://e-pao.net/epSubPageExtractor.asp?src=news_section.Inner_Line_Permit_ILP_Demand.Download_JCILPS_memorandum_submitted_to_CM_Manipur_on_August_8_2015) ignored the existing, constitutionally sanctioned, distinction between the Meiteis and the tribals and resorts to the all-encompassing, nebulous term, 'indigenous peoples of Manipur'. Demand No. 3 of the JCILPS proposed a new provision to be inserted in section 158 of the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms Act, 1960 which will read: "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" (page 36 ).

Trust deficit

AT THE second level, since a long time, there is simply no trust and no sense of being one between the Meitei people and the tribal hill people. This is sad, and many people are unwilling to accept it, but true nevertheless. The Naga attempts to break away from Manipur are well known. The political demands of the Zomi-Kuki group ranges from full-fledged Kuki state to the Autonomous Hill State (AHS). The Meiteis will countenance none of this. They are opposing even the long-running demand for upgradation of the existing Autonomous District Councils (ADC) to the status of 6th schedule of the constitution, a demand which the Manipur Cabinet itself had agreed to and recommended for at least twice in the past.

The bitterness runs deep. Everything is seen as a zero sum game. Both sides talk past each other. During the time from the year 2000 to 2005 when I was a journalist reporting out of Lamka, I saw this bitterness express itself frequently. Like, when the Meitei militants make it a routine to attack security forces in the tribal areas whose collateral damages were borne by the people living nearby. In one such instance, the militant group said that their 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 during 2002 to 2006. When the Justice Jeevan Reddy Committee submitted its report on the AFSPA, it noted that though most people want the Act 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. (https://surahmar.wordpress.com/2010/07/07/about-manipur%E2%80%99s-internal-politics/).


At the moment, with various forms of agitations overwhelming the Manipur plain areas, it is not surprising that the JCILPS has been able to dictate terms to the state government and browbeat the chief minister into accepting them (http://ifp.co.in/page/items/28107/govt-agrees-on-all-demands-of-jcilps-to-urge-gov-to-summon-assembly-session-at-the-earliest). 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, that will require the concurrence of the HAC which is unlikely to happen. The bill, if passed in the Assembly, will have to go to the Governor and the Union where it will most probably be stuck. By the time the matter reach that level, the tribal people will probably start giving expression to their opposition. For them, the threat in terms of both demographic and land ownership, comes primarily from the Manipur plainspeople itself, not outside. Hence, any tampering with the existing safeguards of the hill areas vis-a-vis the plain areas will be unacceptable. This is, in fact, their main worry.Given this situation, it is difficult to see how the plan will work, in terms of the constitution as well as in practice. Whatever the outcome, grievances will multiply. The end result will be more trouble, not less.