Manipur unrest: What is the one way to bring peace to the divided state?
By Thangkhanlal Ngaihte
The rift between the Meiteis and the hills tribes of Manipur runs too deep. A separate administration for hill tribes may be the only solution.
Of all the consequences of the violence that has erupted in Manipur since August 31, the most important outcome has been the new focus on the rift between the hills and the plains.
Across national and regional media, there have been headlines about the deep divide between the Meiteis, who live in the oval basin of the valley and account for about 60% of the population, and the hill tribes like the Nagas, Kukis and Zomis. While the Meiteis have been agitating the past few months for an Inner Line Permit regime, which would restrict the entry of outsiders into the state, the hill tribes have been quietly resisting this. The hill tribes suspect that the regime would help level the constitutional division between them and Meiteis in terms of land rights and other reservation benefits.
Simmering tensions came to a boil on Monday, as the Manipur assembly passed three bills – the Protection of Manipur People’s Bill; the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms (Seventh Amendment) Bill; and the Manipur Shops and Establishment (Second Amendment) Bill – effectively introducing the Inner Line Permit system. Within hours, violence exploded. Houses of legislators were torched, and people spilled out on the streets, clashing with the security forces.
In the time since, there has been much talk about the three bills’ merits and demerits, and whether the clashes are the result of a “misunderstanding” or ignorance about the legislation. To me, this is less about the bills and more about the mutually incompatible political imagination of the hills and plains. It is their almost visceral suspicion and dislike of each other that is exploding in our faces. If anything, the bills were the spark that ignited the tinderbox.
Can this divide ever be bridged? Is there a chance that Manipuris of all stripes could abandon their mutual antagonism and coexist peacefully? I, for one, don’t know how. As the Manipur Tribals Forum in Delhi said in a memorandum submitted to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Wednesday: “This is proof, if any more are needed, that the hill tribals and the plain Meiteis cannot live together under one administration.”
In the meantime, death stalks Manipur. The toll in Churachandpur district rose to nine on Thursday morning, as one of the injured, Pumkhenthang of Hiangtam Lamka, succumbed to his wounds. He was shot in the stomach on the first day of the protests, when the security forces allegedly used live bullets. Six of the nine killed died of bullet wounds.
At a rally at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar on Wednesday, banners were raised proclaiming, “Rubber bullets for the Valley, live bullets for the Hills." The slogan may sound like a reference to the death of a young man, Robinhood Sapam, in Imphal in July while he was protesting for the introduction of the Inner Line Permit regime. He died of wounds caused by teargas shells. But it also underlines the allegedly biased treatment of the tribals by state security forces over the years.
With violence raging, a meeting was held on Tuesday evening between the chairman of the Autonomous District Council (Churachandpur), deputy commissioner and the heads of major tribal groupings representing the protesters and the victims.
According to the terms of the agreement they reached, the government would pay Rs 5 lakh each to the families of those killed in the protests. Civil society leaders would take the bodies and hand them over to the families. Tribal bodies would take steps to subdue the agitators. And the issue of the three bills would be taken up with the Hill Areas Committee, a sub-committee within the Manipur assembly that is made up of all the MLAs elected from the tribal areas. As per Article 371C of the Constitution, this committee should be consulted on any legislation that affects the hill tribes.
The agreement only served to further inflame tensions. What rankled the protesters was the fact that the news of the ex-gratia payment was touted as a success and announced on loudspeakers. They also questioned the purpose of raising the issue of the three bills with the Hill Areas Committee when its members had already failed to oppose them once in the assembly.
The signatories were accused of selling out the sacrifices of those who died for cheap money. The agreement shows, according to the protesters, just how far the community leaders failed to grasp the public mood – particularly since alleged differences in ex-gratia payments made to Meitei and tribal victims over the years have always been a source of deep consternation among the tribals.
As it happened, the news of the Churachandpur agreement coincided with the news of an agreement on Robinhood Sapam’s body which has been lying in an Imphal morgue since July 8. A joint committee and the Manipur government decided that a shrine will be erected in Sapam’s memory, the land and expenses for which will be borne by the government.
In Imphal, they are talking about one dead body. In Churachandpur, nine.
In the event, the Churachandpur agreement of Tuesday was scrapped, saving the signatories from the agitators’ wrath. On Wednesday, another meeting was held where a Joint Action Committee was set up and tasked with coordinating the future action on the bills. It will also pursue the longstanding demand for a “separate administration” for the hill areas of Manipur.
Echoing the Robinhood agreement, the meeting resolved that August 31 will be declared as Tribal Unity Day, and the eight people who died for their cause will be buried not in their respective village but a designated place in the heart of Lamka town. Their bodies will not be taken till such time that a proper decision is made on the agitators’ major demands.
As of writing, protests were still continuing in Churachandpur and in other hill districts of Manipur. Bandhs had been called on the Moreh-Imphal Road. Apart from Delhi, where a big rally was held, Manipuri tribal people in cities like Shillong, Hyderabad and Bangalore formed forums in support of the agitators and to push the demand for “separate administration” for the hill areas.
Whether they will succeed is uncertain. As time passes, tempers will cool. The mob will disperse. Then, it will be up to the tribal community leaders to find ways to sustain the momentum and give the hill tribes’ demands some direction. This won’t be easy: the existing crop of leaders neither inspire confidence nor do they exhibit the ability to do so.
[Á version of this article has already been published in Scroll.in]