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In Less than a Month Manipur Government Faces Another Backlash; This Time on Issue Myanmar Refugee

While the clouds of shameful withdrawal of an order of Manipur government issued on March 1 is not clear yet, the state government is again facing a backlash from another order issued on March 26 regarding Myanmar people fleeing into Manipur for survival.

The March 1 order issued by the District Magistrate of Imphal West district, Naorem Praveen, hastily applying the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021, which came into force on February 25, as part of Section 79 of the Information Technology Act, directed Imphal-based news website The Frontier Manipur to furnish “all relevant documents for ensuring compliance” to digital media regulations failing which “steps as deemed fit would be initiated without further notice” for providing online services on news and current affairs on the social media platform through the Facebook page Khannasi Neinasi.

After the news of the state government’s order to the news portal broke out and sharp criticism on social media and also conventional media called out the state government’s action, the Union Information and Broadcasting (I&B) Ministry had to intervene.

Notably, reports quoting Union Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar said that “the rules are very clear that a District Magistrate does not have the power to issue such a notice. The mechanism is mostly self-regulatory and only in very serious cases can they complain to the ministry.”

In a letter to the state’s Chief Secretary Rajesh Kumar, on March 2, Union I&B Secretary Amit Khare said the powers under the new rules “have not been delegated to the state governments/district magistrate/police commissioner”. It said the rules are to be administered by the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.

Following intervention from the I&B Ministry, the Manipur government’s March 1 notice was retracted and a letter addressed to the publisher/intermediary of the news portal was issued late evening on March 2 by the same District Magistrate, mentioning that the notice issued earlier “stands withdrawn with immediate effect”.

Meanwhile, less than a month since the Manipur government withdrew the order, another order of the state government drew sharp criticism from various quarters. This time the order involves international humanitarian issues and foreign policy of India, and more international media attention including that in The Telegraph, London.

The state government’s March 26 order issued by Special Secretary Home H Gyan Prakash to the deputy commissioners of five districts of Manipur bordering Myanmar, directs officials to not set up any camps for Myanmar nationals crossing the border into India and to “politely turn away” those seeking refuge.

The order has received criticism from various quarters on social media, from local to national observers, including former national security advisor Shivshankar Menon (Shivshankar Menon (@ShivshankaMenon) March 30, 2021), who called the order “beyond shame”, and JNU Prof. Happymon Jacob (Happymon Jacob ഹാപ്പിമോൻ ജേക്കബ് (@HappymonJacob) March 29, 2021) asking ‘How do you “politely turn away” people seeking refuge?’

In the March 26 letter to deputy commissioners of Chandel, Tengnoupal, Kamjong, Ukhrul and Churachandpur districts of Manipur bordering Myanmar, Special Secretary (Home) Gyan Prakash had ordered that in case of grievous injuries, medical attention may be provided on “humanitarian considerations” and also directed that Aadhar enrolment “should be stopped immediately and Aadhar enrolment kits taken into safe custody.”

The March 26 letter drew sharp reactions from various sections on social media. Consequently, the state government was compelled to withdraw the order of March 26 in another letter dated March 29 issued by the same Special Secretary (Home), H Gyan Prakash.

“It appears that the contents of the letter have been misconstrued and interpreted differently. The state government has been taking all humanitarian steps and recently taken all steps, including taking them to Imphal, to treat the injured Myanmarese nationals. The state government continues to provide all aid,” the March 29 letter said.

“In order to avoid this misunderstanding I am directed to convey the decision of the government that it has decided to withdraw the letter dated March 26, 2021 mentioned above,” Gyan Prakash added.

Reports quoting India’s former ambassador to Myanmar, Gautam Mukhopadhyay, says that the earlier circular gave a “very wrong message” to the Myanmar people fighting for democracy. He expressed relief that the Manipur government had realised its mistake and withdrawn the March 26 notice.

However, it is pertinent to ask why the state government has issued an order on the matter involving the foreign policy of the Government of India, which may have repercussions on the centuries old Manipur-Myanmar relations vis-a-vis not only on the diplomatic relations but also on the people to people level. Why did the state government issue an order which has to be withdrawn later? Was the state government compelled to issue the March 26 order while the other states bordering Myanmar did not do anything similar?

Normally there shouldn’t be any chances for withdrawal of an order from the government issued after a decision taken rationally with well-thought out analysis and discussions having far-sightedness.

Notably, reports said that after the Myanmar military coup of February 1, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) issued an advisory on February 25 to the chief secretaries of Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Mizoram and Nagaland, and also to the Assam Rifles to stay alert and take appropriate action to prevent a possible influx into the territory.

The Union Ministry of Home Affairs has asked the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Mizoram and Nagaland to prevent influx of refugees from neighbouring Myanmar, saying state governments have no power to grant refugee status to any foreigners.

Reports said the MHA in a communique to chief secretaries of these states and the Director General of Assam Rifles on March 10, 2021 stated, “As you are aware, there is a probability of large scale illegal influx into Indian territory through Indo-Myanmar border due to current internal situation in Myanmar. In this regard, MHA has already issued an advisory dated February 25, 2021 to the chief secretaries of Mizoram, Nagaland, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh and also to Border Guarding Force (BGF) along Indo-Myanmar Border (Assam Rifles) to stay alert and take appropriate action to prevent a possible influx into Indian territory.”

“Now, it has been reported that an illegal influx from Myanmar has started. Attention is invited to MHA letter no. 24013/29/Misc12017-CSR Ill (i) Dtd. 08.08.2017 addressed to Chief Secretaries of all State Governments and Union Territory (UT) Administrations wherein instructions were issued to sensitize all law enforcement and intelligence agencies for taking prompt steps in identifying the illegal migrants and initiate the deportation processes expeditiously and, without delay,” reports added.

According to reports, the letter stated Foreigners Division, MHA had also issued instructions to chief secretaries vide letter no. 25022/63/ 2017-F-IV Dtd. 28 02.2018 advising them to sensitize the law enforcement and intelligence agencies for taking appropriate prompt steps for identifying illegal migrants, their restrictions to specific locations as per provisions of law, capturing their biographic and biometrics particulars, cancellation of fake Indian documents and legal proceedings including initiation of deportation proceedings as per provisions of law. Further, it is reiterated that state governments and UT administrations have no powers to grant “refugee’ status to any foreigner and India is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention of 1951 and its 1967 Protocol.

It is also reported that the letter stated, “In view of above, you are requested to take appropriate action as per law to check illegal influx from Myanmar into India.”

Are these advisories or orders of the Union MHA reason the state government issued the March 26 order? Can the state government not have its say in taking Government of India’s decision on the prevailing situation of Myanmar and Myanmar people fleeing into Manipur while Mizoram has its own agenda? Or has the state government of Manipur overstepped in issuing its order on matters falling in the domain of the Union government? Or does the state government rely on wrong advice on crucial and critical issues without considering the needs and interests of Manipur?

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