The present context of multi-ethnic Manipur is highly charged ethnocentrically and multi-polarised in many respects. This is against the backdrop of the Government of India (GOI)’s push to ink final accord of the “Indo-Naga Peace Talk” particularly between the GOI and Isak-Muivah faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland – NSCN (IM); and the GOI and Naga National Political Groups – NNPG, the conglomeration of seven Naga insurgent groups namely, NSCN (Unification), NSCN (Reformation), NSCN (Khango), Naga National Council (NNC), NPGN/NNC (NA), NNC/GDRN (NA), and Federal Government of Nagaland (FGN), in the other lot.
The “Peace Talk” between the GOI and NSCN (IM) appears creating more conflicts and tensions in India’s Northeast Region in general and Manipur in particular for the last 23 years since August 1, 1997. The “Peace-Talk” directly or indirectly has claimed many lives and wounded many people in both the Valley and the Hills of Manipur. The “Peace-Talk” divides the people of Manipur on ethnic lines which have already been divided by the constitutional and administrative structures.
Some of the constitutional and administrative structures which divide Manipur may be mentioned here.
After the controversial merger of Manipur with India on October 15, 1949, the Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order, 1950 (PART III.—Rules and Orders under the Constitution) PART X.—Manipur has created a structural division amongst the people of Manipur by picking up 33 ethnic groups of Manipur and categorised them as Scheduled Tribes. This also further divides the people of Manipur into two categories of people – Scheduled Tribes as constitutionally privileged groups of people getting reservations and opportunities including financial scholarships in education and job employability, and General (Non-Scheduled Tribes).
Consequently, with the passage of the Representation of the People’s Act, 1951, under which two seats of Lok Sabha, Indian Parliament of People’s Representatives were allocated to Manipur when the first Delimitation Commission took shape in 1952 on the basis of “tribals” and “non-tribals”. The Inner Parliamentary Constituency of Manipur was constituted as an unreserved constituency where a “tribal” or “non-tribal” can contest and cast their votes whereas the Outer Parliamentary Constituency is a reserved Parliamentary seat for the Scheduled Tribes of Manipur which includes eight “non-tribal” Assembly Constituencies of which the voters are deprived of their democratic rights to contest for the Outer Parliamentary Constituency seat except electing a Scheduled Tribe candidate as their representative.
The segregation of the Hills and Valley; Tribal and Non-tribal have been perpetuated by Indian Parliament’s legislation of the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms (MLR&LR) Act, 1960. This Act of Indian Parliament deprives some of the original settlers of Manipur, the “non-tribals” particularly Meiteis to own landed properties in Hill areas whereas “Scheduled Tribes” settle and own landed properties in Valley areas.
Another major constitutional structure which divides Manipur is the insertion of Article 371C under the 27th Amendment of Indian Constitution in 1971 when Manipur was still a Union Territory, which provides:
“Notwithstanding anything in this Constitution, the President may, by order made with respect to the State of Manipur, provide for the constitution and functions of a committee of the Legislative Assembly of the State consisting of members of that Assembly elected from the Hill Areas of that State, for the modifications to be made in the rules of business of the Government and in the rules of procedure of the Legislative Assembly of the State and for any special responsibility of the Governor in order to secure the proper functioning of such committee.
The Governor shall annually or whenever so required by the President, make a report to the President regarding the administration of the Hill Areas in the State of Manipur and the executive power of the Union shall extend to the giving of directions to the State as to the administration of the said areas.”
In 1971, during the process for granting of Statehood to Manipur, the Government of India promulgated an Act of Parliament called Manipur (Hill Areas) District Council Act 1971 under section 4 of subsection 3 Vide Bill No. 76 of 26/12/1971 for safeguarding the Hill Areas and Protection of Tribals in Manipur, this provides for creation of six ADCs in Hill Areas of Manipur for ultimate conversion to full-fledged District.
The Manipur (Hills Areas) District Council Act, 1971 was passed by the Parliament of India on 26th December 1971 by assimilating the provisions in the Fifth and Sixth Schedules of the Constitution and declaration of 90 percent of Manipur as “Hill Areas” when Manipur was still a union territory.
Subsequently, after Manipur’s attainment of Statehood on 21st January 1972, the Manipur (Hill Areas) District Council Rules 1972 was enacted by State Legislative Assembly of Manipur by which the established ADCs are governed. And the Hills Areas Committee exclusively for Scheduled Tribe MLAs has special powers concerning the hill areas within the Manipur Legislative Assembly.
The NSCN (IM) has been claiming a swathe of Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh as “Nagalim” in the region and sticks to its vision of integration of all Naga Areas under one administration having a separate flag and constitution of ‘Nagalim’.
