Besides the ever-present deep fissures along different ethnic fault lines, the now raging controversy over ‘The Manipur (Hill Areas) District Council Bill, 2021’ has brought to the fore once again the tendencies of many civil society organisations to overreach their briefs and presume the role of guardianship over even the Manipur Assembly. Ordinarily there ought not to have been a controversy. The Bill should have been allowed to take its own course prescribed by the law. In all likelihood, it probably would not have found admission to be tabled in the Assembly easily, at least in its present form, not for any opposition by anybody, but for possible breaches of procedural norms for a Bill to be tabled. We are not saying these breaches have already happened, but definitely from the timeline since the matter was revealed during a press conference just on the eve of the start of the Monsoon Session of the Assembly, it does seem likely it would not have the required cooling period from the time the proposal is submitted to the Speaker and the time it is cleared to be tabled in the Assembly. For ordinary Bills, normally this is five days but the Speaker is given the discretion to shorten it if the matter is urgent. This shortage of time seems even more likely if the Bill is a money Bill, which in all likelihood it is, for then a prior sanction of the Governor on behalf of the President would become mandatory.
‘The Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business’ of both the Parliament and the Manipur Assembly, publications which are available widely are not at all ambiguous on the Bill introduction protocol. Even a cursory search of “types of Bills in India” on Google will provide more than all the desired answers. My search yielded 6.46 crores links to relevant articles in 0.67 seconds. Generally, there are four types of Bills though there are also sub classifications of these main ones. They are: ‘ordinary Bill’ (or sometimes referred to as private member Bill), ‘money Bill’, ‘finance Bill’ and ‘Constitution amendment Bill’. The last of course will not apply to the State Assemblies for State Assemblies are not empowered to amend the Constitution. Of these available routes, HAC recommended Bill will have to take the first, ‘private member Bill’ for it is not a government Bill. Rule 141 of the Assembly procedures specifies such a Bill would have to be submitted by a member other than a minister to the Speaker with “an explanatory Statement of Objects and Reasons which shall not contain any arguments”. The Speaker can then ask the Objects and Reasons to be revised if he thinks fit. If it is a money Bill, then Clause 2 of the same rule says that a copy of the recommendation of the Governor would have to be submitted along with the Bill proposal to the Speaker. In the rather rushed timeline made known to the press, the likelihood is, either the Bill introduction is still in the process of completing these mandatory protocols or else fell short of meeting them therefore delayed. This being so, it would be preposterous for those campaigning against the Bill to presume they have successfully blocked the introduction of the Bill, or for others on the opposite side to presume the Bill has been blocked and therefore assume righteousness in resorting to disruptive bandhs.
The Bill has two stated intents. The first is to make the existing Autonomous District Councils more effective and powerful. This is perfectly within the means of the Assembly to approve provided the proposed new features enjoy the support of the majority of the members of the House. It is the second which is likely to run into some legal hurdles. It says the Bill is also meant to provide more autonomy to the Hill Area Committee. The HAC, as we know is formed as per the provisions of Article 371-C of the Indian Constitution, and modifying it is outside the purview of the State Assembly. The mandate of the extremely short and rather ambiguous two-clause Article 371-C is first that “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 term used here to point to the President’s responsibility is “may” and not “shall”.
In other words, it leaves it up to the President’s discretion to form a Hill Area Committee, constituting of all members of the Assembly elected from the hill constituencies, but it is not mandatory for him to do so. The HAC was formed in 1972 but Article 371-C says nothing about whether this is meant as a permanent body or is meant to remain so long as it enjoys the pleasure of the President. The mandate of the HAC is to oversee and modify rules of the Assembly, by contextual implications, in matters related to the Hill Areas. The second clause of the article mandates the Governor to report annually to the Presidents on how the hill areas of the State were being governed and whether intervention by the Union government is essential. Successive Governors of the State have been doing this all the while, so even if the HAC is not to be a permanent profile of the State Assembly, it does mean it still enjoys the confidence of these successive Governors, therefore the President. An explanation at the end also defines “Hill Area” as areas “the President may, by order, declare to be Hill areas” leaving the notion of what should be considered “Hill Area” not fixed by any topographical standard, but at the discretion of the President.
