While Manipur Chief Minister Nongthombam Biren, since his first term, is said to have been working hard with his all out efforts to bring oneness of all the ethnic groups of Manipur and live in coexistence peacefully with equal developments througout the length and breadth of the State, there are complex challenges before him.
Although his government and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) repeatedly claim that when they become in power there is no “Hill-Valley divide” that existed as they percieve during the Congress regime in the State, some tribal communities charge the State Government as anti-tribal.
Survey and Preservation of Forests Opposed
Many forests areas of Manipur have been destroyed for illegal poppy plantations leaving many mountains deserted causing flash floods during rainy seasons while rivers and springs dried up during winter and dry seasons.
Starting with the eviction of as many as 69 houses illegally constructed within Waithou Reserved Forests Area under Thoubal Forest Division on June 12, 2022, Manipur Government continues eviction drives against illegal structures and encroachers in Reserved Forests Areas and Protected Forests Areas of Manipur under the provisions of the Indian Forest Act, 1927, Manipur Forest Rule 2021 and the Forest Conservation Act 1980.
However, some tribal leaders, village chiefs, tribal student and civil bodies resolved to oppose all forms of land survey “in their lands”, during a consultative meeting on Reserve Forest/Protected Forest/Wetland/Wildlife Sanctuary organised by Indigenous Tribal Leader’s Forum (ITLF) on April 19 at YPA GHQ Hall at Hiangtam Lamka in Churachandpur district. The meeting was also attended by Research and Preservation of Zo Identity, tribal leaders, village chiefs, student organisations and intellectuals.
The meeting urged the MLAs of the district to take a common stand against the ongoing survey which is to take place on the reserved forest, protected forest, wetland preservation and wildlife sanctuary as well as the plan to complete the cancellation of ‘pattas’ and ‘jabamandis’ on April 30.
It also appealed to the MLAs to declare their stand within seven days. It also concluded to move their issues legally to the court for justice and the village chiefs also unanimously resolved to support ITLF in any issues taken up.
Earlier, a team of Churachandpur civil society organisations (CSOs) led by the Kuki Students’ Organization (KSO) Churachandpur and the Zomi Students’ Federation (ZSF) are on vigil and prepared to oppose the survey, terming it ‘Illegal’ in a response to a news that Manipur Government’s Forest department and Revenue department is about to conduct a survey of four villages in Churachandpur district.
Consequently, the Indigenous Tribal Leader’s Forum (ITLF) has called for an 8 hour-bandh in Churachandpur district on April 28 from 8 am to 4 pm in protest against the land and forest survey carried out by the State Government. It has also announced non-cooperation with government programmes in the districts.
In a release issued on April 27, the ITLF said that they had submitted several memoranda to the government of Manipur to voice their grievances and apprehensions (about the survey carried out by the government) pertaining to Reserve Forests/Protected Forest Wetlands/Wildlife and the eviction of villages.
“It also pained our sentiments that the government has demolished Churches and has absolutely no consideration and respect for something which is deeply sacred to those of us following the Christian faith,” added the release.
Even after repeated memorandums, the government has shown no signs of willingness, no sincerity to address the plight of the people nor has it shown any contrition with regard to this, the ITLF said.
Notably, though the release does not mention explicitly, the eight-hour total shutdown on April 28 coincided with Chief Minister Biren’s visit to New Lamka to inaugurate an Open Gym at PT Sports Complex and attend the 1st Anniversary Celebration of Churachandpur Assembly Constituency MLA, LM Khoute.
Moreover, the Open Gym which was to be inaugurated in the afternoon on April 28 by the Chief Minister was torched by a mob and the mob also vandalised the public meeting venue at Sadhbhav Mandap, on April 27 night.
After the mob, mobile internet services in two districts – Churachandpur and Pherzawl – have been suspended with immediate effect from April 28 and Section 144 of CrPC, which prohibits the assembly of five or more persons which is likely to turn unlawful in the said area, has also been imposed in the district headquarters of Churachandpur until further orders to maintain law and order.
Earlier, on March 10 also the protest rally organised by the Indigenous Tribal Leaders’ Forum (ITLF) and the Kuki Students’ Organisation (KSO)-GHQ or in Kuki dominated districts over State Government’s move to evict those it considers encroachers in Reserved Forests and Protected Forests Areas turned violent in Kangpokpi district.
Sectarian and Anti-Tribal Government
The Kuki People’s Alliance (KPA) having two members in the present Manipur Legislative Assembly, has made a veiled attack on the Nongthombam Biren-led BJP Government on various issues and accused the government of persecuting the tribal people in the state.
The KPA in its official meeting held on April 25 discussed the issue of the demolition of over a half-century-old church at tribal colony in Checkon, Imphal, forests vis-a-vis the tribal communities living in the hills, environment, and the recent impasse over tribal reservation issue at RIMS.
In connection with the demolition of the Church at Checkon, the KPA stated that in Manipur, Christianity is nearly all exclusive to the tribals in the hills, despite constituting almost 50 per cent of the population of Manipur, but have only 33 per cent political representation.
It also stated that the recent demolition of church in the wee hours of April 11 was a corollary to the demolition of the Tribal Colony itself.
