Manipur in ferment

Two months of protests over laws to regulate non-indigenous people’s entry into and activities in Manipur have affected normal life in the State.

Published : Sep 30, 2015 12:30 IST

A police station in flames in Churachandpur district of Manipur on September 1 after violence erupted over the passage of three Bills in the Assembly.

A police station in flames in Churachandpur district of Manipur on September 1 after violence erupted over the passage of three Bills in the Assembly.

A GNAWING fear among the people of the north-eastern States has been that sooner rather than later their region will be swamped with “foreigners and outsiders”. The census reports of 2001 and 2011 in Manipur crystallised their fears. A campaign launched by Friends, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) in the State, on November 15, 2005, following the anti-foreigners movement in the north-eastern region got a fillip when 32 organisations came together under the umbrella of the Joint Committee on Inner Line Permit System (JCILPS). An Inner Line Permit (ILP) is required for people from other States to enter Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Mizoram.

Apparently, the population of Nepalis in Manipur has gone up to 3,00,000 from a few hundreds since 1946, when the king of Manipur permitted the construction of 64 houses for Nepalis, mostly ex-servicemen. The State Legislative Assembly has even had an elected Nepali member.

It is said that in 1606, Manipuri warriors brought 1,000 Muslim prisoners of war from Assam to detail them in the manufacture of guns for the royal army. They gradually got assimilated into the mainstream. The Jiribam subdivision of Imphal East district bordering Assam is a hot spot, with a predominantly “non-indigenous” population. Today, of the 28,000 voters in Jiribam, only 9,000 are “indigenous” people. And indigenous people inhabit only eight of the 40 villages here.

When the media reported these facts, some leaders of the “non-indigenous” community brought out a press statement saying that the members of the community were indeed Manipuris as a king had given them settlement rights. But the United Committee Manipur, an apex social body, refuted it by saying that there was no Manipuri king by the name they had mentioned and that the date of the decree cited was in fact a holiday on which no such order could have been issued.

To manage the political ferment caused by the growing demand of the JCILPS, the State government wrote a letter to the Centre on August 3, 2012, regarding the implementation of an ILP system in Manipur. But the response was a terse no.

On December 10, 2014, after five months of deliberations, an all-party committee constituted to look into the issue of ILP and chaired by Deputy Chief Minister and State Congress president Gaikhangam, a Zeliangrong tribal person, submitted a report to the State government. On the basis of that report, on March 15, the State Assembly passed the Manipur Regulation of Visitors, Tenants and Migrant Workers Bill, 2015. But Governor Syed Ahmed refused to give assent to it. A. Romenkumar, an advocate, says that it may have been because the Bill had the word “migrant”, which comes under the purview of the Foreigners’ Act. The government withdrew the Bill on July 16.

Meanwhile, protests virtually brought the State to a standstill. On July 8, Sapam Robinhood, a student, succumbed to injuries sustained in police firing. Roads were blocked and a few patients who could not reach hospitals in time died.

As the agitation intensified, the government convened a special session of the Assembly on August 31 and unanimously passed three Bills: the Protection of Manipur Peoples Bill, 2015; the Manipur Land Reforms and Land Revenue (7th Amendment) Bill, 2015; and the Manipur Shop and Establishments (2nd Amendment) Bill, 2015.

The Protection of Manipur Peoples Bill, 2015, seeks to issue passes or permits to all non-indigenous people entering Manipur. All those who have come to Manipur after 1951 shall be treated as non-indigenous people. According to the provisions of the Manipur Land Reforms and Land Revenue (7th Amendment) Bill, 2015, purchase of land by non-indigenous people shall be subject to approval by the government. This is apparently to check the rampant purchase of prime land by outsiders. The Manipur Shops and Establishments Bill, 2015, will monitor the opening of shops and engagement of employees. Almost all immigrants to Manipur have been working as greengrocers, fruiterers and traders of consumer items.

Tribal people’s objection

Tribal people are now up in arms against these Bills. Their primary objection is to the amendment of the Manipur Land Reforms and Land Revenue Act, 1960, which prohibited the purchase of tribal land by non-tribal people. A tendentious argument by some sections of society has been that the new Act will only help usurp tribal land. Besides, the contention of an NGO has been that the tribal Kukis are “foreigners”. What angered the tribal people is that they will be required to produce documents to prove that they and their forefathers have been staying in Manipur before 1951. Virtually nobody, including non-tribal people, possesses such documents.

Within hours of the passing of the Bills, tribal students’ organisations such as the All Tribal Students’ Union Manipur (ATSUM), the Kuki Students’ Organisation (KSO) and the All Naga Students’ Association Manipur (ANSAM) launched violent protests questioning the motive behind the amendment of the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms Act, 1960. Eight tribal activists were killed in Churachandpur district. Over 25 people sustained injuries in police action. Nearly 10 government office buildings and all houses and properties of the elected representatives in the district and Sadar Hills in Senapati district were torched.

