Guest Post by AJITA BANERJIE
As the country prepares itself in all the glory to celebrate Republic Day, nine bodies remain unburied in Churachandpur. With what started as a local strife between the protesting tribals and the police, the struggle is now for a graver concern – land, rights and identity.
On 31st August 2015, several young people from the tribal communities in Churachandpur took to the streets protesting against the three controversial bills. The Protection of Manipur People Bill, 2015, the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms (Seventh Amendment) Bill, 2015, and the Manipur Shops and Establishments (Second Amendment) Bill, 2015, were passed unanimously by the Manipur Assembly and were a response to the earlier demand of introducing the Inner Line Permit. The protest turned violent and in the clash, nine young civilians were killed by brutal police force. Out of the nine, the youngest to have lost his life was an eleven year old boy who was shot dead by the police. What seemed like collateral damage in a political strife, became a symbol of revolution for the hill tribes. To stage their protest, the families of the 9 martyrs have refused to bury the bodies until the government takes cognizance of their demands to withdraw the three bills that threaten the very basic rights of the tribals and makes them refugees in their own land.
“Manipur has witnessed many violent clashes and protests but it is only during tribal protests that live bullets are used”, said Romeo Hmar, convener of the Manipur Tribal Forum Delhi. “Earlier when the valley people were protesting for Inner Line Permit (ILP) and the protest became violent, the police used rubber bullets. In fact, these bills are also in tandem with the ILP politics and hence an appeasement policy for the non-tribals.”
According to the tribal community, there has, historically, been unrest between the hill tribes and the non-tribal Meitiei population. Meiteis dominate the administration and economics of Manipur occupying 40 seats in the Assembly. Tribal population claims that funds from the central government for development of Manipur region is siphoned by the valley admiration leaving the hills underdeveloped and inaccessible. One of the major contentions of the tribals regarding The Protection of Manipur People Bill, 2015 is that it defines the “Manipur People” in Clause (b) of Section 2 of the Bill as those whose names (and their descendants) are in:
- National Register of Citizens, 1951
- Census Report 1951
- Village Directory of 1951
And their descendants who have contributed collective social, cultural, and economic life of Manipur.
Photo credit: Ajita Banerjie
In 1951, most of the hill areas were not accessible by road and the situation is the same even today. By making the three antique and outdated registers as a yardstick and making 1951 as the cut-off year will drastically exclude 80% of the tribal people from the purview of the Clause (b) of Section 2 and place them under Clause (c) as Non-Manipur person. The ambiguous and subjective nature of definition of “Manipuri people” and the issue of ‘contribution by the descendants’ is such that the same can be interpreted in all sorts of diverse ways. This assertion legitimizes the concern of the tribal population that it is a strategic political ploy of the Manipur government to gain access over tribal land. The apprehension is that the Bill is indicative of the deliberate intention of the State Government for exclusion of large population of tribal people as Non-Manipur persons. Section 9 of the Bill states that ‘no suit, prosecution or other legal proceedings shall lie against any officer of the State Government for anything which is in good faith done or intended to be done under this Act’. The extreme powers and immunity from prosecution accorded to officers under this section is dangerous and reeks of malice. The Officers, who will invariably be from the dominant Meitei community, are bound to use this impunity against the tribals.
In 1972, V.V. Giri had constituted the Hill Action Committee which would have to be consulted for passing any bills or taking action that involved the hill tribes of Manipur. The HAC in this case has been convinced by the majoritarian non-tribal government authorities of its non-malicious nature when in reality it challenges the very fundamental rights of the tribal population.
In order to seek justice and invoke the Central Government to intervene in the issue, tribal youth in huge numbers have come together to form the Manipur Tribal Forum in Delhi. The convener Romeo Hmar and co-convener J. Maivio have gathered support from all the tribal communities of Manipur residing in Delhi and have been carrying out a sit-in protest at Jantar Mantar since 4th November 2015. On the 100th day of the death of the 9 men, the MTFD organised a peaceful protest where they carried makeshift coffins and marched on the Parliament Street, to make visible the plight of their families back home, who are awaiting a respectful burial of their sons.
Photo credit: Ajita Banerjie
This Republic Day marks the 148th day since the death of the 9 men. The MTFD demands the Central Government to invoke Article 371C of the constitution and intervene to prevent the passing of the bills. The provision reads as:
- Notwithstanding anything in this Constitution, 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 Governor shall annually, or whenever so required by the President, make a report to the President regarding the administration of the Hill Areas in the State of Manipur and the executive power of the Union shall extend to the giving of directions to the State as to the administration of the said areas Explanation In this article, the expression Hill Areas means such areas as the President may, by order, declare to be Hill Areas.
The government so far has been complacent to the issue and has not come out in support of the Manipur tribals.
“Republic day celebrates the day India gave to itself the constitution. Tribals are also supposedly a part of the same republic that hold the constitution in high regard. This is what we are demanding on Republic Day from the government. We want them to invoke Article 371C and respect the constitution. If they do not uphold the constitution then they shouldn’t be celebrating the Republic Day with so much gusto either. Whose nation and whose republic is it, if not the peoples’?” said Romeo Hmar.
The tribal people of Manipur, stand united, for almost 150 days now, asking the government this Republic day if their political interests in Manipur have become larger than the constitution and whether their political gimmick is worth 9 young lives who dies to uphold democracy for their people. They demand the withdrawal of the 3 bills that have led to the burning of their homes and they demand to be under the 6th schedule of the constitution.
It is for the first time that all the tribes from Manipur – the nagas, kukis, paitis, hmars have come together in solidarity to seek justice and remind the government the true essence of a democratic republic.
It is a cold winter evening in Delhi and the protestors are observing a minute’s silence for their martyrs. It is in that silence that that Ambedkar’s words come to mind, “If I find the constitution being misused, I shall be the first to burn it.”
Happy Republic Day.
This article first appeared in kafila.org