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, 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.
Sabina Y(SY): What is your role in the MTFD?
Romeo Hmar(RH): I am the convener of the MTFD.
SY: Tell me a little about why all of you decided to form the MTF in New Delhi?
RH: The story of why the Forum was formed has to be traced to 31st of August (2015) when violent protests broke out against three bills that were passed by the State Legislative Assembly, and three people were killed.
That night some of us tribal student leaders in South Delhi decided to gather for an emergency meeting. But in that meeting we realised that our representation was not complete, and a bigger collaboration among all the tribes of Manipur was needed. Hence, we decided to convene a meeting on the 1st of September, where all tribal students’ unions from Manipur that were based in Delhi, more or less 24 organisations, were present. Not a single tribe was omitted in the formation of the Manipur Tribals’ Forum.
By the 2nd of September, when we gathered for the protest at Jantar Mantar, 36 organisations had joined in to sign a memorandum that has been submitted to the Prime Minister as a sign of full solidarity and participation. Earlier there has been a divide between the Nagas and Kukis, but this time for the first time in history of Manipur, all tribes are standing together.
This is historic. This has never happened before. All clashes among the various tribes have in some way or the other been instigated by the valley people, the dominant community, be it the Kuki-Naga clash or the Kuki-Paite clash. But now we realise who is responsible for the fights we have been having with each other.
SY: Have the demands and direction of the MTFD’s movement changed over the last 28 days since you started the protests at Jantar Mantar in Delhi?
RH: No, our demands have not changed. We are sticking to our initial demands and the response that we are getting from the government till now has not been satisfactory. We have a feeling that the reporting on the issue in mainstream media is also being controlled in some way. But we can’t say for sure. Having nine dead bodies unburied for 96 days has never happened before in our country, but media houses are not paying attention to the gravity of the situation. They do get all the information from us, and yet their reports do not seem to reflect our concerns in an adequate manner.
SY: What are the core demands of the MTFD as they stand today?
RH: Our first demand is that the three contentious bills that have been passed by the Manipur State Assembly must be withdrawn or repealed by the Central govt. If that is not possible, we want the Centre to put pressure on the Manipur government to convene an urgent special assembly to come up with a resolution to the effect that makes these bills inapplicable to the five hill districts of Manipur. However, we know that even if we stop these bills momentarily, another bill will emerge as part of the usual sinister design that the Manipur government employs towards the hill districts. They have introduced countless such bills in the past. Many of the tribal people are not even aware of the existence of some of these bills. So, our continued core demand is for separate administration.
Historically, the administration of the hill and valley people have always been separate, and the merger agreement with the Indian Union at the time of King Budhachandra never concerned the hill people or their lands. Hence, we demand a separate political settlement for the hill people so that the dominant community cannot claim authority over tribal lands by introducing such bills without any consultation with the tribes.
SN: To the Central government we have presented two main goals – a short-term and a long-term goal. The short-term is concerning justice for the martyrs, that is, to take immediate action against their killers, conduct a judicial, and not a magisterial inquiry, and bring them under the law. The long-term goal is with regards to the withdrawal or modifications of the bills as Romeo already mentioned.
SY: How true is the statement that the Ibobi government had deliberately called these three bills as Money Bills to bypass the Hill Areas Committee (HAC)?
RH: Well, if you look at these bills, they are certainly not Money Bills. Money Bills have to be about imposition of taxes and expenditures. But how can the Protection of Manipur People Bill that relates to the social security objectives and issues of much larger social, political and cultural consequences be labeled as a Money Bill? Similarly, how can Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms Bill be called a Money Bill? The only reason they are calling these Money Bills is then certainly because under the Manipur Legislative Assembly (Hills Area Committee) Order, 1972, every bill other than a Money Bill that affects wholly or partly the Hill Area needs to be referred to the HAC for consideration. Thus, on pretext of calling them Money Bills, they wanted to basically bypass the HAC.
Now, doing so is not just unconstitutional but also anti-national in the sense that the state government is refusing to recognise the rights of the tribal people, pertaining to their land and their future. The tribal people of Manipur are in the danger of becoming non-Manipuris or migrants in our own land because the terms such as “Manipur People” or “Native of Manipur” used in the Bill have been redefined arbitrarily by an all-Meitei Drafting Committee without any consultation with the hills People. If this were to become the blueprint of the state governments to acquire land from their tribal populations, it would soon be imitated in other states of India to render the tribes landless and rights-less, in their own lands and territories. This then becomes the cause of the beginning of the disintegration of the nation, India, the biggest democracy of the world.
SN: If you look at the content of the bills, the language itself is very vague, and many of the terms are loosely defined. At some places they are even contradictory. So I think the point that our convener is making is that if such an ambiguous format is acceptable to the Centre and applicable for Manipur, then it sets a dangerous precedent for state or Central govt. to acquire tribal lands anywhere in the country with minor modifications. This is the kind of move that should have bothered everyone in mainland India who cares about the rights of indigenous people being violated every day.
SY: Some tribal scholars from Manipur here had initially raised doubts about the motives behind the gap between the timing of the protests and the drafting of the bills. They were asking why tribal leaders did not protest the Manipur state’s move towards the bills being drafted by an all Meitei drafting committee?
RH: The Protection of Manipur People Bill, 2015 was tabled on the 28th, no discussions [were held] on the 29th…
Dr. Lam Khan Piang: On the 28th and 29th, all the congress MLAs were straightened…
RH: Straightened and instructed what to say, what not to say… and on the 31st it was tabled in the Assembly and within seven minutes they passed it without any deliberation or any consultation.
SN: To add to that, as you already know we have what is called an All Tribal Students’ Union, Manipur (ATSUM) who were in the know of these developments for about a month prior to the date of the bills being tabled. They were trying to consult and organise talks with all the leaders, at least in the Imphal area. But we have to realise that during those months, the Meiteis were aggressively protesting, demanding for the Inner Line Permit (ILP) System that resulted in the tragic death of Sapam Robinhood. There were bandhs, people couldn’t move out, and communication during that period was extremely difficult.
RH: Also it is true that the drafting of the bills happened without consultation and with some amount of secrecy. That is the reason why we are also questioning when was the Drafting Committee actually constituted, and why were there no tribals in that committee.
SN: Time and again when there is anything to do with Manipur, groups are formed by the dominant Meitei community who use the term “All Manipur” for students’ unions or joint action committees, etc. So, we have to be careful to remember that the process throughout has never been inclusive of the tribals. The tribal people were never formally consulted on these matters. They basically falsely refer to it as ‘all’.
RH: And the government also accepts it because it’s basically part of their design. But the same is not true of the Manipur Tribals’ Forum, because all tribal organisations are here in it today. The Manipur government always interacts with these forums, which may have very good people in them, but are not truly representative of the population. This creates a very skewed picture of the state at the Centre, which only seeks to understand the state in terms of the Meitei dominated area. But how can a person from the valley that constitutes only 10 percent of Manipur’s land, claim to represent the cause of the hill people who are spread across 90 percent of the state?
Images by: Khual Naulak
This is part one of a two-part interview. Read part two here.