Note: This is part 2 of a two-part series. Read the first part here.
On 31st August this year, the Manipur State Legislative Assembly passed 3 ‘Money Bills’ that led to violent protests in the state, and the death of three protesters. Following that, student leaders in Delhi came together to present their demands to the Central and State governments. Sabina Yasmin Rahman (SY), a doctoral candidate in Sociology at the Jawaharlal Nehru University spoke to Romeo Hmar (Val Upa [a title of honour used by the Zomi and Hmar tribes to refer to the senior members associated with civic bodies], Hmar Welfare Association), Dr. L. Lam Khan Piang (Faculty, Centre for the Study of Social Systems, JNU), and Sam Ngaihte (Doctoral Candidate, University of Oxford) of the Manipur Tribals’ Forum, Delhi (MTFD) about the reason for the formation of the organisation, its agenda and future course of action.
SY: Since we are on the issue of land holdings, Babloo Loitongbam of Human Rights Alert speaking on AJ The Stream indicated that the Meiteis also have a legitimate case of shrinking space in the valley due to migration and developmental politics that threatens their unique cultural identity, and therefore, some measures need to be taken to preserve that, and a middle-ground must be reached on this issue with the hill people. What do you have to say to that?
LKP: True, solutions amicable to both parties are very important. But do they ever consult the tribals?
RH: All institutions of consequence for development, be it government institutions, colleges and universities, sports infrastructure, everything is confined to that 10 percent of the land, within that valley, meaning they never considered the hill area as part of Manipur.
LKP: Last year in December, 130 Delhi University students along with mentors were sent to Manipur to familiarise themselves with the North-East. When they were at the Manipur University it was all over in the papers, but when they wanted to go to Ukhrul and Churachandpur, they were not allowed due to ‘law and order problems’. Similarly, when Centre’s representatives come to Manipur, they are stopped at Imphal and not allowed to come to Churachandpur to see the reality first hand. They are told that their presence in the Hill districts might spark communal violence. So these are the kind of things Manipur government does. On the first day of protests, mainstream TV channels covered it, but they stopped on the second day. Manipur government immediately curtailed it.
SN: If I were to add to their responses, it’s not like the tribal people do not sympathise with the fact that only 10 percent of the land belongs to the Meiteis. We are not against the Meiteis, and we understand exactly what their concern is with regards to influx of outsiders. We also fully support their view that influx of migrants has to be controlled. But for that we already have a separate bill called the Manipur Regulation of Visitors, Tenants, and Migrant Workers Bill, 2015. That should have sufficed.
LKP: Recently, the other thing they are trying to do is impose one language on the people, the Meetei Mayek script or Kok, Sham, Lai, etc. The valley people don’t know or use the language much themselves.
RH: So first thing that we would like to know from the Indian government is – what do they understand by the term Manipur? Is it just the valley people residing in the 10 percent [of the] land, or [is it] inclusive of the hill people? By constantly communicating with only the valley people, is the government of India trying to mislead the rest? It becomes a crucial issue in terms of representation.
LKP: I had to get in touch with the Registrar General of India office here for some training related work for a project I was associated with recently, and they are the ones who are responsible for census data in the country, etc. I was quite shocked to realise that the research officers have no idea about the demographics of Manipur at all! They do not keep any reliable records of the population.
SY: So what message does the MFTD, with this new found tribal unity, wish to send to the Indian government?
RH: I have to say this, and you can certainly quote me, that if Narendra Modi government wants to implement their Look East/Act East Policy, they’d better address the tribal issues, and treat it as an urgent matter. Otherwise, the Trans-Asian Superhighway – that they want to construct – they have identified 67 bridges that need to be rebuilt for this purpose, and from Assam it is going to come to Nagaland (tribal area), enter Senapati (tribal area), and it will cross the small valley, then head towards Moreh (tribal area again) – this road is not going to happen.
LKP: If there is a threat to our land and resources – the only source of our livelihood and sustainability in the absence of equitable development – and they are being taken away, there is a high chance that it would bring all our tribes together. So in a way the Central government’s continued neglect of the plight of the tribals is only propelling forces to come together in an unprecedented manner, something we didn’t expect to see ourselves.
