Understanding Manipur: The Hill-Valley divide
Shirui Hills, Manipur Credit: Representational image

A few years ago, in the backdrop of the controversial MLR & LR Bill, 2015, which resulted in the killing of nine tribals by the state in protest against the Bill, a tribal scholar wrote that “post-colonial” Manipur was turning out to be more repressive than the “British colonial rule for Hill Tribes”. This claim, in many forms, rhymes voraciously with the experiences of Hill Tribes in Manipur over the last 50 years and more.

The ongoing scene of the political imbroglio, the brutality of the state towards activists, student leaders and protestors from the tribal communities, and the subtle Machiavellian subversion of tribals’ assertion of Constitutional Rights i.e. ADC Bill 2021, appear quite analogous to the typical, but mutated, colonial ‘divide and rule policy’ of suppressing the subjects in their heydays.

It is even more shocking perhaps to witness sections of the dominant community, like Meitei Leepun, conveniently enabling the repressive action of the state and maligning the image of the aspirations of tribal communities. It might be correct, categorically, in condemning the methods of organising blockade by the students’ organisations from the Hills. However, the absence of condemnation from the said organisation towards the state’s hesitancy to introduce the Bill on the floor of the House exposes the intent of the organisation. In a parallel just world, the activist organisation would have spoken the truth to power for the marginalised sections. Such a chauvinistic stance simply invites polarizing politics at the centre stage in a highly (ethnically) sensitive yet staple-governance aspiring state like Manipur.

When the first draft ADC Bill was placed before the government in 2021 to introduce in the assembly spearheaded by ATSUM, ANSAM, and KSO, the state government entered into an agreement to introduce the draft Bill in the winter assembly through the mandate of Hill Areas Committee (HAC). Yet, the Bill was pushed to the back burner and the state failed to fulfil the agreement reached with the tribal bodies. ATSUM reiterated the demand in August 2022 to place the Draft Bill in the Summer Session with an ultimatum to launch an indefinite economic blockade if the state failed to do so.

Also Read | The Hill-Valley conundrum around the Manipur Autonomous District Bill

However, tribal student leaders were instead arrested on the pretext of disrupting the summer session before the agitation began. Time and again, HAC, with all its Constitutional might, remained acquiescent in obedience and command of the state government (appeasement politics) having its chairman from the ruling party (BJP) of the state. In fact, this structural indisposition of the HAC is one key reason why it necessitates the Bill to be tabled for the tribes to exercise their agency in accordance with the Constitution, not within the crafts of the valley-centred state government.

In a nutshell, the ADC Bill 2021 intends to empower the Hill Areas Committee (HAC), and grant more autonomy in legislation, finance and administrative division to the six existing Autonomous District Councils in the Hill Areas keeping intact article 371C provision of the Constitution. In the past decades, several efforts and agitation had been launched by the Hill Communities to secure their constitutional rights to governance. On several occasions, the central government has taken cognizance of the plight faced by the Manipur tribals by constituting various Committees, with recommendations favouring the Constitutional Rights and mandate of the HAC.

However, state-induced distress of the tribals has never been brought to the light of democratic justice so far. The Hill Communities have been alleging the nature of Manipur state to be conducted around the political tune of ethnic majoritarianism. Some of the indications around these allegations are quite explicit, including the deliberate denial of the Sixth Schedule to the tribals, non-devolution of legislative and financial power to the existing Hill District Councils, and so forth. The tribals, under the aegis of the Sixth Schedule Demand Committee Manipur (SSDCM), along with the Hill Areas Committee under 371C, pressured the State Cabinet and thus recommended the implementation of the Sixth Schedule three times in 1991, 1992, and 2001. However, it became a far cry on the Assembly floor to surpass the numeric dominance of the valley representatives.

Also Read | Manipur ADC Bill: 11 tribal student leaders arrested in Tamenglong

On the other hand, the existing Autonomous District Council in the Hill areas “merely functions at the mercy of the state government” – in the words of former ADC Chairman, Ukhrul – structurally devoid of legislative and financial power, and thus deprived of several development requirements in the Hill areas. In the recent run, a call for fair and equitable representation of the Hill areas and the Valley in the state assembly was initiated through the delimitation process as duly recommended by the Election Commission in 2008 and 2020. Again, the Valley dwellers disallowed the move to happen in recourse to delay tactics alleging “unnatural population growth”. However, the allegation appears to be flawed in the sight of a memorandum submitted by the ATSUM, ANSAM & KSO. A comparative analysis of the 2001 and 2011 censuses also proved otherwise.

The Bill fundamentally intends to attend to the long overdue ‘denial of justice’ – a response to the democratic injustice that has crippled the Hill Communities for decades. It is/will be a misnomer to assess the current political situation through communal optics. Doing so through a reductionist prism only negates and diverts the long-mistreated issue from the process of engaging in democratic justice. It allows the state to resort to mere management of conflicts, thereby detracting from the issue raised in the process. Unfortunately, over the years, one could see the recurrent conduct of the Manipur state manoeuvring through such schematic approaches, and thus far, the state has been successful in creating a vicious circle of communal spewing of hatred toward each other, where the Hill Communities periodically assert their aspirations through different forms of agitations, and the Valley connivingly twist the narratives to malign the cause. Repudiating people’s Bill (Hill areas account for 43% of state population according to the 2011 census) even to the extent of refuting the Bill to introduce and discuss in the house of the people speaks volumes of denial of seeing the Hill Communities as equals, let alone the absence. Democratic justice for Hill tribes or the rallying chorus of the Valley people – Ching tam Amani (meaning Hill and Valley people are one) – appears to remain a far cry in Manipur unless the state takes cognizance of the unequal power relationships between hills and valley, and the existing disparities across socio-economic and development parameters.

At the heart of ADC Bill 2021 is the long-neglected angst of tribals being left deprived of basic healthcare, education, livelihood opportunities, and several other social and infrastructural developments indispensable for the Hill Areas to grow and live a dignified life or as equal fellows with the Valley people. The Bill, perhaps aptly, characterizes the Hill Areas version of “Go to Hills” in spirit. Several substantial reports and empirical studies have been produced, discoursed and debated by scholars, politicians, and policymakers around the development distress and inequities, supported by several Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by legal experts with respect to socio-infrastructural poverty and challenges faced by the Hill tribes on numerous occasions. Given this context, the proposed Bill, with all its limitations, aims to address the issues of inequities, development disparities and modes of ‘institutional exclusion’ faced by the marginalized Hill Communities in the state.

As observed by several leaders and intellectuals, it is a shame to witness a political situation demanding autonomy and democratic governance even after 75 years of India’s Independence. The Bill is a response to the social and political anxieties to a long overdue question of democratic justice denied to Hill Communities in the state. Hill Communities, or the proposed Bill for that matter, expect a certain degree of respect and recognition from the neighbouring Valley communities towards envisaging inter-community dialogue, fraternity and peaceful co-existence in the state.

Somingam PS is a research scholar at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. Views are personal.

Also Read | Manipur: ATSUM reaffirms stand on ADC Bill after lifting blockade

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