How Manipur's immigrant hunt is violating fundamental rights of indigenous people
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On February 15, 2023, the Deputy Commissioner of Churachandpur District, Manipur, ordered the launch of a verification drive to identify ‘illegal immigrants’ in several villages under the Churachandpur and Mualnuam sub-divisions in south Manipur.

The verification drives are meant to be held from February 27 to March 17, 2023. The DC’s office further stated that respective village chiefs/village authorities were informed to ensure the attendance of all residents to procure their biometrics.

This order comes in light of the recent heightened and passionate ‘immigrant hunts’ made by Manipur since the military coup in Myanmar in February 2021.

In the past two years since the coup, Manipur, which shares borders with Myanmar’s Sagaing divisions and Chin state, has been actively blocking the entry of war-torn refugees from the neighbouring country.

The paradox of this ‘hunting’ of refugees is highlighted in the efforts made by Manipur’s neighbouring state, Mizoram, which has taken an active role in the aid and settlement of refugees despite the central government’s recommendations not to let them in.

Such a move not only insults the trans-border communities who have had a history of cross-border movements, but also the democratic fabric of the Indian State.

The notice issued by the Sub-divisional Officer, Churachandpur District, Manipur, regarding the verification drive to identify illegal immigrants is alarming and raises concerns about the right to privacy. The Zo ethnic community, consisting of Kuki, Zomi, Chin, and Mizo groups, form not only the largest minority group within Manipur but is also a largely transborder community with kinship relations that traverse international borders.

The paradox from the state’s point of view (and the average non-involved person’s) is that these communities let in members of their communities and help them attain Aadhar cards and other such documents within Manipur, which in turn affects its voting populations. Plausible as it is, there has not been a single study to officially release the number of such ‘illegal immigrant populations’ within the voting populace of Manipur.

In its landmark decision in Justice K.S. Puttaswamy (Retd.) v. Union of India, the Supreme Court of India declared that the right to privacy is a fundamental right. According to the ruling, the right to bodily integrity, informational privacy, and control over the disclosure of personal information are all included in the definition of privacy as a fundamental right guaranteed by the Indian Constitution.

In light of this ruling, the Churachandpur District Sub-divisional Officer’s notice infringed on the right to privacy.

According to the notice, all villagers must have their biometrics entered or taken. This means that people will have their fingerprints and facial recognition data collected without their knowledge or consent, violating the right to bodily integrity and informational privacy.

Moreover, the notice does not mention why or how they plan to use the biometric data. The potential for misuse or unauthorized access to personal information is raised by the ambiguity surrounding the purpose of data collection.

A key component of privacy is limiting how personal information is used, and any personal data collection must have the explicit, informed consent of the people involved.

Any collection of personal information must be done with the express, informed consent of the individuals concerned and be done for a specific goal.

The requirement to collect biometric information from all villagers without their consent and the lack of clarity regarding the purpose of data collection are reasons for concern.

Such a manner of handling this issue of ‘illegal immigrants’ by Manipur is shocking because it flatly denies the complex history of its varied indigenous peoples.

The problem, however, does not lie within such a simplistic perspective of people reduced to demographic figures and numbers. The crux of the issue lies in the fact that present-day international boundaries cut across the ancestral lands of the indigenous Zo people, owing to the particular history of colonial and post-colonial state-making projects in the region.

This state-making project often invisibilises the indigenous people’s primary kinship relations and networks in the everyday State and social functioning. This takes place often to such an extent that it is not a surprise to hear family members of the same community refer to each other as ‘India-mi’ and ‘Burma-mi’ (People of India and People of Burma) while attending the same family get-together and conversing in the same language.

When the coup took place in Myanmar in February 2021, many of the ethnic Zo people in the Chin state and Sagaing divisions in western Myanmar were displaced in waves as protest and resistance movements against the military led to the burning and bombing of entire towns and villages, and the displacement of many thousands from their homes.

The bulk of the displaced people was forced to seek shelter in the neighbouring kin villages ‘across the border,’ many had escaped to the jungles around their village and town areas before being able to move towards safer grounds.

