Manipur Chaos: Lost In Translation

Some folklore say that Manipur is land of the three brothers. They are the Meitei, Naga and the Kuki communities. But as most brotherhood stories go they inevitably ended up disagreeing and quarrelling over the inheritance left by their fathers. This myth seems to sum up the history of this troubled northeastern state of India which is once again engulfed in blood, soot and tears.

This being an age in which the information highway passes through almost every hand with a mobile phone, the war cries, chest thumping and ill conceived rumors were mass knowledge in a span of few minutes, each post more virulent than the earlier one igniting ire. Not too soon after the by now famous three Bills were passed in the Manipur Legislative Assembly on August 31, the house of a Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) went up in flames. Homes of Manipur’s health minister Phungzathang Tonsing and five other MLAs were set afire during the protests. Eight persons died in the subsequent mob quelling actions by the state police.

ILP agitation in Manipur via www.kanglaonline.com
ILP agitation in Manipur via www.kanglaonline.com

The “angry mob” was people of the hills districts mad at their own tribal MLAs for not standing up against the three Bills which they claimed was a deviously diabolical game to take away their land rights and making them strangers in their own homeland.

The three Bills are The Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms (Seventh) Amendment Bill 2015 (MLRLR Bill 2015), The Protection of Manipur People Bill, 2015 and The Manipur Shops and Establishments Act (Second) Amendment Bill 2015, collectively meant to be the Government of Manipur’s solution to the months long demand for implementation of Inner Line Permit system by the Meitei organizations to protect them from the high rate of influx of outsiders. The states of Mizoram, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh have the ILP system which are British enactments made for their own benefit but vaunted as a wall against assimilation from outsiders today.

Obviously the polity is so steeped in local conspiracy theory that common people have not a shred of trust left in the persons they themselves had voted to represent them. On the other hand neither did the representatives or the Government make any effort to get public opinion before legislating on such a sensitive issue. That cost them their homes and credibility. But did people understand what they were they out in the streets for, braving bullets and death?

The MLRLR Bill 2015 clearly outlines the unenviable situation of the Meitei people, who inhabit the valley portion of the Manipur state. The state is 90 percent hills and 10 percent plains. But demography wise, the valley is packed with 60 percent of the total population of the state (27 lakhs plus). The density 731 persons as opposed to 61 persons in the hills just go to show what the valley people are up against. Under the main 1960 MRLR Act, Scheduled Tribes of the state who are native of the hills can buy land and settle down in the plains. On the other hand the plains based Meitei people are forbidden to acquire land in the hills by this same law. This same Law permits the Scheduled Tribe (ST) to sell off their lands in the valley with the provision that if they are selling it to a non-Scheduled Tribe it can be done only with the consent of the Deputy Commissioner. This would mean that if they are disposing it off to another Scheduled Tribe person, then it would not need any consent of the DC.

What seems to be happening as can be surmised from reading between the lines of the MRLR Amendment Bill 2015 is that there is an influx of ‘outsiders’, not so much as that of non-tribals from outside the state, but also of persons of affiliated kins-tribes from across the network of Kuki-Chin-Mizo community as well as Nagas from neighboring borders whether it is from Mizoram, Nagaland, Assam and Myanmar. Affiliated and based on close-knit kinship systems it is impossible to differentiate the ‘native ST’ from the ‘outsider Tribes’ in the state where the buying and selling of land may be happening. This is a cause of concern for the valley inhabitants of the Meitei heritage, who are struggling to keep their ancestral lands from slipping away right under their noses. They are a beleaguered people hemmed in by dozens of problems, the least of them being officially categorized as “non-tribal” , settled on the fulcrum of a tribal volcano of resentment. (Long ago they refused to be clubbed under the category of “Tribe” which they want reversed now but it is another complicated
story.)

Instead of directly dealing with the issue of influx, the MRLR (Seventh) Amendment Bill2015 seeks to curtail this transfer by invoking sale against the “Non Manipur Person”(NMP). The amendment is to ‘regulate the sale of land to Non Manipur Persons of the state so that the limited land in the valley is available to the permanent residents of the state in the interests of the general public.” From now on any sale and transfer of land in the valley to Non Manipur Persons of the state, firms, institutions or any other entities intending to purchase land will be done only after getting state government approval. This is actually a cry for space and the plight of the growing population of Meitei people and the other non-tribal residents of the tiny valley jostling for space with the Scheduled tribe people who have the upper hand as far as the right to buy or sell land in the state is concerned.

The MRLR (Seventh) Amendment 2015 is supported by The Protection of Manipur People Bill, 2015. The objective of this Bill is to regulate the entry and exit of Non Manipur Persons and tenants. It defines who are the “Manipur People” in Clause 2 section (b) which says “b) “Manipur people” means 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;. This is the clause which has raised mayhem among the Kuki affiliate tribes and the Nagas who say, rightly, that during the early fifties there was hardly any infrastructure or government presence capable of capturing the whole population of the region in a register.

But these misgivings should have melted as the Bill carries a caveat in Paragraph 8 which unequivocally states that the persons to be exempted under the provisions of this Bill are “the native people of the state of Manipur.” The Bill does not give details about this, but going by definition by the heavyweight expert on Manipur, T C Hodson it refers to the Meitei, Kuki and Naga of the state.

Predictably, politicians of all hues and categories from the inside the state and the neighboring regions of Manipur have lost no time in fishing in troubled waters of Manipur. They should know better as the same equations of conflict are just a spark away in their own homes and states.

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Linda Chhakchhuak Written by:

Linda Chhakchhuak is an independent Journalist and anthropologist, based in Shillong, Meghalaya

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