Piang says that the conflict started when the non-tribal ethnic majority Meiteis formed a Joint Committee for Inner Line Permit (JCFILP) apparently to regulate the influx of “outsiders” to Manipur. “The real intention of the non tribals was to liberalise land transactions in hill areas inhabited by tribals. But they were playing with the imagery of Manipuri vs non-Manipuri by sidelining the serious question of marginalisation of tribals including tribal land alienation in Manipur. As a response to the JCFILP movement, the state government came with the three Bills, which could result in massive land alienation as well as erosion of tribal identity”.
Romeo Hmar, convenor of the MTDF points out that a critical analysis of MLR&LR clearly exposes the sinister game of the Meitei dominated state government led by the Congress. “Objectives for the amendment identify land pressure in the Manipur valley inhabited by ethnic majority as an important reason,” says Hmar. “There are also several ‘confusing’ phrases in the amendment Bill which could be manipulated against tribals. For instance, ‘Native People of Manipur’ is not properly defined. Traditional tribal land administrative pattern would come under serious attack from an insensitive bureaucracy by manipulating these confusions. So the real intention of the government is to grab land.” However the Manipur government denied allegations of land grab through several media releases and “clarification notes”.
A close look into the recent controversies reveals that these Bills are manifestations of deep structural discriminations faced by the ethnic minorities in hill areas. There is a glaring difference in government spending between valley and hill areas. “Major social infrastructures like the Agriculture University, the Manipur University, two medical institutes, an IIT, a national games complex and all state level administrative complexes are concentrated in the valley. Even the proposed sports university is situated in the valley,” says Maivio J Woba, co-convenor of the MTDF.
Apart from this, representation in state Assembly is also a contentious issue. Currently, out of 60 seats, there is tribal reservation in only 20. “Tribals constitute nearly 40 to 45 percent of the total population. Average population of a tribal constituency is 37,000. But in Meitei dominated valley, it is 27,000. There was a suggestion by the delimitation commission to increase the assembly seats in tribal areas but it was stalled by the vested interests”, Woba points out.
“In our tribal culture, we give special respect to people who are dead. But in this case, we haven’t buried the bodies of our brothers, who were killed almost three months ago. Their bodies are decaying in the Churachandpur district hospital mortuary, which doesn’t have proper facilities, including a freezer. We won’t claim them until we get justice. We hope that someday, Delhi would respond to this painful mode of protest”, says Sam Ngaihte while lighting a candle in memory of the dead at the protest venue in Jantar Mantar.
Interestingly, understanding the depth of the raging discontent cutting across several ethnic tribal groups, the Manipur government performed ‘Hiam Kham’ (In tribal customary law, the Hiam Kham ritual denotes acceptance of the mistake by the guilty) on 2 November, thus acknowledging that the killings were unjust.
“The Hiam Kham performed by the government was not genuine,” says Sam. “As per our customary law, a genuine Hiam Kham means a public apology by those who committed the offence. But till this date, the government have not identified and initiated action against the police commandos who killed our people.”
Tribals also points out that it has become common in Manipur to indiscriminately use ‘live bullets’ against agitating tribals even if it is a peaceful protest. “If it’s an agitation by the majority community, police don’t dare to use live bullets even after extreme provocations,” adds Sam. “They opt for teargas shells and rubber bullets. So our struggle is also against brutal racism of the State.”