The response of Manipur to this humanitarian crisis has been ambiguously hostile to the refugees seeking shelter, with recorded instances where refugees have been arrested, detained, and sent back over the past two years.

Such actions by the state come in the backdrop of pressure from interest groups like the Coordination Committee for Manipur Integration (COCOMI).

Khuraijam Athouba, an executive member of the COCOMI, stated that Manipur has been “witnessing an overwhelming population influx from Myanmar, and they already have settlements here. They are taking over land in the hills. This illegal immigration is a serious threat to the future of the people of Manipur, both culturally and economically.”

Such views are instrumentalised by the state, often creating animosity between communities while also alienating the ethnic community concerned within the State.

In Mizoram, the state has acknowledged the ancestral ties and kin relations between the Chin and Mizo groups as belonging to the same community. As such, the provision of aid and settlement was taken over by many of the CSOs and NGOs who acknowledged the refugees as kin members pushed out of their villages and towns.

The ‘refugee problem’ is not just a humanitarian one in which help is provided to ‘refugees’ of a different land and belonging to different people. Rather, it is presented by the fact that the vast majority of refugees along the border belong to the same ethnic community as those in the hill districts, bound not just by humanitarian reasons but by a kindred spirit.

In Manipur, the hill people are supposedly administered under a separate Hill Areas Committee that forms the apex body of administration for the several Autonomous District Councils in the hills areas. However, it is only limited to a ‘supposed’ autonomy of the hill districts as all financial and regulative flows are centrally held in the valley, reducing the hills’ autonomy to a terminological ‘supposition’ that decorates the words of the State’s constitution.

Conversely, the central government has acknowledged the transborder communities’ historical connections, whose lifeworlds have consistently traversed state boundaries. However, this has yet to translate into an active safeguard for the border communities that are helping their own kin despite a lack of state assistance.

As can be expected, there are contradictions between indigenous ways of seeing land and kinship obligation and the state’s objectification and verification of the refugees. It is not impossible to, however, maintain a democratic balance as in the case of Mizoram, where local CSOs maintain proper records of the refugees that have found their way to safety across the border, allowing a regulated estimation of the ‘refugee problem.’ Such actions are not without problems, as these borders have also been historically the sites of arms and drug smuggling. However, issues such as these are not novel to the state or the host societies.

The continuous ‘immigrant hunting’ of the state, however, hides a rather majoritarian attitude towards the ethnic minorities within the state by associating ‘refugees’ with ‘immigrants’ and proposing actions to the extent of ordering a biometric attendance of villages that lie inside Manipur.

This in itself is a blatant attack on Manipur’s democratic fabric while dehumanising the ethnic communities that live in the hill districts. This is extremely worrying, especially in the context of the hill districts’ constitutional autonomy (even if only on paper). Such refugees are not coming to the state to ‘take over lands’ and cannot pose a threat to the cultural fabric of the state when they are being assisted by their kin of the same culture within the territorial limits of their autonomous districts and raising funds via humanitarian organisations and public fundraising.

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In such a scenario, the hostile attitude of the state not only infringes on the privacy rights of its own citizens but also alienates its ethnic minorities, who, by all practical measures, do not vote in the valley areas. Since taking office in 2017, the BJP government has been known for bridging the Hill-Valley divide in terms of development and infrastructure disparities.

Simultaneously, there is an even greater need for mutual recognition and acknowledgement of the hill tribes’ sentiments and desires to effect an impactful venture towards reconciliation and cooperation in the state, as indigenous hill tribes continue to be the grassroots stakeholders in India’s mission to dominate South Asian trade and commerce, in which Manipur plays a vital role.

Serving the needs of the hill tribes is essential for a state as diverse as Manipur. To rebuild trust and respect between the state and its hill tribes, the state must prioritise their opinions. To overcome the long-standing divides between the valley and the hills, which have characterised the state’s current political disposition, the state must demonstrate itself through the effective implementation of constitutional and policy efforts.

Also Read | Manipur: 28 detained Myanmar refugees moved to Imphal jail

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