On the other hand, COCOMI, a conglomeration of Manipur based civil society organisations UCM, AMUCO, CCSK, HERICOUN, LIPUL and MMWO along with other civil society organisations firmly stands for a united Manipur where all the ethnic groups co-exist without division on ethnic lines.
Another ethnic resultant of the “Peace Talk” between the GOI and NSCN (IM) is the demand of a territorial council exclusively for the Kukis in Manipur.
The Kuki Inpi Manipur (KIM), the apex body of Kukis in the state endorsing the demand for a separate Kukiland Territorial Council in Manipur, submitted a memorandum to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on November 9 requesting the Government of India to not include the so-called Kuki ancestral land in five districts of Manipur.
Moreover, the Kuki National Organisation (KNO) comprising 17 Kuki militant groups said that “any settlement with NSCN (IM) that disregards Kuki rights will not be tolerated”. KNO is one of the two umbrella bodies of Kuki militants – KNO and United Peoples Front (UPF) who signed a Suspension of Operation Agreement with the Government of India and Government of Manipur.
However, the possibility of granting something compensatory to the NSCN (IM) or the Nagas in Manipur cannot be ruled out. The most possible is granting of Naga Territorial Council as speculated by many experts. That is why the Kuki Inpi Manipur (KIM) demands a Kukiland Territorial Council in Manipur, backed by the KNO’s stand that any settlement with NSCN (IM) that disregards Kuki rights will not be tolerated.
These ideas of territorial councils are perceived as divisive policy to divide Manipur on ethnic lines by the majority of people of Manipur, particularly COCOMI and its allies. The COCOMI and its allies perceive the territorial council is at the door step to statehood as evidenced from the Autonomous Territorial Councils in the then undivided Assam, which later became states like Meghalaya and Mizoram.
Even if the Government of India does not use ethnic names in the proposal for territorial councils in Manipur, many feel that it will be practically ethno-based and only the Manipur valley area remains a region where all the ethnic groups, be it the Nagas, Kukis, Manipuri Muslims and mainland Indians, besides Meiteis, can live and rule. This aggravates the situation of multi-ethnic Manipur.
The GOI and its conflict resolution experts still do not or seem deliberately not understand Manipur. And the GOI also thinks that any settlement with the NSCN (IM) is solution to the Indo-Naga conflict and will peace in Manipur, ignoring the other stakeholders. The GOI and its think tank seems deliberately to ignore the diversity and pluralistic nature of the region particularly the complexities of Manipur. The GOI seems only concerned to secure India’s territory at the cost of the natives of the region and don’t bother about the further divisions of the region particularly Manipur on ethnic lines. Settlement of GOI with NSCN (IM) without respecting the political history of Manipur and the needs of its people may cause further conflict of interests between the different ethnic groups of the region in general and Manipur in particular.
The GOI and think tanks should understand that Manipur is not a state like Nagaland or Mizoram or Meghalaya as carved out of Assam. Manipur has been a unique state, which had a written constitution before India and an Assembly of People’s representatives elected based on universal adult franchise for the first time in 1948 in South Asia and second in Southeast Asia before the controversial merger of Manipur to the Dominion India on 15 October, 1949. Manipur is where the hills make the valleys and the valleys make the hills. It is an organic evolution which is indivisible. Another point to be noted is that hills and valleys forming multi-ethnic independent kingdoms and states is not uncommon characteristic of the Southeast Asia. We will easily understand the symbiotic relationships of hills and valleys if we look into many countries and nations of Southeast Asia, like Laos, Malaysia, Thailand and Burma etc.
Manipur is not a forced union of the different ethnic groups. Why the kings and people of Manipur (including the ethnic groups who are now settling in the hills) have been protecting the present boundaries of Manipur, though sparsely settled by few people. It may be because the hills are the common resources of the peoples who settle both in the hills and the valleys. Hills are the sources of forest produce, horticultural produce, fuels, and minerals while the valleys are the rice bowls for the people of Manipur. Hills are the ecology of the lives of the people of Manipur and inseparable part of the ecosystem. It is the need of the all people of Manipur irrespective of ethnic groups. People of the hills and the valleys are mutually interdependent and all the ethnic groups of Manipur need both the hills and the valleys. The hills need the valleys and the valleys need the hills. Therefore all the ethnic groups need to have the equal stakes in all the spheres of Manipur.
Therefore, it is high time for all the right and positive thinking people of Manipur irrespective of their ethnic groups come together and visualise a common vision to live with dignity in active coexistence, equity, resource and development, justice and mutual respect of distinct identities. And the GOI and its conflict resolution experts too, particularly those involved in the process of GOI-NSCN (IM) Peace Talk should explore more to resolve the conflict without dividing Manipur on ethnic lines further not to create more conflicts in the region. Any peace deal without addressing the structures which divide Manipur will not be a lasting and positive peace.
Senior Editor: Imphal Review of Arts and Politics