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Manipur's Theatre of the Absurd


Manipur’s Theatre of the Absurd Pradip Phanjoubam administration mechanisms. While the valley has virtually given up all customary notions of landownership and has adopted the modern land revenue system, the hills are still governed by the traditional ideas

he ongoing blockade in Manipur – over the proposed creation of a new district – along its two national highways that connect it to the rest of the country has brought to the fore the absurd limits the notion of an exclusive ethnic homeland can be pushed to.

Briefly, the Kuki tribes dominated Sadar Hills (“Special Area Demarcated as Autonomous Region”), a subdivision of the Naga tribes dominated Senapati district in north Manipur, launched an agitation under a newly formed organisation – the Sadar Hills Districthood Demand Committee – demanding that the Sadar Hills be made an independent district by bifurcating the Senapati district. This demand is at least 20 years old. But because of various reasons, including not the least the anticipation of trouble of the kind witnessed currently, the state government has been keeping the matter in a limbo, promising to do it to appease those deman ding it but never doing so to pacify those opposing it. The demand for a new district hardened this year and became a blockade starting on 1 August to arm-twist the state government into conceding it. No sooner than the Kuki blockade began, the Nagas under the leadership of the United Naga Council (UNC) imposed a parallel blockade with a message to the government that they would never agree to such a district and that their own blockade was a warning of the shape of things to come if they were not heeded.

The Nagas claim that the Sadar Hills region is part of a Naga ancestral homeland and that the Kukis who are later migrants to the area cannot be more than their tenants at best. They also implied in press statements that the Kukis by demanding for a separate district are also outlining their own intended imagined homeland and this was not acceptable. A compromise being stubbornly ruled out by either side, two and half months after the blockade began there is still no end to the trouble in sight. Meanwhile, prices of commodities such as petrol, diesel, cooking gas, packaged consumer items and all others not locally produced have skyrocketed, with a litre of petrol costing as much as Rs 120 and a cylinder of cooking gas Rs 2,000.

Official Apathy

In the most insensitive manner, the state government continues to do little to either resolve the crisis or break the blockade by force, and seems only content to wait and watch till the agitators tire out. The central government too has shown no sign that it would intervene although there has been a growing demand from a large section of the public for the imposition of president’s rule. This is seen as a way out as the decision either way by the state government would be seen as biased towards one or the other tribal group, whereas the central government taking a decision on the matter would be seen as somewhat more neutral. This is especially so because the third major ethnic group in Manipur, the Meiteis, who are numerically, economically and thereby politically dominant, are non-tribals and are at the helm of the state’s political affairs.

Unlike the Nagas and Kukis whose traditional homes are the surrounding hills, the Meiteis inhabit the central fertile alluvial intensely cultivated valley. While the tribals are free to settle anywhere in the state, the Meiteis are prohibited from owning landed properties in the hills, so over the years a somewhat clear territorial segregation of tribal and non-tribal populations has resulted. The tribal communities, despite a 33% reservation that they enjoy in rough proportion to the population make-up of the state, are suspicious that the Meiteis have been garnering the best benefits in the state.

Land Revenue Systems

The two major geographical regions of Manipur, namely, the hills and the valley, are also under two different land revenue

OCTOBER 22, 2011

and customs of ethnic homelands. Under the latter practice, vast tracts of uninhabited lands, rivers, lakes and mountain ranges are simply thought to belong to a village or tribe. Amongst most of the Naga tribes, land is owned by the community and no bit of land in these homelands is considered to be without an owner. Amongst most Kuki tribes, the relation to land is significantly different and tribal chiefs are the custodians of all land of the community. This notwithstanding, custodianship of the land is still ultimately vested in the community in either case. It follows from this that notions of homelands vary considerably from tribe to tribe. Most peculiarly in the case of the Kukis and Nagas, the homelands that each hold on to constitute essentially the same territory or at least overlap considerably, therefore the potential for violence over these conflicting claims of ownership is huge. Making it much worse and even more incompatible is that these homelands are ethnic exclusive preserves and their champions do not believe in any possibility of a shared political or socio-economic life or even want to work towards one.

To a great extent these different homeland notions are determined by the mode of economic practices of these different groups. Shift cultivators, nomadic herders, hunter-gatherers, settled agriculturists or subjects of feudal principalities, all would have different relations with land and therefore different ideas of ownership of land too. Traditionally, the Kukis are largely shift cultivators and the Nagas largely settled agriculturists though living on the same mountain ranges. The tussle over the creation of Sadar Hills can be under stood from this perspective too. This being the case, the Manipur government’s dilemma is also very much about deciding how to demarcate two different homelands when both are constituted virtually of the same territory. As a compromise it had announced it would leave aside all considerations of archaic homelands and instead

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create new districts if and when needed, strictly on assessments of the admi nistrative convenience. It had for the purpose instituted a probe body, the Committee on Reorganisation of Administrative and Police Boundaries, headed by the chief secretary to study the matter. However, neither of the disputing parties gave their consent to arbitration by the committee and thus the situation continues to be stalemated and communally volatile too.

