Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

The Bible's first murder case has been interpreted as symbolic of the endemic tussle between settled and wandering populations

What the Eviction Controversy Tells us of a Primal Friction Between Shifting Populations and the Modern State

The clashes over the Manipur Forest Department’s move to evict villages they consider to be encroachers in forest areas declared as Reserved Forests under the Indian Forest Act 1927 on the Koubru hillside is unfortunate but it would have to be admitted that this was an expected misfortune waiting to happen sometime or the other. Related official documents are unambiguous that the stretch of the hillside in contention, totalling about 85.47 sq. kms, were notified in a gazette of the Government of Manipur on May 26, 1961 that it would be made the Kanglatongbi and Kangpokpi Reserved Forest. This same notice was republished as an order in a subsequent gazette of the Government of the Manipur on July 3, 1968 after accommodating complaints made to a Settlement Officer who had been appointed for the purpose by the Manipur Forest Department on July 31, 1964, indicating this was done with prior and informed consent of the villages around the notified area. This order created the Reserved Forest with clear boundaries on three sides. The boundaries are, the Imphal-Tamenglong Road to the north, Thumkhong Lok to the south, the ridge of the Koubru ranges to the west. The eastern boundary of this Reserved Forest is a little more descriptive and complex, therefore has a measure of ambiguity, but it runs horizontally somewhere in the middle of the Koubru mountainside, leaving out its lower reaches towards the highway where there were already established villages at the time, and incorporating the then uninhabited upper half of the mountainside to form this reserved forest.

In other words, in 1968 when the KK Reserved Forest, as it came to be referred to, was created, the reserved area had no villages within it. The notice even defines the vegetation at the time within this reserved forest, as mainly consisting of “Uningthou, Uninthoumanbi, Pareng, Khal, Tairen, Chingtairen, Tera, Shahi, Kuhi, Uyung, Ushoi etc., with grassy blanks.” The order also names the then existing villages near this newly created KK Reserved Forest and none of these original villages are under scrutiny in the present controversial and emotive eviction drive although there might be some disputes along the reserved forest’s eastern boundary. On the other hand, the villages which have been served eviction notices are those which were set up within the KK Reserved Forest after 1968. Not only the older villages, but also those which came into existence after 1968 but outside this reserved forest too will not be affected, according to officials.

Regardless of these facts of the recent history of this strip of hillside, what we are faced with today is an uncomfortable situation. The government would have to find means to resettle the evicted villages, as and when this happens. One way of doing this would be find out where the population of the new villages were originally located before they moved into the KK Reserved Forest for whatever their compulsions, and make suitable arrangements and compensations to have them resettled there. It is also unfortunate that this eviction drive is being made to look like only the Kuki community is being targeted. While in the present drive, the affected villages are predominantly those of the Kukis, we have seen similar drives elsewhere in the past few years where the affected encroachers into other Reserved Forests areas or government khas lands were from other communities as well. This of course does not make the present misfortune any less, but at least it must not be seen from the wrong and sinister perspective for it can cause even more harm in the long run.

It is not difficult to surmise that the tendencies of Kuki villages to proliferate has largely to do the community’s customary land holding tradition. Unlike in Naga villages where the village communities jointly own all village land and resources, in most Kuki villages, the chief is the sole owner of the village and its resources. This is predicted to have a peculiar consequence. If a Kuki chief has more than one male children, there will likely be a sibling rivalry for inheritance of chiefship in the next generation, or else one sibling would keep the chiefship of the original village and the other siblings would migrate out to establish new villages of their own. Unlike this, Naga villages grow in size after every generation and if population pressure does make establishment of another village necessary, it would be more of an extension of the original village bearing the same name with an adjectival suffix, and the new village would also be located within the extended territory of the original village. As a pattern then, Naga villages are large, generally 200 houses or more and sometimes even exceeding 1000 houses, and Kuki villages are small, often a dozen houses or less, although there are also larger villages.

This being so, it is time for all to seriously discuss whether it is not time yet to overhaul by consensus the land holding patterns amongst all communities, designed not to homogenise but to eliminate the redundant and oppressive in the customary ways. It is also time to abandon the attitude that anything customary is sacred and untouchable, for often customary practices can also be extremely bigoted. Maybe once upon a time these practices served a purpose, but in the changed contexts invariably brought by time, they can and have often become out of place. This does not have to be about land holding practices alone, but also can be as much about gender empowerment, child marriage or slavery etc. This is also why when the United Nations Declaration of Rights of the Indigenous Peoples, UNDRIP, was being drafted, a principle baseline adopted in bringing in features from customary laws of different indigenous communities into it was that of Jus Cogen or Peremptory Norms, which say regardless of custom or national consensus on any legal matter, certain principles of justice must be treated as inviolable. Hence if a customary practice allows headhunting, Jus Cogen will still treat this as untenable and illegal. If at all a land reform gets to be introduced in the hills of Manipur, it should not have to be absorption of the hills into the existing Manipur Land Revenue & Land Reforms Act 1960, but definitely something which can address the problems and hurdles that customary practices are posing in the integration of the hills into the modern economy to receive its benefits to the full. One of the issues that need to be considered, as I have mentioned earlier, is the land ownership and common villagers among Kuki tribes.

