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Aftermath of the Enactment of Controversial Statutes in Manipur

Gautam Sen is a retired IDAS officer who has served in senior positions at the Centre and in a north-east State Government.
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  • September 29, 2015

    The situation in Manipur has turned volatile after the State Government headed by Ibobi Singh hurriedly enacted three Bills in the State Assembly on 31 August 2015. The Bills are:

    1. Protection of Manipur People (PMP) Bill-2015.
    2. Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reform (MLRLR) Bill-2015 (amending the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reform Act 1960). And,
    3. Manipur Shops and Establishments (MSE) Bill-2015 (amending The Manipur Shops and Establishments Act 1972).

    The processing of these Bills was done in a non-consultative manner and in clear violation of the Constitutional requirement of prior consultations with tribal representatives elected from the hill areas of the State (in accordance with the spirit of Article 371C of the Constitution) before any enactment involving the interests of tribal people. Manipur’s Governor, Syed Ahmed (since expired), who had adequate powers under the Constitution to intervene in such matters, did not seem to have exerted effective influence to promote a pre-enactment consensus.

    Protection of Manipur People (PMP) Bill-2015

    The PMP Bill states that its object is to protect and maintain socio-economic and cultural balance of the Manipuri people, maintain public order, and regulate the entry and exit of non-Manipuris to and from the State. It stipulates compulsory registration of all non-Manipuris who have been residents in the State after 1951 and who do not figure in the National Register of Citizens 1951, Census Report 1951 and Village Directory 1951. In effect, it has introduced a permit system (to be valid for six months at a time but renewable) for non-Manipuris residing in or entering the State. The PMP Bill will not, however, apply to the native people of the State i.e., the Meitis of the Imphal Valley and the hill tribes who dominate the five hill districts of Manipur, viz., Ukhrul, Tamenglong, Senapati, Chandel and Churachandpur. This Bill will also not cover officials of Central and State Governments and their entities, and those on official assignment/duty to Manipur.

    Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reform (MLRLR) Bill-2015

    The MLRLR Bill primarily aims at preventing alienation of land in the Imphal Valley from the Meitis – the indigenous people who constitute the largest segment of the population of the Valley and are its original inhabitants. The Imphal Valley (2238 sq kms) hardly constitutes 10 per cent of the area of Manipur, but is inhabited by nearly 60 per cent of the state’s population, with the majority of them being Meitis. This Bill stipulates prior State Cabinet approval after preliminary enquiry by the Deputy Commissioner concerned, in consultation with local body/local self-government, before the allotment of land to non-Manipuris as well as non-Manipuri firms and institutions.

    Manipur Shops and Establishments (MSE) Bill-2015

    The MSE Bill requires every shop and establishment owner to register all his/her employees and issue identity cards to them on a yearly basis under intimation to a designated state functionary. Its obvious aim is to monitor the overt or clandestine engagement of non-Manipuris by the State’s commercial and private establishments.

    In all probability, formal assent to these Bills by the future Governor of Manipur will not be a smooth affair. In fact, Presidential approval i.e., consent of the Government of India, has been sought by the former Governor, Syed Ahmed, for these three Bills. The Ibobi Singh Government had tried to justify these Bills as being in response to public demand, against the backdrop of a more than month-long agitation in Manipur spearheaded by the Meitis for the introduction of the `Inner Line Permit` (ILP) system to control the flow of non-Manipuris to the State.

    The ground reality is that, after accession of the princely State of Manipur to India in 1951, Imphal Valley has become the home and place of livelihood for many people from the hill region of the State. For historical reasons, the hills had remained backward relative to the Imphal Valley districts during the Maharaja`s reign. The situation has gradually improved post-1951, but the developmental hiatus between the hills and the plains of the State still remains. In this context, it is perhaps natural for the Meitis living in the plains to be concerned about demographic trends indicating many non-Meitis settling down in the Imphal Valley for a better economic future. Furthermore, many of the hills’ people presently settled in the Imphal Valley districts are reported to have brought in their kith and kin from adjoining States, to settle and own property in this area. They are indistinguishable from the original pre-1951 residents, and the presence of such people has only accentuated the concern of the Meitis.