This being what it is, citing Article 371-C to seek expansion of the scope of the HAC’s activities into the domain of the executive, such as making it a body to oversee all development work in the hill areas, may prove to be infructuous and ultra vires. Nothing of such responsibilities are even hinted in the article and the HAC is only supposed to be a legislative mechanism within the Assembly to ensure no law in matters relating to the hills are made without the consent of the hill legislators.
It does also seem the new proposed Bill is a very hurriedly prepared document with plenty of cut and paste from existing ADCs modelled on the 6th Schedule in other Northeast States. It indicates little or no thoughts about accommodation of the peculiarities and variations in customary practices and local self-governance needs here. As for instance, why would moderation of “cattle trespassing” or “river ferrying” become a necessity in the Manipur hills. These probably are features borrowed blindly from Sixth Schedule ADCs in plain areas such as Bodoland and Karbi Anglong. Once upon a time, in the extensively cultivated Imphal valley areas, fights among farmers on issues of crops destruction by cattle from neighbouring villages were not uncommon. But even moderation of such frictions has now become redundant with tractors having replaced cattle-pulled ploughs almost everywhere. We have to also remember that ADCs are meant to be local self-governance mechanisms, the third tier of governance in India. They are meant for settling grassroots level problems and needs. As for instance, it is imaginable how unrealistic it would have been for farmers to approach the courts every time there were to be a cattle trespass dispute. With local self-governance bodies, such as ADCs, these can have much simpler and cheaper arbitrations. The Bill also does not even seek to differentiate between the customary practices in village management between Naga and Kuki villages. It is indeed intriguing how those who proposed the Bill thought that a one-size-fit-all customary norm would prove workable everywhere in Manipur hills? The State government cannot be expected to overlook these for if there are law and order situations arising out of them, the burden would be back on it.
While nobody should have any objection to well-conceived and intended autonomy features to ensure good governance, there are certain other aspects of the uneasy entangle to be considered. When the ADCs elections were first suspended in the 1990s it was on the slogan “No 6th Schedule, No Election”. This was on the plea the ADCs under the 1971 Act was seen as ineffective as its funding was through State government and the 6th Schedule would prove more effective. This ought to have been given a serious thought and discussed, but there were objections from a section in the valley population who saw this as a first step to an ultimate dismemberment of Manipur. Regardless of whether this is tenable or not, such a response should not be difficult to understand in a State which can go into extreme agitation mode even when new districts are created.
But the State and its communities now need to go beyond the short-sightedness of the past and come to grip with the reality facing them. Let a meaningful autonomy model for its different regions be worked now based on available models such as the 6th Schedule, although the caution should be, the 6th Schedule has not always worked well. Mizoram example is relevant. However, keeping in mind all that has happened, in particular the deepening of the endemic distrust between the hill and valley, not just the hills but the valley too should now be given autonomy. The hills see themselves as being robbed of their opportunities by the valley and now, even the valley communities are beginning to feel they are being given an unfair deal as their land and jobs are open to the hills and everybody else, but they are forbidden to own land in the hills or avail of jobs in the reserved category. Demands from a section of them for the Schedule Tribe status is obviously symptomatic of this, and ignoring this anxiety can only mean more trouble in the future. We have no doubt the Meiteis need to shake themselves free of their past and face the reality of the present, but in the meantime, they too deserve some space for themselves where they can be free to be themselves for once and practice their inherited customary ways of life without worrying who they may end up displeasing.
