Manipur tribals are at crossroads: Is there a way out?
Manipur tribals protesting

Barely two months have passed since we welcomed 2023, but it has already been a catastrophic year for the tribals in Manipur. While the rest of the country’s attention has been diverted to the Russia-Ukraine war, the Adani case, and so on, the tribals of Manipur have been experiencing a systematic crippling of their safeguards by the state, causing much uncertainty for the months ahead.

On February 20, the village of K. Songjang in Churachandpur was notified of eviction, blamed for being built along the Churachandpur-Khoupum Protected Forest stretch. The village was discovered illegal not by the eye of the law but by the so-called Google Maps, which showed very few two or three-story houses in the region built before 2021. According to the government, the majority of houses, numbering about 13/14 structures, were mapped out to have been built after 2021. They were thus declared illegal and bulldozed to destruction with a prior legal procedure being served to the village Chief. Another Show-Cause notice has been issued for Kungpinaosen, Kangvai sub-division, Churachandpur district, Manipur. The notice has directed the villagers to vacate it for the same reason as that of K. Songpijang.

On February 15, 2023, the Deputy Commissioner of Churachandpur District, Manipur, ordered 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 Manipur’s recent heightened and passionate ‘immigrant hunts’ since the military coup in Myanmar in February 2021. 

Such a move not only insults the trans-border communities for whom such cross-border movements form a part of their lifeworlds, 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 war-torn refugees as ‘illegal immigrants’ is alarming and raises concerns about the right to privacy.

According to the notice, all villagers have been required to get their biometrics entered or taken. The ongoing verification drives collect people’s fingerprints and facial recognition data without their informed knowledge or consent, violating the right to bodily integrity and informational privacy. 

Indigenous response: Cry of dissent and state response

These developments by the state on the indigenous people of the hill districts are part of the ongoing intrusions made by the state government following the construction of statues of Meitei Kings in key trading areas like Behiang and Moreh in the hill districts. This comes in the backdrop of the Act East Policy that has pushed significant development and trading initiatives towards the border areas inhabited by the indigenous transborder communities, the Zo ethnic community, as in the case of the Moreh and Behiang trading routes.

In light of recent intrusions made by the state, the Indigenous Tribe Leaders Forum (ITLF) had, on March 8, called for a peaceful rally to be organised on March 10. This call was made alongside the Kuki Innpi Manipur (KIM) and Kuki Students Organization (KSO), with invitations sent to the various Zo ethnic tribe organizations across the various hill districts. 

In anticipation and response to the call for a peaceful rally by alternative democratic leaders, the District Magistrates of Churachandpur, along with other hill districts like Kangpokpi and Tengnoupal, declared Section 144 CrPC on the day of the rally, thereby banning the assembly of five or more persons. The stated reason is that such an assembly is ‘likely to turn unlawful/violent.’ 

The utilisation of bureaucratic machinery to clamp down on democratic protestors, sometimes even to incite violent responses, is not new to the hill people of Manipur.

Peaceful rallies in India do not violate the law as long as they are conducted within the framework of the law and adhere to the conditions set by the authorities. The right to peaceful assembly is a fundamental right enshrined in the Indian Constitution under Article 19(1)(b), which guarantees the freedom of speech and expression, including the right to assemble peacefully and without arms. However, the authorities may impose certain restrictions on the right to peaceful assembly to maintain public order and safety, prevent violence, protect the sovereignty and integrity of the country, and prevent incitement to an offence. These restrictions should be reasonable and proportionate and must be imposed by a law in force.

Despite the highhanded use of state machinery, the protest rallies were held under the aegis of the various tribal civil society organisations. The paradox of the situation puts to question the legality of such a curfew by the District Magistrates as the various rallies across the hill districts had been planned under prior information and public notice, stating clearly the intention of organizing a ‘peaceful rally’ and garnering massive participation of the hill people. 

Cases of clashes between the police and rally participants have been reported from Kangpokpi district where 5 protestors were brutally beaten by police. However, despite such incidents of police brutality over sections of protestors, including women, the protest rallies in other districts have been largely peaceful, garnering mass participation of men, women, and children from all walks of life. Reminiscent of the 2015 protests when the people sang slogans of tribal unity, Lamka town in Churachandpur witnessed the coming together of the various Zo tribes from amongst the Zomi, Hmar, Mizo, and Kuki groups under the aegis of the Indigenous Tribal Leaders Forums (ITLF). In the other districts and subdivisions, the Kuki Innpi and Kuki Student Organizations (KSO) ensured the mobilisation of the masses for the peaceful expression of dissent against the Manipur Government’s intrusion on tribal lands. 