    For obvious reasons, the hills’ people who presently reside in the Imphal Valley are unwilling to accept the phenomenon that some of their kith and kin are not pre-1951 entrants to this area. They contend that documentation of residential status in 1951 was extremely poor and census data and village records inadequate for identification of such post-1951 settlers. The segregation of the pre- and post-1951 tribal people in the Imphal Valley, and taking a clear-cut view on the `native people of the State` will therefore be a highly contentious issue with political ramifications. This problem is bound to arise, notwithstanding the text of the PMP Bill indicating that the statute will not apply to the native people of Manipur.

    The present political imbroglio in Manipur has to be analysed through the prism of likely political gains and losses for the State`s major players, in juxtaposition to the scenario prevailing in adjoining States as well as inclinations of the Central Government. Ibobi Singh is now in his third term as Chief Minister of the Meitei-dominated Congress Government of Manipur. The Chief Minister, himself a Meitei, would not like to jeopardise his standing among and hold over his own ethnic community. Pandering to the ILP issue and projecting a stance of trying to uphold the socio-economic interests of the people of the Imphal Valley can only help his objective of being in the forefront of the cause of the Meitis. Ibobi Singh is prudent enough to know that the present Central Government would not be keen to de-stabilise his Congress-controlled Government and assume direct responsibility for ruling or overseeing the State. If the three Bills do not receive the presidential concurrence or are stalled in the course of a judicial challenge, Ibobi Singh`s stature among the Meiteis will only rise as one who tried to promote their cause.

    Though territorial integration of ethnic Naga areas has been ruled out as per the basics of the framework understanding between the Central Government and the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah) faction of the Naga Underground concluded on 3 August 2015, there are some legitimate concerns among the Manipur Government and the Meitei people at large as to how the final accord will affect the Naga tribes’-dominated Manipur hill districts and the State overall. In this backdrop, trying to contrive a situation which upholds the Meitis` interests makes reasonable political logic for the incumbent Manipur State Government. Though the tribal upsurge against the Bills – particularly by the Kukis with some support from the Hmars and Zomis (all hill tribes) – in Churachandpur particularly, and to some extent in Chandel as well, is very active now, the agitation may wane after some time. The Ibobi Singh Government has been cautious not to the tinker with local land interests and regime in the Manipur hills. Customary laws and community ownership of land in the hill districts will continue to prevail. The present State Government has time on its hands because, concurrence from New Delhi may not be readily forthcoming for the recently enacted Bills and, perforce, status quo ante the passing of the draft statutes by the State Assembly, will prevail. Thus, the status of the hills` tribal settlers in the Imphal Valley is not likely to be materially affected for some time.

    Notwithstanding the above, the chasm between the people of the plains and the hills of Manipur seems to have widened. The violence witnessed in the aftermath of the passing of the Bills by the Manipur Assembly was perpetrated by some of the tribal people as a protest against their legislators not opposing the draft statutes in the Assembly. Institutionally, the Ibobi Singh Government has shown scant regard to norms and provisions of comprehensive consultation and consensus on such delicate matters as rights of the State`s citizens and their socio-economic interests, particularly land and livelihood matters. Manipur does not have a good track record of devolution of powers and resources to its district and autonomous councils – in the hill districts as well as in the plains. The latest Manipur State Finance Commission Report presented by Shri Rakesh (former Chief Secretary who chaired the Commission) a few months ago to the former State Governor, is still to be accepted, leave alone the State Government starting the process of implementation. The implication is that Manipur will continue to be afflicted by economic deprivation and inadequate empowerment of its hill tribal people, while the feeling of being trapped by the non-Meitis and constriction of livelihood opportunities for the non-tribals of the Imphal Valley will continue to simmer among the Meitis. The milieu may therefore be quite conducive for continued militancy by both the Meiti and non-Meiti militant groups, with both tactically reinforcing each other against the Government of India and the national interest, as has been evident in the past.

    Gautam Sen is a former Additional Controller General of Defence Accounts & Adviser to the Government of Nagaland, and presently Adviser to a former Chief Minister of Nagaland & sitting Member of the Lok Sabha.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India