It must also be recalled that in the mid1990s there had been bitter and bloody feuds between the Nagas and Kukis in these hills that lasted years resulting in the slaughter of over a thousand men, women and children, a majority of them Kukis. The Kukis were then not as well armed as the Nagas, backed as the latter were by their powerful militias. Several hundred times this number were also displaced permanently from their destroyed homes and villages in what were then described as organised ethnic cleansing campaigns. In the decade and a half that has gone by, the firepower equation has changed radically, with the Kukis too having spawned well armed militias of their own. Open violent conflicts now would therefore be much more lethal. The conflict of the 1990s also ensured further segregation of the two tribal groups with each moving away, or else pushed out, from joint settlement areas to more secure environments where their communities were physically dominant. Understandably, each group was also soon to become uneasy crossing into the other’s areas even when it was work related.

One of the complaints of Kukis in the Sadar Hills in the wake of the 1990s Kuki-Naga feud was that it was inconvenient for them to go the Naga dominated Senapati district headquarters to get even routine official matters cleared. This was also one of their arguments for why the Sadar Hills needed to be separated from Senapati and made an independent district with headquarters at Kangpokpi, barely 10km away from the Senapati district headquarters. Likewise, government employees of each community who are posted in the other’s areas have absented themselves from offices, again citing the same unease. Many government offices, including the judicial magistrate’s courts meant for the sensitive

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OCTOBER 22, 2011

hill districts had to be set up in the more neutral environment of Imphal.

Hills and Valleys

The issue is also predicted to get more complicated on another count. The hill areas are reserved for settlement by tribals only and the hill districts are non-revenue districts. The valley districts are open to all and are revenue districts, which also invariably means land is either individually owned or by the government. Again, the Sadar Hills are not a part of Senapati district though its larger area lies in this district. It also literally touches every other district of the state – the revenue districts in the valley as well as the non-revenue reserved districts in the hills – for Sadar Hills roughly constitutes all of the foothills that surround the valley. This is a 170-year-old legacy from the British colonial days, when, as Gangmumei Kamei wrote in Imphal Free Press some time ago, the British political agent during 1835-44, William McCulloch, helped the local ruler, Nara Singh, in the administration of the kingdom. McCulloch came up with the policy of settling Kuki migrants so as to create a buffer with the Naga villages that were generally located on hilltops, and also to use the Kukis to keep the Naga villages in check.

Non-compatible Systems

The existence of a non-compatible dual administrative system in the state would also mean that if and when hard boundaries are drawn to demarcate the new Sadar Hillls district, it would encroach on the notional homelands of other hill communities, in particular the Nagas, but also on individually owned arable lands in the valley districts in the foothills. This would dispossess individuals who in most cases would belong to the non-tribal Meiteis. Since this new district would also be a reserved one, Meiteis who come to be included in them would automatically become disenfranchised too, apart from being dispossessed of their landholdings. It is for this same reason that Jiribam, a tiny patch of non-tribal flatland on the Assam border has been made part of the revenue district of Imphal East rather than merged with the adjacent but reserved tribal districts of Tamenglong or Churachandpur. There has

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been an exception though in the case of the commercial town of Moreh, another tiny patch of flatland in the Myanmar border. Though this area is under the reserved Chandel district, it has been de-reserved to accommodate the needs of the resident non-tribal Tamils, Meiteis and various other business communities. While this has taken care of land revenue administration, it offers no answer to the question of political rights of the residents.

If and when a resident Tamil or Meitei wants to contest an assembly or parliamentary election in exercise of his or her rights guaranteed by the Constitution as a citizen of India, there would predictably be social unrest with consequences such as the current blockade. So far this has not happened, but the flaw of mixing two land revenue administrative systems within one district is obvious. If the Sadar Hills district is pushed through without rectifying these flaws, objections by and resistance from those who stand to lose their land is to be expected.

Nagalim Pressures

Further, the Naga homeland or “Nagalim” issue has another profound dimension. The dream of unifying and liberating their homeland is the chief agenda of Naga insurgents, in particular the faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland/ Nagalim (NSCN) led by Isak Chishi Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah which is now in a more than decade-long, peace negotiations with the Government of India that have been dragged on since 1997. Until the problem is resolved on this plank, the Naga civil organisations in Manipur are likely to remain intransigent on the matter, for indeed nobody would doubt the politics of these Naga organisations which periodically conduct disruptive campaigns in defence of the notion of the Naga homeland and the agendas placed by the Naga militants on the negotiating table in New Delhi are vitally interlinked. Revolving the Sadar Hills district issue will therefore require untying a gargantuan knot and it seems inevitable that Manipur will bleed much more in the process than it already has.

Pradip Phanjoubam ( is editor of the Imphal Free Press.

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