North-East: Protests unite Manipur tribals
The continuing agitation against the three Bills passed by the Assembly and the nine deaths in securitymen’s firing has brought together the tribal groups
Akshay Sharma Delhi
Like most events in the North-East, this summer’s protests against three Bills passed by the Manipur Assembly in August were mostly ignored by the national media – despite nine tribal men being killed in firing by security forces during the agitation. But the protests are more significant for the state’s future than news anchors sitting in Delhi have realised, as they appear to have united various tribal groups that are otherwise always at one another’s throats.
Manipur is inhabited by various tribes, among which the Meitei community accounts for around 60% majority of the population. These tribal communities straddle the border with Myanmar and are present in that country as well. The sudden emergence of an international border between people of the same ethnicity complicated the situation for these communities. Various insurgent groups, fighting in the name of one tribe or the other, have been active in the state. They have been fighting not just against the state, but also against one another.
But the fight against these three Bills – which the smaller tribes believe will put them further under the sway of the majority Meiteis – has resulted in a great deal of unity among the various minority tribes such as the Nagas, Kukis, Mizos and Hmars.
At Jantar Mantar in Delhi, the Manipur Tribals Forum, Delhi (MTFD), which was constituted by various organisations and groups representing these diverse tribal communities of Manipur, has placed nine symbolic coffins representing the nine dead men, whose bodies have not yet been laid to rest.
The protesters have two main demands: justice for those who were killed and revocation of the three controversial Bills that form the crux of the problem, The Protection of Manipur People Bill, The Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms (Seventh Amendment) Bill and The Manipur Shops and Establishment (Second Amendment) Bill. The concern of the tribals is that the definition of “Manipur People” in the new law is such that 80% of the tribals will be excluded from this category and will be classified as “Non-Manipur Persons”. Further, according to the protesters, these Bills empower the administration to take strong measures for implementation and since the administration is dominated by the Meiteis, the other tribes will be targetted.
This is an indication of the growing rift between the minority tribes and the Meiteis. There is a strong sentiment among the agitators that the Meiteis have historically discriminated against the tribals. They feel that the Meiteis have a stranglehold over the politics and administration of the state and these laws will further strengthen their hands.
J Maivio, Co-Convenor of MTFD, says that discrimination against the tribals is a longstanding problem and this is not the first time they have been treated so harshly by the authorities. He also argues that the security forces do not adopt the same violent methods when the Meiteis protest. Asked whether there is a danger of this conflict acquiring a communal edge due to the fact that the Meiteis are predominantly Hindu and the other tribes are predominantly Christian, Maivio said he doesn’t feel that will be the case.
Some protesters have even gone to the extent of demanding that a separate state for tribals be carved out from Manipur. Maivio, however, is wary of these demands. According to him, the protesters are not officially demanding a separate state as yet. Rather, their focus remains the controversial Bills and justice for those who lost their lives. He did, though, speak about the need for a separate administrative mechanism for the hilly regions of the state. He feels that the Hill Areas Committee (HAC) hasn’t been functioning properly.
While the resolution of this issue is crucial, it should not make us forget the larger problems plaguing the state. Lack of development and of employment have led to frustration among the youth which has resulted in violence and consumption of drugs, which are smuggled in from Myanmar. Allowing people of the same communities, living on different sides of the border, to interact more could be helpful, both culturally and economically. Interestingly, Manipur doesn’t have the problem of illegal immigration faced by some other North-Eastern states.
For a long time, the Central government has talked about turning the North-East of India into a gateway to South-East Asia, which would allow the region finally to realise its economic potential. Unless the government implements these ideas, the situation will continue to remain tense.