The chequered history of the ADCs in Manipur has other intrigues. In this, the hill-valley divide and the extreme distrust between the communities living in either, has been used by both sides to further their ends. The demand for more power for the ADCs is also not spared of this game. As in the case of the Panchayat system in the valley, few or no local MLAs want a potential rival rise in his constituency, therefore are generally averse to ADCs gaining more command over developmental funds for grassroots development or legislative and judiciary powers in spheres of customary life practices. At least three Governors of Manipur who I was very close with said this. When after 20 years of no ADC elections, the first official move was made to revive them, the late Ved Maruah, who was the Governor then, told me one evening during a dinner he hosted that the first set of people to line up to meet him were hill MLAs, asking for a delay in the initiative. To bring this to effect, they have also often used means in which they can shift the blame on others. One of the strategies is to ask for something for the ADCs which are likely to be opposed by others in the valley. The 6th Schedule status demand has been the perfect instrument, and without fail, in knee-jerk responses, valley civil society bodies, still living in a past era and sporting bloated hubris about it, claiming this would amount to the ultimate dismember of the idea of Manipur, have always played the part intended for them. In the end, a hot election issue for the hills gets generated, and the masterminds are happy.
What happens if attitudes change and this equation is dropped? The valley could for instance say okay, let the hills have the autonomy they want, but as the valley is also vulnerable on many counts, including in matters of land, livelihood, cultural survival, let the valley also have its autonomy. True the valley is small forming 10 percent of the State’s land area, but this need not be a liability. Tripura’s plains are only 30 percent of the State’s area but since the State’s area is half of Manipur’s, its plains are only a third larger than Imphal valley. They have managed with the autonomy model so why would Manipur not? To take the analogy a little further, Singapore is only a quarter the size of Imphal valley and Hong Kong only half. If it is a sense of siege that the valley suffers from, this is unfounded. Assam, Nagaland etc, which surround Manipur are not part of Manipur, and if this fact has not impacted life in Manipur, how would an autonomous Manipur hills and an autonomous valley change life in the valley or hills of the State, or in the hills. Everybody will continue to be where they were, except for the subjective notion of boundaries, which are as it is somewhat redundant for the fact of all of them being within India. Both the regions can then look after themselves in ways that best suit their geniuses. If the leaderships are endowed with the necessary visions, there is no reason why either would not be able to live up to their potentials and expectations.
Returning to the valley then, let those paranoid about the valley’s smallness, also remind themselves, poor though it may be, it is resourceful. It is well irrigated and fertile. Outside of the pampered government services, it once had a healthy work culture. Professions and professional skills are varied covering every field of modern life, from motor mechanics to computer repair works. Since the idea of a State is to provide the means for the welfare of its citizens, big or small, if a State can do this, it can be considered successful. Any State anywhere is run on taxes from its citizens therefore it is also important for the citizens to be honest and willing taxpayers for the services they avail (electricity, water etc.) as well as the incomes they earn if this is in the excess of standard livelihood needs, in the belief these opportunities are made possible by the State and that making the State viable is ultimately in everybody’s interest. No government can provide direct employment to all, so it is also important to encourage entrepreneurial spirit amongst the people. If this is made a reality, we may even manage to shed the tag of being a beggar State which has been depleting the general morale of the people for all these decades. The important point is, the hills must not be compelled to live with the sense of being exploited and equally the valley must also not have to live with the accusations of being exploiters. Maybe, a mutually autonomous existence will be the way to a healthier future partnership.
I had argued from the same standpoint when the three controversial ‘Manipur Peoples’ Protection Bills’ were being contemplated, that since the hills were already protected by virtue of being ST areas, the new laws could be made applicable only in the valley districts. This would have had the same effect in the end and probably also prevented all the tragic incidents in Churachandpur. To conclude, it is time for Manipur to begin thinking of reinventing itself with an aim to accommodate present reality and not just be dictated by what is believed was the relationship between communities in its history. It is time for it to take the bull by the horns and settle its present entangled identity conclusively, unvarnished by false niceties. It is also important to remember that there is already a proposal for Manipur to be reorganised as constituting of three autonomous territorial councils, North, Central and South as part of a larger settlement for the Naga insurgency so that Nagaland remains as it is, and Nagas outside too can have a measure of autonomy, but without excluding other communities precisely by also giving them their own autonomous spaces. This arrangement probably will be somewhat the Meghalaya model, where three Autonomous Councils together constitute the State. This too deserves a more serious consideration if it is something which can end this dreadful status quo of periodic hill-valley cold war.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author