SN: We have been protesting indefinitely here since the 4th of November, but the protest back home had started from the day after the killings. It’s already over 96 days now, and throughout people have been very, very peaceful. We made our grievances known through ideal constitutional means. But people cannot possibly be expected to remain peaceful forever under the kind of circumstances that we have been witnessing. We are not asking for a favor; we as a community are merely claiming what is legitimately ours, the rights over what belongs to us.
SY: You’re afraid things could go out of hand…?
SN: That is why I want to bring us back to the incident… See, things have already gone out of hand. Nothing is normal for us when nine people including an 11-year-old boy die. He was not even part of the protest. I don’t think 11 year olds come out to protest; he was just present there at that place. Our reactions to these incidents have been quite sober given the severity of the violence inflicted upon tribals by the Manipur State Police. We are still trying to talk to the state and central governments. We have been taking the normal route: trying to be polite, hear their side, etc. while the bodies remain unburied as we speak. Such disrespect to the bodies of our dead is unheard of in our tribal culture. How long can people remain peaceful?
RH: Our past generation, they were discriminated but they didn’t have the power to fight. Lack of education, you may say. But we are a generation that realises what happened to us in the past, understands the present, and knows that we have to fight for our future because we can foresee what can happen if we don’t stand up for our rights. We have witnessed firsthand how corruption has totally betrayed us. We as a generation have studied in schools with no teachers, been deprived of all facilities, but somehow we managed. However, we have to be the ones to put an end to this discrimination and bring reform. We might not see everything change in our lifetimes, but we must fight for our future generations. We are ready to make all the sacrifices necessary to secure the futures of our later generations.
SY: Sam was telling me about the protest rally on the 9th. Are you planning something specific for that day?
RH: Actually, the day of the rally would be the 100th day that the bodies of the martyrs remain unburied because the Indian government has refused to meet our demands and give justice to our people. After 100 days of appeal to them through peaceful means, how can they still refuse to intervene by calling it a state matter?
SN: Ever since the passing of the bills that led to the protest in which we lost our brothers, the only statement we got from the state govt. is them saying it was an unfortunate incident; that it [killing of the protesters] was a consequence of the tribals misunderstanding and misreading the bills. Is that not an insult? The things that we are demanding are very clear and doable: to have talks with the state govt. to sort out the issue of the bills with the intervention of an impartial third party – which, in this case we propose, should be the Indian government.
RH: Now we are starting to think if we are considered lesser Indians that our dead bodies do not matter or do not deserve due respect like others’?
LKP: People in the hill districts are not as scared of the army as they are of the Manipur Commandos. If you have seen the clips from the protest where the commando knocks a tribal guy real hard with the butt of the rifle, that’s not his police duty, it’s sheer hatred.
RH: When there are protests in Ukhrul, they use live bullets, in Churachandpur [they use] live bullets, and they claim self-defense. However, not even a single police personnel was injured [in those protests]. But in the ILP protests in the valley in which Robinhood, a class XI student, died several police guys were injured and police vehicles attacked, but they didn’t use live bullets there. Why don’t they use the “self-defense” excuse in Imphal area? Now we feel that enough is enough, we have never been together, and valley people must be separated from the hill people. There is no point living in denial about the divide that has only grown deeper with time.
At the end of the day it’s clear that no matter which party forms government, we tribes remain the victims irrespective. Modi is constantly hailed as the strong leader of South East Asia, but what kind of powerful leader is he if he can’t take care of the tribes in one of his own states? What type of leader cannot have his say in one small state, and leaves nine Indian bodies unburied for 100 days? The Section (2) of Article 371 C extends executive powers to the Union to give directions to the State in matters regarding the administration of the Hill/Tribal Area, but the Central government is dismissing our pleas to intervene by calling it an internal matter of the Manipur state. If the Indian government cannot uphold the constitution with matters regarding the protection of the rights of its tribal people, then why do they celebrate it so much? We are hoping that people from mainland India would also understand the discrimination and injustice that we tribal people are facing and show up in large numbers for the mass rally on the 9th December.