In the twenty-second year of the Republic of India, outside the framework of the Sixth Schedule provisions, the Parliament adopted a sui generis legislation for the Constitution of the district council in the Hill Areas of Manipur. It passed the Manipur (Hill Areas) District Councils Bill, 1971. The Manipur District Council was an institutional innovation affecting the decentralisation power of the state government devolved under the Parliamentary Act, which the state adopted through the Manipur (Adaptation of Laws) Order, 1972.
Since its inception, the power struggle among the tribals and non-tribals from the lowest to the highest has been a never-ending quest. The then prominent leader of Tripura, Dasaratha Deb, had foreseen this struggle, and he had vehemently suggested a better provision during the Bill discussion in the Lok Sabha in 1971. He argued: “The present bill has a very limited scope of functioning… this council remains a helpless child who has to look to the good grace of the administration in carrying out even a petty development work for the tribal belt of Manipur.”
However, his suggestion was out rightly opposed by Parliamentarian N Tombi Singh, echoing the valley’s voice by stating “there is no limit to love for autonomy, to the love for liberty. Once it is given, it is ever-growing.“
In the quest of the power struggle among the elites, the Act has been amended from time to time by the state. The Manipur (Hill Areas) District Council Act, 1971, has six amendments to the Act, while the seventh Amendment is still a subject for consideration. The First Amendment was done in 1975, the second Amendment in 2006, the third Amendment in 2008, the fourth (Amendment Act, 2017), and the fifth(Amendment Act, 2018), both assented by the Governor in 2018, and the sixth Amendment in 2022 which was controversially passed as a Money Bill for want of power legitimation of new districts. It must be noted that the Money Bills are not referred to the HAC for consideration and modifications. Though there are six standing amendments to the principal Act, the Amendment has only created a rift between the Hill and valley without serving the needs of the hill tribes.
In 2021, the Hill Areas Committee adopted the Autonomous District Council Bill 2021, which was planned to be tabled at the monsoon session through the state cabinet in 2021. This Bill aims to provide more autonomy to the tribals. Though this Bill has not been introduced to date, the Bill has the potential to entirely change the local or decentralised government into a centralised form of governance. The Bill will empower the HAC, composed of the state’s elected legislative members; thus, the District Councillor will function at the mercy of the HAC.
As per the tenth schedule of the Constitution of India, a state legislative representative constituting the HAC is subject to be disqualified on the grounds of defection if he or she votes or abstains from voting in such House contrary to any direction issued by the political party to which he belongs. The effective and active involvement of the HAC, as in the proposed Bill, can dilute the autonomy of the District Council instead of decentralising its power from the State. A case in point, under Section 47, the parent Act of 1971, the District Council can be superseded by the administrator on the Deputy Commissioner’s report. In the HAC recommended Bill 2021, under Section 47, the HAC has the power to supersede the District Council on the account given by the Chief Executive Officer. The present Chairman of the HAC, for instance, is an elected member from the ruling party who is expected to speak in line with the party directive. Consequently, the supersession of the District Council can come at the convenience of the ruling party.
Unless an amendment is introduced to Article 371 C by inserting an immunity clause that the committee member will not be subjected to the purview of the tenth schedule of the Constitution, the HAC will constantly be subjected to the ruling party in negotiating its legitimacy. In its quest to retain its power and legitimacy, the HAC’s aim to centralise the District Council by inserting themselves as a module will only make the local government fodder for the state at the expense of the Hill. The function of the HAC is to ensure that the functioning of the District Council is not unduly interfered with by the State Government, as stated by KC Pant on 8 December 1971, during the Lok Sabha winter session.
The proposed Autonomous District Council Bill 2021 is a mere repetition of its parent Act, 1971. Notwithstanding minimal changes and applaudable novel additions introduced in the proposed Bill, the Bill disregards the grassroots autonomy of the District Council. A plain reading of the Bill only shows certain modifications and edification that have been inserted and deleted. The proposed Bill is a glass of old wine in a new bottle. The shallowness and emptiness of the power structure is yet another enticing feature of how Hill’s interest is neglected in the state. The Bill can further be refined by considering the socio-economic and political conditions of the state.
In Lt Governor DR Kohili’s letter to MG Pimputkar, Special Secretary to the Government of India, Ministry of Home Affairs, on 21 November 1971 (read with 1971 Bill), he instructed the secretary to amend the draft notification (for declaring Hill Areas) by including tribal villages within Jiribam sub-division to be included in the Hill District. This letter has enunciated the scheme’s purposes, i.e., to safeguard the interest of the hill tribals. However, under Section 4(2) of the HAC proposed Bill 2021, without considering the core idea of tribal protection, the provision introduces ¼ reservation of seats for socio-economically backward areas and need-based special geographical areas without appropriately limiting it to hill tribals. The ambiguous nature of the provision will only be subjected to superfluous interpretation, which can be interpreted as a reservation that will encompass the non-tribal population within the autonomous district.
From time to time, the Hill Areas have been demanding greater autonomy along the lines of the Sixth Schedule to the Constitution to safeguard against the economic domination of the valley. The opinion in the valley is not opposed to a certain measure of autonomy being given to these areas but opposed to the extension of the sixth schedule to the Hill Areas. The demand made by the Hill Areas Committee (HAC) in 1974, 1978, 1983, 1990, 2002, 2003 and the Manipur Cabinet meeting resolution in 1991,1992 and 2001 for the extension of the Sixth Schedule provision is a testament to the want for better local governance. On 13-05-1991 under the Chief Ministership of R.K. Ranbir Singh and 17-04-2001 under the Chief Ministership of Radhabinod Koijam Singh entailed a rider clause, “Subject to certain local adjustments and amendments”. Though this rider clause has been suggested to be deleted/withdrawn by HAC under the Chairmanship of Songchinkhup in 2002 and the Memorandum Submitted by TN Haokip as a speaker to the state, the matters have been kept in abeyance resulting in the continuous power struggle, albeit in favour of the valley.
Pressure to amend the Act has been met with turbulence and agitation. The Hill Areas remain neglected. The views and positions of each tribal group in the state differ; after 50 years, the Manipur (Hill Areas) District Councils Bill has not brought about much change in the Hill Areas for various reasons. Political talks with Hill-based arm groups purview contrasting anecdotes; after all these years of planting the seeds, no fruit of political success has been plucked. As a result, the main question is whether the ADC Bill will satisfy the Hill people’s political aspirations for autonomy.
Author bio: Sangmuan Hangsing is a researcher with Footnotes, a research collective based in Manipur. Mung Neihsial is a Doctoral Research Scholar at the Department of Law, North Eastern Hill University, Shillong.
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