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From hills or from valley, Manipur activists need to step out of their scripts

Sanjay Barbora | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 4:34 IST

The anger

  • Manipur saw an angry outburst last month
  • Kuki-Chin protestors think Manipur Protection of Peoples Bill is too pro-Metei
  • Several citizens have been killed by security forces

The cause

  • Hill communities want their MLAs to resign
  • NPF legislators have already put in their papers
  • Activists have called for a strike and blockade of roads to hills

The viewpoints

  • Outside commentators think the inner-line permit movement was in response to the Naga deal
  • Valley activists feel they will be marginalised
  • The hill tribes think their autonomy will be pruned

The way forward

  • There is little dialogue between the advocacy groups
  • This may be the best time for a dialogue
  • Activists can learn from the restrained reaction of students from different communities

On 31 August, 2015 angry protestors burnt down houses in Churachandpur town, the administrative centre for the district with the same name in Manipur. Many of them belonged to the Kuki-Chin group of communities.

They argued that some clauses of The Manipur Protection of Peoples Bill, 2015 that was introduced in the Legislative Assembly on 28 August were deeply problematic and would affect the lives of the non-Meitei communities in the state. Most such communities are categorised as Scheduled Tribes according to the Constitution.The Meteis live in the Imphal Valley and the non-Metei tribes in the hills surrounding the valley.

Since the violence, several citizens have been killed by security personnel in Churachandpur and Imphal, proving yet again that the governments of Manipur and India were complicit in mismanaging the protests.

The violence has continued into the second week and communities in the hills have been pressuring their representatives in the Legislative Assembly to resign. There are 20 tribal members in the 60-strong Manipur Assembly. Those from the Naga People's Front (NPF) have already resigned.

Civil society representatives have called for a civil strike, blocking roads from Imphal valley to the surrounding hill districts. The issues - the demand for an inner line permit (ILP) in the valley and the Manipur government's perceived bias towards Meteis and against the hill communities - are not new.

Who stands where

Articulate activists from all communities have raised these issues for years, but the timing of the recent incidents needs further analysis and discussion. Several theories continue to circulate around the recent violence and strikes in Manipur. These are rooted in one's location.

For instance, most commentators from outside the state see the situation as a fait accompli in Manipur's political life, where armed groups have managed to speak through civil society. They also hint that the ILP movement was a response to the 3 August framework agreement between the Government of India and the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah).

In the valley, organisations and activists pressing for ILP feel the threat of being economically marginalised by outsiders as well as the middle-class tribal communities from the hills.

Those in the hills are justifiably sensitive about attempts to whittle down their autonomy regarding land ownership, social security and politics. Besides, they argue, giving in to demands in the valley for protecting sale and purchase of land there is a Trojan horse for the Meitei demands to indigeniety.

Commentators worry about what's going on in Manipur; there is nothing new about the issues

These conditions lead commentators to despair about the goings-on in Manipur. But it is misplaced and disingenuous - the activists are not saying anything radically new, but those in other parts of the country lost interest in Manipur's problems long ago.

The concerns arise from and are fuelled by questions of colonisation and social justice. If one is to take a minimalist view of colonisation as the control of wealth producing capacities (including land) and using settlers as a means of doing so, then the ILP movement is almost like a last-gasp attempt to secure land for the marginalised natives in the valley.

On the issue of social justice, the protestors from the hills are on firm ground when they point towards the discrimination that they face in accessing developmental and welfare benefits from the state.

However, they seem to have conflated matters of social justice and colonisation in opposing the ILP demands, especially on the grounds that they serve to legitimise the Meitei demand for an indigenous status.

Let's meet midway

These problems are compounded by the fact that there is little dialogue between the articulate advocacy groups within Manipur. Many activists share more than the occasional idea with each other. Yet, when it comes to explaining state politics, they are forced to become ciphers for their respective communities.

This is tragic and the consequences will continue to impact political discourse and democracy in the state. It may sound counter-intuitive, but this is probably the best time to expand the scope for dialogue on questions of colonisation and social justice in Manipur.

The answers for a durable solution to both lie in the ability of the advocates of political change to step outside the scripts that they have had to defend.

On a personal note, as someone who teaches in a campus that has an almost equal representation of Meitei, Naga and Kuki-Chin-Mizo students, I am humbled by the restraint and maturity that they possess in their relationships with each other.

They, too, are concerned about their families back home. Still, they never hold their neighbours responsible for the situation in Manipur, choosing to be civil with one another instead. As they attempt to fashion a more nuanced and caring language for understanding Manipur, I hope those responsible for the tragic chaos in the state - the Centre and the state government - are able to listen to them.

First published: 16 September 2015, 1:48 IST
Sanjay Barbora @CatchNews

An associate professor at TISS, Guwahati, Sanjay Barbora's research interests include agrarian change, resource conflicts, media studies and human rights. He is also involved in community media and radio journalism, as well as the democratization of public spheres.