Why do the Tribes dissent?

In the backdrop of these events, what is alarming, however, is the existential crisis felt by the indigenous people of the southern district. Despite the imposition of 144 CrPC by the District Magistrates, one community leader from the rally in Lamka stated that “…144 CrPC cannot be used to suppress a legitimate expression of the people, our expression through a peaceful rally is our fundamental rights given in the Constitution. Our fundamental rights are above all else.” Some rallies have questions about the legitimacy of the elected representatives from hill areas, as it is allegedly said that recent governmental orders affecting the hill areas have not passed through the Hill Areas Committee mandated by Article 371C and the 1972 Presidential Order i.e. The Manipur Legislative Assembly (HILL AREAS COMMITTEE) ORDER, 1972.

Need for a separate administration

Following these events, it has been proven once again that the Manipur tribals are at a crossroads and the need for a separate administration for tribal communities in Manipur once again rings in the ears of the desperate tribals which arises from a long history of marginalization, discrimination, and neglect. The tribal communities in Manipur have a distinct culture, language, and way of life that are different from those of the non-tribal communities in the state.

However, these communities have often been marginalized and excluded from decision-making that affects their lives and livelihoods. They have been subjected to land grabs, forced displacement, and exploitation of their natural resources, leading to poverty, social unrest, and loss of cultural identity.

Creating a separate administration for tribal communities, such as the Southern Manipur Territorial Council (SMATC), is intended to address these rampant systematic crippling issues by providing greater autonomy, self-governance, and control over their land, resources, and culture. A separate administration can provide a platform for tribal communities to voice their concerns, make decisions on their land and resources, and protect their rights and interests.

The demand for a Southern Manipur Autonomous Territorial Council is a legitimate aspiration of the people of the southern parts of Manipur, and its establishment could contribute to the overall development and well-being of the state. However, any such initiative must be pursued through peaceful and democratic means, in consultation with all stakeholders and with due regard for the principles of unity and integrity of the nation.

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Additionally, SMATC can help to address the unique needs and challenges faced by tribal communities in areas such as education, healthcare, and social welfare. By providing targeted support and services, a separate administration can help to improve the living conditions and well-being of tribal communities in Manipur.

In lieu of the political climate in Manipur and the systematic crippling faced by the tribals in Manipur, creating a separate administration for tribal communities in Manipur is necessary to ensure that their rights, interests, and cultural identity are protected and that they have greater control over their lives and resources. It is an important step towards addressing these communities’ historical marginalisation and neglect and promoting a more inclusive and equitable society.

Sangmuan Hangsing is an independent researcher and Tawna Valte is an MPhil scholar at the Delhi School of Economics. Views expressed are personal.

Also Read | Manipur: Rally turns violent, at least 5 injured in Kangpokpi

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  1. I find this article very funny because it is one-sided and doesn’t even use the word “all” to acknowledge that not all tribal communities in Manipur discriminate against the Manipur government. According to the current context, the illegal encroachers are Kukis, not all tribes in Manipur. It is the Manipur government’s right to protect reserve forest areas in the state, and we, the people of Manipur, are also intolerant of illegal activities. The eviction drive is not only carried out in the hill areas of Manipur; it started all the way from Imphal Valley. Even though people in the valley have ownership documents, they cannot oppose the government when it tries to expand the road or any construction. Stop playing victim card and the govt doesn’t have sympathy to those criminals or perform in such illegal activities!!

    Although the Indian Constitution has given special provisions to the tribal communities of Manipur, it is not an absolute right, and the tribes cannot decide and allow any forest to be theirs
    Here is the explanation of Article 371C :
    371C. Special provision with respect to the State of Manipur.—(1) Notwithstanding anything in this Constitution,
    the President may, by order made with respect to the State of Manipur, provide for the constitution and functions of a committee of the Legislative Assembly of the State consisting of members of that Assembly elected from the Hill Areas of that State, for the modifications to be made in the rules of business of the Government and in the rules of procedure of the
    Legislative Assembly of the State and for any special responsibility of the Governor in order to secure the proper functioning of such committee.
    (2) The Governor shall annually, or whenever so required by the President, make a report to the President regarding the administration of the Hill Areas in the State of Manipur and the executive power of the Union shall extend to the giving of directions to the State as to the administration of the said areas.
    Explanation.—In this article, the expression “Hill Areas” means such areas as the President may, by order, declare to be Hill areas.
    I would like to call out the writer of this Article!!

  2. Writer is not a son/daughter of manipur… may be from outside manipur or an illegal immigrant from myanmar or other places… wht a cheap article… wants to destroy Manipur in the name of ethnic group… shame on you bloody immigrant.

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