By Anam Mittra:
“It’s a David and Goliath kind of situation,” said Grace Hangzo, standing resolutely in the chilly Delhi weather at Jantar Mantar on the eve of India’s 67th Republic Day. She has been coming regularly to the venue for the past 82 days in solidarity with the Manipur Tribal’s Forum, Delhi (MTFD). MTFD has been protesting the deaths of nine tribal youths who were allegedly killed during violent protests that rocked Manipur on 31st August ’15, following the passing of 3 Bills by the Manipur Legislative Assembly, which are being termed as anti-Tribal.
The police are yet to file an FIR in the matter despite repeated requests and protests by the families. It’s been 148 days since the incident and the bodies are lying unburied in the Churachandpur district hospital morgue, as the families are demanding justice for the victims and a proper inquiry into the matter; none of which seems to be coming anytime soon. The state and central government have displayed tremendous apathy in his scenario, say the protesters. They allege that the governments are just waiting for the protests to die ‘a natural death’.
Manipur has been at the centre of a series of upheavals owing to divergent interests of the majority Meitei and minority tribal communities. July last year saw weeks of protests by the Meitei community who were demanding the implementation of the Inner Line Permit (ILP) in Manipur. The ILP, a British innovation, is a special pass that is required to enter states of Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Mizoram; it is being demanded in Manipur to protect indigenous culture from ‘outsiders’ (including non-Manipuris in India as well as migrants from Bangladesh).
The MTFD opine that the new Bills introduced will enable valley people (Meitei community) to purchase land in the hills which will have detrimental effects for the tribal people in the long run. The Manipur land revenue and land reforms Act, 1960 stated that non- tribals cannot own land in the hilly areas that are owned by the tribal communities and which constitute 90% of the land area in Manipur, unless they have permission from the District Commissioner and the District Councils. The Meitei people, on the other hand, have 40 of the 60 seats in the legislative assembly. There has been ample documentation of the violent history between the two communities; the sense one gets talking to the protesters is that the tribals are becoming increasingly marginalized and terrorized by the government and their economic and cultural interests are being sidelined by the majority.
In his speech made at Jantar Mantar, T. Romeo Hmar, Convenor of MTFD emphasized, ‘Our land, our rights, our identity. Tribals have their own rules and their own governance.’ He was referring to the demand for extension of the 6th Schedule to the tribal areas in Manipur. They want their own administration, as was the arrangement historically at the time of the Mughals and the British.
Rajya Sabha MP, Biswajit Daimary from the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF), had brought this matter to attention in the parliament demanding setting up of a Parliamentary panel to look into the issue and assure the tribals of their safety. Daimary stressed that most urgent item on the agenda is the need for an unbiased inquiry into the deaths of the 9 young men and swift justice for them and their families.
It is difficult trying to fathom the struggles of these people who have withstood much worse for a long time, and who don’t seem to be ‘electorally ripe’ for anyone’s immediate attention. Despite this, the MTFD is determined to stand their ground and rally as much political support as possible.
As I left Jantar Mantar, I could hear Romeo Hmar quote John E. Lewis (American politician and civil rights leader), “If not us then who? If not now, then when?”