The United Naga Council (UNC), the Hmar Impui, the Zomi Council and the Kuki Impi Manipur also have been agitating in the five hill districts, which are predominantly tribal. There have been blockades, strikes, rallies and closure of educational institutions and government offices. Besides, construction work of all national projects has been stopped. These organisations want all the 20 tribal members of the Assembly to resign for their “failure to protect tribal interests”. Four of them from the opposition Naga People’s Front, Alexander Pao, Samuel Risom, L. Dikho and Victor Nunglung, tendered their resignations on September 7.

Meanwhile, as Frontline has learnt, a few persons have been posting misleading statements on social media saying that Hindi-speaking persons were being beaten up and driven out of Manipur. In retaliation, Pappu Yadav, an MP from Bihar, asked his followers to stop all trains passing through that State and drag Manipuri passengers out and send them back home. Following statements by leaders of Bihari settlers in Manipur, the campaign was called off. Gaikhangam, who is also the Home Minister, ordered the shutdown of Internet services from September 1.

The KSO announced an indefinite blockade of the Moreh market at India’s border with Myanmar, paralysing the legalised border trade with that country. The UNC called a 48-hour highway blockade from the midnight of September 2 in protest against the “anti-tribal Bills”.

Tribal students and NGOs also demanded the withdrawal of the Bills and the institution of a judicial inquiry into the police firing and declared that the bodies of the dead would not be claimed until these demands were conceded. The decomposing bodies that were lying in a rural hospital without freezers posed a great problem to the authorities.

Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh said that the three Bills had no clause that would hurt the tribal people. Even if there was such a clause, he said, the Bills could be amended at a later stage. However, the government’s invitation to protesters for talks met with no response. Deputy Chief Minister Gaikhangam said the government was caught in a cleft stick, with the protesters not pointing out specifically the objectionable portions in the Bills. He said the organisations quarterbacking the ferment had made some “skim readings of the Bills and are misinterpreting some portions to suit their game plan”.

Khaidem Mani, human rights activist and president of the All Manipur Bar Association, said that there was a political agenda in the campaign against the three Bills, which, he said, were not against any community.

The people of Manipur have proved that they will not agree to a vivisection on communal lines of this ancient land with a written history of more than 2,000 years. On June 18, 2001, there were protests against the extension of the ceasefire between the Centre and the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isaac-Muivah), or NSCN(IM), “without territorial limits”, that is, including the Naga-dominated areas outside Nagaland. As many as 18 persons were killed and many people sustained injuries. New Delhi revoked the ceasefire arrangement on June 27. It is believed that since people will object to any arrangement that will compromise the territorial integrity of the State, some sections may be working overtime for the imposition of President’s Rule, during which the accord with the NSCN(IM) may be implemented.

Government action

Ibobi, who has been strongly opposed to the “alternative arrangement” demanded by the UNC, is dubbed an anti-Naga. A few rounds of talks were held between the representatives of the Central government and the UNC on an “alternative arrangement” under which the Nagas in Manipur could stay beyond the “communal government led by Okram Ibobi”. There are reservations about the accord all around as its details have not been disclosed.

Aware of the political agenda, the Congress ministry has been trying to push its way through blockades and other forms of disruptions along the highways. Huge posses of paramilitary personnel are deployed to escort trucks and oil and gas tankers plying along the highways. On September 15, a 10-member team of the JCILPS, led by its convener Khomdram Ratan, called on Governor Syed Ahmed to urge him to give his assent to the three Bills. Understandably, Ahmed has not made any categorical commitment regarding it.

Tribal organisations have asked the remaining 16 tribal representatives, all from the Congress, to resign by September 30. On the night of September 18, the house of Health Minister Phungzathang Tonsing was burned down for the third time by an agitating mob in Churachandpur district. Congress president Sonia Gandhi has asked Gaikhangam to take appropriate action if tribal Ministers tender their resignations, which may mean the end of the Congress ministry in Manipur.

A decade ago, on May 27, 2005, tribal MPs, Ministers and MLAs had signed a memorandum for a separate arrangement for the Nagas in Manipur, and Gaikhangam was one of the signatories. But people know this was done under duress.

Chief Ministers Lal Thanhawla and T.R. Zeliang of Mizoram and Nagaland, respectively, have written letters to the Prime Minister urging him to ensure that the Bills do not get the Governor’s assent. An MP from Nagaland, Khekiho Zhimomi, has also demanded the division of Manipur into two Union Territories. It seems that even as the Bills are in limbo, the process of Balkanisation of this ancient land is under way.

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