North-east India is usually referred to as the “Land of Seven Sisters”. It implies an apparent cultural homogeneity and cohesiveness of the seven States of the region: Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, and Tripura. But nothing can be farther from the truth. Each State is different from the others in culture, language, population composition, social segmentation, political situation and in the degree of economic development. Even within the same State there are differences.
Take Manipur, for example. The State is clearly divided between the valley and the hills. The valley is mainly populated by the Manipuris or Meiteis who roughly constitute 66 percent of the total population of 25.7 lakh. The rest, barring about a lakh of Scheduled Caste people, belong to different hill tribes who are about 33 percent of the total population. There is a growing conflict between the plains people (the Meiteis) and the hill tribes. The Meiteis resent the fact that they are debarred from buying land in the hills and settling there, but there is no bar on the hill people buying land in the valley. Thus, the population of hill tribes in the valley is increasing.
The tribal people say that the Meitei-dominated State Government has not paid much attention to the development of the hill areas. As a result, many hill tribals have been forced to go down and settle in the valley for getting education and jobs.
The hill tribes, despite inter-tribal differences (as between the Nagas and the Kukis) are becoming more vocal in their protest against those Bills passed by the State Assembly last year (2015) which they think are “anti-tribal” and discriminatory. The Bills are: The Protection of Manipur People’s Bill, the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms Bill, and the Manipur Shops and Establishments (2nd Amendment) Bill. The hill tribes allege that the State Government is contemplating another anti-tribal legislation named Manipur Regulation of Non-Local People Bill, 2016.
Matters came to a head last year. On September 1, 2015, the police opened fire on a group of people at Churachandpur town who were protesting against the three Bill passed by the State Legislature the previous day. Nine persons including an eleven-year-old boy were killed. The people of Churachandpur have refused to bury the bodies ever since. These have been left rotting in the mortuary till now. They say that burial can take place only after the Centre publicly announces that the three “anti-tribal” Bills are refused Presidential assent. The divide between the plains and the hills has thus been steadily widening. The demand that is becoming strident is that there should be equal representation of the people living in the plains and the hills.
The demand has brought about an unprecedented unity between different tribes, like the Nagas and the Kukis, who have been fighting each other for a long time. The Centre, in its shortsightedness, has always taken advantage of the inter-tribal feuds to divide them and use them against tribal insurgency. But now the tribes have buried the hatchet because they fear that once these Bills become laws, the State Government dominated by the Meiteis will take away their right to the land that has traditionally belonged to them and will ultimately threaten their very identity as tribals.
They have another grievance. All the controversial Bills were passed by the Assembly as money bills though they had nothing to do with money. It was done with the sole objective of bypassing the Hill Area Committee (HAC) which is composed of representatives of the Autonomous District Councils. The State Government knew that the HAC would not give its assent to the Bills. Therefore, the Bills were presented as money bills so that a reference to the HAC became unnecessary.
Manipur has nine districts. Three of these, namely, Imphal East, Imphal West, and Thoubal, are inhabited by the Meiteis. The other six districts – Churachandpur, Ukhrul, Senapati, Tamenglong, Chandel, and Sadar Hills – are the hill districts in which as many as 33 tribes, recognised as Scheduled Tribes, live. They want a separate administration for their areas. The Centre is in a dilemma: to concede the tribals’ demands will be to alienate the majority Meiteis, while denying the tribal population what it demands will alienate the tribals and may revive tribal insurgency which is under check now.
The tribal people contend that the definition of Manipuri people in the Protection of Manipur Peoples Bill is so restrictive that more than half the people living in the hill districts will be treated as “outsiders”. Only nineteen of the sixty seats in the State Assembly are reserved for hill areas on the basis of population. There is thus an inbuilt discrimination against the hill tribes. The situation is extremely complicated. A solution that can bring about harmony between the people of the plains and hills is nowhere in sight but to let the situation drift in a border State like Manipur will be shortsighted. IPA
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)