One fundamental presumption of a modern state is that its population are enumerable and settled so that administrative policies can be gauged accurately. A stable and settled population is also all the more important for a democracy which entails election of leaders from different constituencies by their populations. A constantly mobile population cannot possibly conform to these needs, and in a way the present unfortunate issue of encroachment and the clash between the state administration and a section of its population has also to do with this. Let it be recalled that if we are witnessing a clash of this nature even now amidst us, this friction is also very ancient and primal. Scholars now tell us it is as old as the time humans learned to domesticate food yielding plants to initiate the agrarian economy. Farmers necessarily have to remain fixed at one place not only because they cannot carry around their farms but more so because they have to constantly tend to their crops, tilling, weeding, planting, transplanting, more weeding, sowing, harvesting, husking etc. In fact, as Yuval Noah Harari in half jest says in his bestselling Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, this was not so much about human domesticating crops, but more about crops domesticating humans, and that the wanderer’s life the farmer left behind was far more rewarding. The sacrifice of the farmer however is for the priceless reward of food security. Indeed, before this, humans were all wanderers, hunting and gathering foods, always on the move in search of food abundance. The truth also is, modern human civilisation was built on the foundation of the security that the agricultural revolution brought, and this should explain why the norms of the modern state lean towards settled and enumerable populations as citizens.

Another author, Anthony Sattin in his recent book Nomads: The Wanderers Who Shaped Our World has also dealt very interestingly with this friction between settled and wandering populations after the advent of agriculture, taking cues from scholars who interpret Biblical episodes, especially from the Old Testament, as important symbols of paradigm shifts humans have gone through in their passage to the modern era. The story of Cain and Abel the two sons of the first humans, Adam and Eve, is one such. Of the two brothers, Cain is a tiller of soil, therefore a settled farmer, and Abel a herder of sheep, therefore a wanderer always in search of greener pastures for his flock. Obviously, from the very start, human progress was never linear, so while some took to agriculture, others remained wanderers as humans originally were. When Cain and Abel made offerings to God, Abel’s offering was preferred. Obviously, the Christian God’s original intent was to have humans as innocent and unsophisticated wanders, not economically independent farmers. Cain is left jealous and commits the Christian world’s first murder and kills Abel. God is infuriated and punishes Cain by making the soil Cain tills infertile, forcing the wanderer’s life on him. This is ironic, for if the wanderer’s life was God’s preference, as indicated by His acceptance of Abel’s offering not Cains, then forcing the wanderer’s life on Cain should not have been a punishment but a reward.

The irony reverses in the case of the punishment meted out to Cain’s and Abel’s parents – Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve, humankind’s original parents lived in Eden where everything was taken care of. It is imaginable how the two would have roamed around the beautiful garden enjoying its bounties day after day, month after month, year after year, encountering no one else but an occasional Angel in white robe to wish, with no problems to worry about or have the need for innovations in their lives. God meant this to be the human condition for an eternity. Few will however dispute that it would not have taken long (not to talk of eternity) before a modern man becomes burdened with boredom in such a situation and therefore would have in all likelihood wanted to leave this paradise sometime or the other. Remember George Mallory’s words. He, together with his younger climbing mate Andrew Irvine, were supposed to have summited Mt. Everest in 1924 long before Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing did in 1953, but both died on the way back. Answering a pressman’s question before the expedition as to why he wanted to do what was then thought extremely dangerous, his timeless answer was: “Because it is there”. Eve probably was closer to this modern temperament and decided to eat the forbidden fruit of knowledge to become an autonomous self. She also induced Adam to follow suit. They were punished, but in their case not by being forced to be wanders as in the case of Cain, but being thrown out of their cocooned existence in Eden as carefree wanderers, to use their own discretion to fend for themselves. If the two original parents represented the human predicament, then it is human descendants from them sharing their temperament, who searched for stability and food security, and gave humankind the agricultural revolution as relief. The rest, as they say, is history, and modern humans are where they are today.

This brief digression into the abstract was just meant to reinforce the point that the problems we face in regards to our conflicting ideas of relation to land is an ancient destiny, and the lesson we have to learn is that humans have always worked to change this destiny in accordance to their unavoidable changing needs brought by time, and this should continue. Failing to do so can only leave us behind in the race for progress, and ultimately, survival. Let us then put our minds together, dismantle the impervious walls that keep hindering integration to the modern economy, but do so in ways that are equitable and just to all. For now, let the government think of resettlement and compensation of those likely to be dispossessed, even if the evicted villages were not meant to be where they came to be. After all, once the then uninhabited Koubru hillside in question was declared Reserved Forest as per protocol established by relevant law, it should have been guarded to ensure there are no encroachments. If this was done, the trauma caused now would not have arisen at all.

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