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The Continuing Political Stalemate in Manipur

Gautam Sen is a retired IDAS officer who has served in senior positions at the Centre and in a north-east State Government.
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  • December 14, 2015

    The political crisis in Manipur, which started with the hurried enactment of three Bills on August 31, 2015, continues. The ire and apprehension of Manipur’s hill people have not died down. The Bills referred to the Union Government by the then Governor of the State, Syed Ahmed, are still to be vetted by the Centre. In the meantime, the Joint Action Committee for Inner Line Permit System in the State has threatened another full-scale agitation from December 16 if the State Government is not able to obtain clearance of the three controversial Bills from the Centre by December 15. At the same time, another Joint Committee against Inner Line Permit system in support of the hill people’s cause have been unrelenting in their demand for rescinding the three controversial statutes. The hill people have also taken their agitation to a very emotive level by refusing to perform the last rites for the protesters who were killed in police action in Churachandpur against the agitating hill people in the aftermath of the passing of the three Bills in a grossly non-consultative manner by the incumbent Ibobi Singh-led Congress Government. A group of representatives of the hill people have also been sitting in dharna at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi, with caskets as a symbolic gesture of defiance against the high handed action of the State Government and the low-key response of the Centre to the prevailing situation.

    Neiphiu Rio, former Chief Minister of Nagaland and presently sitting MP in the Lok Sabha, (whose party, the Naga Peoples’ Front is recognized in Manipur and is represented by four members in the State Assembly), had made a Zero Hour reference last week in the lower house of parliament demanding suitable action by the Union Government to resolve the political crisis in Manipur. He had pointedly mentioned that gross injustice was being committed against the hill people of Manipur by the State Government, by not recognizing their position in Manipur`s political and socio-economic framework commensurate with their historical status as original inhabitants of the State, the strength of their demography (they constitute nearly 41 per cent of the total population) and territorial expanse of the hill districts of Tamenglong, Ukhrul, Chandel Senapati and Churachandpur (these districts cover nearly 90 per cent of the total area of Manipur). Rio had also highlighted that the last delimitation of the Assembly constituencies was not undertaken judiciously because the number of constituencies earmarked for representation by tribals is disproportionately less than their proportion of the State’s population. He has proposed the setting up of a high-level committee under the chairmanship of the Union Home Secretary to examine the genesis of the present impasse and urgently evolve a consensus among the contesting parties towards bringing about normalcy in the State. Central intercession has been sought without delay to achieve these objectives in the first instance.

    The sentiments of the hill people have been hurt and their passions inflamed primarily because their status in Manipur’s political firmament seems to have been challenged by the State’s plains people – the Meiteis, who are also original inhabitants of Manipur. While all the three Bills have engendered anxiety among the hill people as they are being viewed as impinging on their livelihood and inimical to their rights on holding of immovable property in any part of the State.1 The Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reform Bill – 2015 (amending Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reform Act – 1960) has caused the most concern as it is considered a ploy by the Meitei-dominated State Government to appropriate tribal land.

    The Centre has to necessarily take some steps at this juncture to restore the sanctity of the Constitution, i.e., Article 371 C in particular, whose provisions were virtually ignored by the State Government when the three controversial Bills were passed within a day without consultation in the committee of the State Assembly consisting of members from the hill constituencies as is necessary under the said provisions. Furthermore, before introducing these Bills in the State Assembly, it was a political and administrative necessity to consult the autonomous district councils of the State which cover the hill districts, apart from the Assembly hill constituencies’ members. The Union Government will be within its Constitutional purview to advise the President on the above-cited Article and to issue a directive to the State Governor to evolve a consensus through a consultative process mandated within the extant provisions and spirit of the Constitution so that the rights of all citizens in Manipur are manifestly protected and the sense of alienation presently prevailing among some sections of its people are removed at the earliest.

    So far as the adoption of immediate steps to defuse tension and restore normalcy are concerned, the proposed Home Secretary`s Committee may be an appropriate instrument towards evolving a temporary solution. The authority of the Union Government to back up the Home Secretary and the latter’s bonafides and status as a honest broker should enable this institution to deliberate effectively. Such a committee may also include the current Secretary of the North Eastern Council (who incidentally is a Manipuri Naga officer) and two of the Council`s full-time members (one of whom happens to be an eminent Meitei intellectual).

    Without going into the merits of the Inner Line Permit (ILP) issue, the Centre, in the present circumstances, should harness its resources and political and administrative skills adroitly to ensure that the State Government maintains the status quo in the matter for at least a reasonable period, say till the next State Assembly elections. The Ibobi Singh Government has perforce to be prevailed upon to decide the ILP issue with patience, after substantive deliberations and through a broad political consensus which is visible in the public domain, involving all stakeholders in Manipur. A decision in this regard may appropriately be arrived at within a framework of understanding that encompasses all communities of the State, covers the issues of autonomy and devolution of requisite development finances (as per the recommendations of the latest State Finance Commission’s recommendations) affecting the execution of developmental schemes within the autonomous councils’ legitimate purview. This will have to be a delicate but well-focused exercise, without giving an impression of or de facto erosion of Constitutional autonomy of the State Government. The deployment of additional Central Police forces may be necessary – without preferably the Assam Rifles playing a frontal role and the invoking of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act – reckoning the odium associated with both these elements in the recent past and the consequent stirring up of hostility towards Central intervention.

    A more assertive, though not an interventionist, role appears unavoidable on the part of the Union Government. The present situation should not be allowed to linger because Christmas is not far off and people of Christian religious faith dominate the Manipur hill region. The sentiments of these people should not be allowed to get affected any more during the forthcoming festivity period because of prolonged internal tension in the State and in the bordering areas of Nagaland. Tension has actually been simmering since the first quarter of 2015 and taken a turn for the worse since August. Continuing disaffection and confrontation among the different communities in Manipur will only allow the anti-national insurgent groups, both from the Meitei and hill communities, to tactically exploit the milieu. The fallout of the present tension has a salience on the nascent and interim Naga Peace Accord arrived at by the Union Government on August 3, 2015, which is still to be taken to consummation. This factor also cannot be lost sight of.

    The author is former Additional Controller General of Defence Accounts in the Government of India, has served as Adviser (Finance Commission) of the Government of Nagaland, and is presently Adviser to a former Chief Minister of Nagaland & sitting Lok Sabha MP.

    The views expressed are the author`s own.