“What we see with the present Government is nothing but elitism, arrogance, the chauvinism of a particular community, majoritarian dominance, and to whom any benefit to ST communities in the form of allocated quarters or places of Christian worship is an eyesore”, the KPA stated.
The KPA also alleged that the Manipur Government is sectarian in religious and social outlook, anti-tribal, anti-poor, and anti-hills is well demonstrated.
Demand for Meitei ST and Opposition
Amid the intensified campaign by the Scheduled Tribe Demand Committee Manipur (STDCM) demanding inclusion of Meitei in the Scheduled Tribes (ST) List of Indian Constitution, Manipur High Court on April 19 has made its March 27 reserved judgment public directing the State Government to submit recommendations for inclusion of Meitei/Meetei in the Scheduled Tribes list, and to consider the case within a period of four weeks.
The directive came following a writ petition filed by eight petitioners from the Meetei (Meitei) Tribe Union. The writ petition sought issuance of a writ of mandamus directing the state government to submit recommendations in reply to the Ministry of Tribal Affairs’ letter dated May29, 2013 within two months or within a time frame and to include Meetei/Meitei community in the Schedule Tribe list of Indian Constitution as a “tribe among tribes of Manipur”.
However, the Hill Areas Committee (HAC) on April 20 has decided to urge the Government of Manipur and Government of India to go for appeals against the High Court order, taking into account the sentiments and interests and rights of the Scheduled Tribes of Manipur, said a statement issued by HAC chairman Dinganlung Gangmei.
Moreover, the All Manipur Tribal Students’ Union (ATSUM) on April 21 decried the High Court judgment raising apprehension that the interests and rights of the hill people will become uncertain if the demand of Meiteis for ST status if fulfilled.
“The judgment is contradicting the wishes and aspirations of the tribal people and it is unfortunate and deplorable. It is an ex parte judgment that only hears the interests of the petitioners,” said ATSUM general secretary SR Andria while speaking to the media at ATSUM office in Imphal.
Terming the March 27 Manipur High Court order as negating the sole objective of scheduling groups of people for protective discrimination as ST in the Constitution of India, the United Naga Council (UNC) has vehemently condemned the HC ruling.
The United Naga Council (UNC) on April 25 stated that the Meitei/Meetei community of Manipur are an advanced community of India with their language, Manipuri (Meiteilon) listed in the Eighth Schedule to the Constitution of India. The Meitei/Meetei are already protected under the constitution of India and categorized as (i) General (ii) Other Backward Classes (OBC) and (iii) Schedule Caste (SC).
It is irrational that the High Court of Manipur directed the Government of Manipur to recommend for inclusion of the Meitei/Meetei community in the Scheduled Tribes (ST) list of India, negating the sole objective of scheduling group of people for protective discrimination as ST in the constitution of India, the UNC stated.
The apex body of the Chin-Kuki tribes in Manipur, i.e. The Kuki Inpi Manipur (KIM) on April 26 has also condemned the High Court ruling.
Besides being the largest group in Manipur state (with about 60 per cent of the total population, having 40 members out of 60 in Manipur Legislative Assembly), Meitei is an advanced community well ahead of many other communities in India let alone in Manipur and for this reason, they have not been recognised as Scheduled Tribes by the successive governments, KIM stated.
The KIM stated that the ST communities of Manipur have consistently opposed the demand for inclusion of the Meitei/Meetei in the ST list fearing the loss of job opportunities and other affirmative actions granted to ST by the Constitution of India to the much-advanced community like Meitei.
On the other hand, the Meetei (Meitei) Tribe Union categorically stated on April 21 that the Meetei/Meitei demand for inclusion in the Scheduled Tribes (ST) list of Indian Constitution will not infringe upon the rights of tribal communities included in the ST list in Manipur. The Union emphasised that the demand is only meant for constitutional safeguard of the Meitei/Meetei community against demographic threats.
However, the Government of Manipur is caught between the Order of the High Court of Manipur to send the recommendation for inclusion of Meitei in the ST list and stiff opposition from the different bodies of Scheduled Tribes of Manipur and the HAC.
If the Government of Manipur does neither comply with the order of the High Court of Manipur nor appeal to higher court against it, the State Government has to face contempt of court. If the State Government does not go for appeal to the higher court against the order, the tribal bodies will continue to charge the Manipur Government as acting against the interests and rights of the Scheduled Tribes of Manipur while the advocates for Meitei’s inclusion in the ST list claim it as their right given the Constitution of India.
Besides the above challenges, Chief Minister Nongthombam Biren’s leadership has not been without challenges within his own party from the beginning of his first term.
Though the recent resignation spree and reported rebellion against him by BJP MLAs has been brushed aside by Chief Minister Nongthombam Biren after BJP national spokesperson and Northeast in charge Sambit Patra landed in Imphal and met party MLAs, there is no guarantee that his leadership is without challenge.
Furthermore, the utmost challenge before Chief Minister Nongthombam Biren is to check the activities within and without which may deepen the communal hatred and promote exclusivist agenda and ethno-politics in the multi-ethnic State of Manipur to bring his Oneness of Manipur and Coexistence of different ethnic groups peacefully.
Senior Editor: Imphal Review of Arts and Politics