Manipur blockade
A bus sent ablaze by a mob protesting against the Naga economic blockade near Imphal, Manipur, on December 18, 2016.IANS

Manipur has been burning since November 2 2016 due to an economic blockade put up by the United Naga Council (UNC), vehemently opposing the ILP (Inner Line Permit), known among the tribals as anti-tribal bills, and demanding scrapping of three bills. They are also against the government's plan to carve out Kangpokpi district out of Senapati district.

[Also read: Manipur unrest: Student writes open letter to PM Modi to solve the economic crisis]

Aware of the volatile situation, the Manipuri government on December 9 2016 issued a gazette notification creating seven new districts by bifurcating seven of the state's existing nine districts. This has escalated anger among the tribals and intensified the economic blockade. Also communal hatred has flared up in the Imphal valley and thousands of students and immigrant workers returning home for Christmas were rendered perplexed and scared with the Meitei mob going berserk. With Assembly elections in the north-eastern state scheduled for March 4 and 8, the ongoing problem in the state has caught headlines all across.

The scenario is getting complicated
Manipur is a state with multi-ethnic composition. The tribals constitute 41 percent (as per the Census of India 2011) of the total population and occupy 70 percent of the state's total area. At the time of the formation of the state under the Constitution in 1972, the Parliament provided the Hill Area Committee (HAC) power to give legislative protection to the interest of the hill areas under the provision of Article 371(C) of the Constitution. Since then, the administration of the 'Hill Areas' of Manipur is under the purview of the HAC (according to Manipur Legislative Assembly Order, 1972).

The term 'Hill Areas' means the areas specified in the First Scheduled of the Order. The First Schedule mentioned the hill districts, and sub-divisions therein created by the Manipur government from time to time as the Hill Areas. This term, in fact, is also associated with the colonial period. The term 'Hill Tribes' was used under the Rules for the Management of Hill Tribes, 1935.

The term 'Hill Tribe' was later replaced by the term 'Hill People' in the Manipur Hill People's Regulation, 1947, and the Manipur State Government Constitution Act, 1947. After the merger of Manipur to the Dominion of India as per the terms of the President of India Act, 1950, the Naga, Kuki and Lushai tribe were brought under the term Scheduled Tribes.

As mentioned earlier, the HAC was vested with the legislative power for protection of the interest of the 'Hill Areas' of Manipur. Some of the notable functions of the HAC are:

  1. The HAC shall safeguard the interest of the people of the Hill Areas, particularly to accelerate the development of the area.
  2. The HAC shall promote unity between the people of the Hill Areas and other areas of the state.
  3. The HAC has special responsibility for the development plan of the Hill Areas: "The development plan shall be placed before the HAC for its views and its views will be taken in account before the plans are finalised".

Despite the constitutional safeguard provided to the HAC, the Manipur government repudiated the powers conferred by Article 371(C) and on December 9 2016, issued a gazette notification creating seven new districts, taking their number to 16. There was no comprehensible explanation from the state government as to why the need for creation of the seven new districts arose. All the five existing Hill Districts of the state have been bifurcated but four valley districts have remained intact.

Such acts by the government to appease the Meitei voters were vehemently opposed by the Nagas of Manipur who are already protesting the creation of Sadar Hill from the Naga-dominated Senapati district. Most intellectuals, irrespective of communities, are of the view that the government's act is not justifiable and believe that the HAC has been sabotaged by the ruling party.

Doubts have also been raised over the feasibility of fulfilling the assurance the government has given to people in the past several years. Naga union bodies and the Manipur government have agreed from time to time that the jurisdiction of the Hill Areas will not be bifurcated without people's approval. 

The highlights of the agreements/MOUs signed between the GOM (Government of Manipur) and Naga Union bodies are:

  1. On December 14, 1981, the GOM and All Naga Students' Association, Manipur (ANSAM) had arrived at an understanding that "the GOM will take suitable criteria into consideration. The GOM will also give appropriate opportunity to all the stakeholders for their justification".
  2. On November 10, 1992, the GOM and Naga Students' Federation (NSF) had signed an agreement that "Not an inch of Naga Areas would be carved out or bartered away under any circumstances and any demand shall be made to rest by the GOM".
  3. On September 27, 1996, the GOM and Naga Civil Society represented by ANSAM & United Naga Council (UNC) agreed that "not even an inch of the Naga inhabited Areas and its original land should be touched while creating any new District." Further, "If at all the Sadar Hills District is going to be created, its inauguration must be preceded by the amalgamation of the land of the Nagas to their respective contiguous districts, Viz: Ukhrul, Tamenglong, Chandel & North District (Senapati)".
  4. On June 23, 1998, the GOM and Naga Civil Society represented by ANSAM & UNC signed a MoU that "the proposed Sadar Hills issue should be consensus of the peoples concerned" and the GOM will take the consent of the UNC & ANSAM.

Manipur Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh and his colleagues have intentionally and knowingly ignored the rights of the 'Hill People'. Officially, Singh said it was both a response to long-standing demands of the local people and for reasons of administrative efficiency. However, sources in the Congress to which the CM belongs, said that ahead of the Assembly elections of March 2017, the chief minister was strengthening his stand to show that he has stood up against all odds since 2002.

The failure of the state government in resolving the current scenario has not gone unnoticed as some Congress ministers left the party. The Times of India on April 23 2016 reported about villagers of Manipur getting wary of losing land to Myanmar. The CM, however, put the ball in the Central government's court rather than addressing the issue.

[The writer is a freelance writer based in Mumbai. Views expressed here are his own.]