Elections to the Autonomous District Councils (ADCs) of Manipur have never been without protests from tribal bodies, since 1990, for one reason or another. This time, the All Tribal Students’ Union Manipur (ATSUM) has demanded the dissolving of incumbent ADCs and holding of elections along with the bye-elections to the Assembly constituencies.
Elections to the ADC were due in May this year, but were deferred due to the global pandemic, and now the elections are scheduled in the month of November.
However, the Chairmen of the six ADCs in a statement issued recently have sought further postponement of the elections for reasons which may be flimsy, among which is the coming of the harvest season.
Moreover, Rongmei Naga Students Organization Manipur (RNSOM) on October 24 in a press conference stated in regards to the holding of ADC elections in Tamenglong and Noney districts, that the State Government could either take the risk of increasing COVID-19 cases in the districts, or defer it for another six months because the people of the state are having a hard time on account of the Covid-19 pandemic both in the hills and valley.
Notably, pressing their demand for dissolution of the incumbent ADCs and holding of elections soon, the ATSUM had called a 48-hour National Highways Bandh, including shutdown of construction of national projects. But after negotiations with the government, the ATSUM has suspended the bandh and given the State Government 10-days’ time, counting from October 25 and it remains to be seen how this is responded to in the coming few days.
Here, it would be good for the present generation of the state to understand the genesis of ADCs, which is expected to play a critical role in democratising the tribal people and devolution of power to the grassroots, and fate of ADCs.
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.
Geographically, 90 percent of the area of Manipur is considered Hill Areas. The Government of India is committed to safeguard the well-being and interest of the Hill Tribes by assimilating the provisions in the Fifth and Sixth Schedules of the Constitution, which necessitated the declaration of “Hill Areas” in Manipur.
However, the Manipur (Hills Areas) District Council Act, 1971 was passed by the Parliament of India on 26th December 1971 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 the State Legislative Assembly by which the established ADCs are governed.
In due course, the tribal bodies of Manipur thought that the Autonomous District Councils have been rendered inept, and were failing to function as an institution of Local Self-Government, as it was meant to be.
Consequently, the Hill Areas Committee adopted a resolution on 18th July 1990 to the effect that no election to members of ADCs, Manipur will be held until and unless the provisions of Sixth Schedule were extended. Short of Sixth Schedule, the Hill people boycotted the ADC election for 21 years in Manipur.
Remarkably, the Autonomous District Councils (ADCs) in the hills which had been kept under animated suspension for 20 long years was amended in 2008 during the second term of Chief Minister Okram Ibobi and election to the District Councils was announced in 2010.
However, the United Naga Council (UNC) protested and demanded for withdrawal of the ADC Amendment Bill 2008 and sought for more powers to the ADCs. Elections conducted in May 2010 were boycotted by the Nagas. Amidst the boycott, in 70 out of the total 144 seats, Congress candidates were elected without contest and Congress won 106 seats altogether but was unable to assume office for the past 8 months, now due to threats. On grounds of perceived threat to the lives of councillors they have been shifted to Imphal from all Naga dominated districts which eventually created another gap between the local body of governance and the grass root people of the hills.
It may be mentioned that the All Naga Students Association, Manipur (ANSAM), with full support from the UNC had imposed an indefinite economic blockade along the National Highways, the only lifelines of the land-locked state of Manipur, against holding of ADC elections as well as demanding an alternative administrative arrangement for Nagas in Manipur from April 6, saying that these elections should not be held. They blocked supply of all kinds of goods, including foods and essential commodities for survival, to Imphal from outside the state for 68 days.
Consequently, as a result of the threat perception from the ANSAM, UNC and the NSCN (IM), no candidates filed nomination papers in six constituencies in the Senapati ADC, which has 24 members. The government allowed all candidates to file nomination papers in the office of the Collector in Imphal West district, for their own security.
However, after a gap of 21 years, the Autonomous District Councils have been revived and people have successfully participated in the ADC election in 2010 with faith and trust in the Government of India as well the Government of Manipur that had equivocally committed to bring development at the grass-root level in the Hill Areas of Manipur.
Further, in 2010 the Government of Manipur also made promises on several occasions to enhance and devolve adequate powers to enable the ADCs function as an institution of Local self-Government under the provision of the Manipur (Hill Areas) District Council Act 1971 and its amendment thereof.
An order had been issued by the state authority to hand over DRDAs to the ADC, stripping all financial powers of the Deputy Commissioners who are competent IAS officers. Incompetence, corrupt practices and lack of professional ethics were the main reasons for placing the ADCs under animated suspension earlier and may warrant a repetition. ATSUM’s demand to revert the order in favour of Deputy Commissioners reflects this apprehension.
The 26 enumerations under section 29(1) and third amendment Act, 2008 of the Manipur (Hill Areas) District Council Act 1971 has not been effectively transferred. Some of them are only partially transferred, and others, like primary education up to class VIII as against the provision of the Act has not been handed over at all, the tribal bodies asserted.
The tribal bodies argued that, for instance, the powers devolved to ADCs by departments like Agriculture, Horticulture, Veterinary & Animal Husbandry, Fisheries, Science and Technology, Commerce, Industry, Social Welfare, CAF & PD etc. are limited to recommendations and, that too, have not been implemented in letter and spirit. In respect of DRDA under the Ministry of Rural Development & Panchayat Raj, the devolution of powers simply reduces the powers of ADCs Chairman, who is made the Chairman of DRDA, to a mere rubber stamp.
Even after the 2010 elections amidst boycotts called by ANSAM and UNC, those declared elected had to stay put at a safe house, designated as their Guest House or quarters at Imphal. The assassination of former ADC Vice Chairman of Ukhrul district, Ngalangzar Malue at Finch Corner, on the Imphal-Ukhrul road in 2014, is another dark chapter in the history of the ADC. No reasons have been given for the assassination of the ADC leader, but it did cast a long shadow on the conduct of the ADC elections held earlier.
The 2015 election to the incumbent ADCs had witnessed kidnappings, brutalities and threats. It was reported on May 26, 2015 the Congress candidate from Ukhrul district, Ngachonmi Chamroy was allegedly abducted by NSCN (IM) while he was on the way to campaign. The same day, a Congress worker in Tamenglong district was kept under house arrest again by the NSCN (IM). Media reports added, in Taningjang, village chairman Ringtheineng was abducted by three suspected members of NSCN (IM) on May 30. BJP candidate from the Sadar Hills, M John Thangal was also abducted in Senapati district on May 29 afternoon but was released on May 31.
Now, when there is no evidence of significant protest against holding of election to the ADCs this time, it is still uncertain when the election will be held. Will the State Government satisfy the ATSUM after the 10-day countdown from October 25, or more protests brew over the elections to the ADCs which are key for democratisation and devolution of power to grass roots people of the Hills? Will the fate of ADCs remain gloomy? Will ADCs remain an institution over which the State and Non-State will have a bout of arm-twisting for power?
Senior Editor: Imphal Review of Arts and Politics