Disquiet in the Hills

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Angst ablaze A massive gathering of Manipuri youth at Jantar Mantar
Angst ablaze A massive gathering of Manipuri youth at Jantar Mantar

We demand justice for the weak,” shouts Sam Ngaihte, a Manipuri tribal near a makeshift tent in Jantar Mantar in Delhi. For most of November, Sam who is pursuing his doctoral studies from Oxford University and other activists from Manipur, have been at the capital’s popular protest venue to participate in the agitation against the killing of nine young tribals in Manipur’s Churachandpur town on 1 September. The nine were a part of a demonstration that was taken out against “three anti tribal Bills” passed by the Manipur Assembly, a day before.

The Manipur Tribal Forum, Delhi (MTFD) which is spearheading the agitation in Delhi has kept nine symbolic coffins in the tent.

The kin of the victims have refused to claim the bodies and bury the dead until the Manipur government initiates action against the special police commandos who reportedly fired and killed nine of the protesting tribals.

The hill tracts of Manipur have been simmering with tension for some time now. Violent protests broke out following the passing of the controversial Bills in the specially convened session of the Assembly on 31 August. The agitating tribals are reported to have torched the houses of an MP and five MLAs including state Health Minister Phungzathang Tonsing. The protesters have accused the lawmakers of “failing to protect their interests” and “remaining silent” when the Bills were being pushed through.

Police claim they fired at the violent mob after it prevented fire tenders from reaching the spot. Eight men, including an eleven year old boy, were killed in the firing.

According to tribal organisations, these controversial Bills — the Protection of Manipur People Bill, Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms ( Seventh Amendment) Bill (MLR & LR) and Manipur Shops and Establishments (Second Amendment) Bill — were passed by violating all constitutional safeguards. “As per the President’s Manipur Legislative Assembly Order, 1972 under Article 371C of the constitution, laws which would impact tribal livelihood and land should get the consent of ‘Hill Areas Committee (HAC)’, an official body consisting of all tribal MLAs,” points out Lam Khan Piang, a sociologist with Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. “However on several occasions, ruling parties have influenced the decisions of the HAC by virtue of their majority. But in this case, these Bills were not even discussed in HAC.”

It is significant that tribal areas in Manipur are not protected by the fifth and sixth schedule of the Constitution like other tribal areas and Article 371C is their only safeguard.

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