For more than 600 days, there has been a yet another formidable form of protest coming from the tribals in the state. On August 31, 2015, nine young people were shot dead in police firings in Churachandpur district. Eight dead bodies of those killed have been lying in a makeshift morgue at the district hospital. The locals had refused to bury the bodies unless the state government relented to their demands.
In order to comprehend the gravity of this protest, it is good to have some context. The geography of Manipur is shaped like a saucer with nine rings of hills on the periphery and a valley plain in the center. The hills area is divided into Tamenglong, Senpati and Ukhrul districts on the north and Churachandpur and Chandel on the south of Manipur (new hill districts like Noney, Kangpokpi, Kamjong, all in the north and Tengnoupal, Pherzwal, in the south, have recently been created). Churachandpur, in the south west, is the largest district in Manipur and one of the poorest in the country. It is dominated by the Kuki tribe, with around 19 sub tribes, most of them having strained relations with each other.
The entire state is fixed in a complex zero sum game between various communities; any gains for one community is seen at the cost of the other. The predominantly Hindu Meitei community that inhabits the fertile valley area has been facing huge insecurity with ever increasing pressure on its land resource. While the tribals from the hills can own land in both the hill and the valley, the Meiteis of the valley, who are not listed as scheduled tribes, cannot easily purchase land in the hills.
For years, Meitei insecurity over their land has found expression in various political movements. Since Meiteis control 40 assembly seats out of 60, they pretty much dictate the politics of the state. The state government, reeling under pressure from the Meitei community, passed three bills in the assembly on August 31, 2015 - the Protection of Manipur People's Bill 2015, the Manipur Land Reforms and Land Revenue (7th Amendment) Bill, and the Manipur Shops and Establishment (2nd Amendment) Bill, 2015 - to protect their land rights.
The tribals saw these bills as antithetical to their interests guaranteed by the constitution. Churachandpur, a tribal district, became the nerve center and saw massive protests against the bills. In retaliation, the police open fired, which killed nine people and injured hundreds.
Ever since that day, the entire region has been thrown into a vicious darkness. With the dead bodies decomposing in the morgue, the life was thrown into dysfunction. There were no official government visits or programs in the district. The previous Congress-led state government simply abdicated its responsibility after trying to unsuccessfully reach out to the bereaved families. A Joint Action Committee (JAC) created to negotiate with the state government on the demands of the tribals failed to initiate any dialogue for settlement.
It was only close to the state elections that the Congress government realized that it might lose the six seats in Churachandpur. It started back-channel discussions to quickly bury the dead bodies. They tried to entice the families of the departed with hefty compensation. But monetary compensations cannot heal political wounds.
With the existing levels of trust deficit between the tribals and the government, no resolution appeared plausible and the stalemate continued. The issue dominated the assembly elections. Star campaigners of different parties found it hard to campaign in Churachandpur. Who would want to do politics over dead bodies? Even Home Minister Rajnath Singh was visibly upset with the stalemate when he visited the town for an election rally. He personally assured the people of an early resolution and a respectful burial.
With the change of guard and formation of the first ever BJP-led government in Manipur in March, there was a renewed sense of hope among the people of various communities. After initial rounds of negotiations, a basic framework was agreed upon between the state government and the tribal groups. The core issue of the three contentious bills was already obsolete because the President did not give his assent to one of the bills. The other two bills were not taken up by the centre. The new state government further assured that it would not take up any new bill that affects the tribals without consulting with them. The only sticky point was the JAC's new demand to carve out a district - Lamka - from Churachandpur. Lamka was the place where the incident took place and is dominated by the Paitei sub-tribe.
The district creation demand was not acceptable to the BJP government. The BJP's entire election rhetoric was build up against Congress government's ad hoc executive decisions taken without stakeholder discussions. The glaring example was the creation of seven new districts with the stroke of the pen only to meet selfish electoral gains. The decision to carve out new districts had plunged the state into a four-month-long economic blockade called upon by United Naga Council (UNC). Therefore, the new government's stand has been clear - any new district will be created only through due process and structured stakeholders' discussions.
Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh has shown a firm resolve to stick to this new approach of governance where every community is taken into confidence and hasty decisions are being avoided. Lamka district was not even the core demand of the JAC and was only added subsequently. The JAC finally agreed to concede after the government assured that it would sincerely consider the demand of district creation based on the recommendations of a boundary commission. On May 10, after 618 days of the incident, both parties signed an MoU and agreed to give a respectful burial to the deceased.
There is a lot to learn from this incident, which saw a colossal collapse of the trust edifice that helps hold the society together. Manipur is a state wounded by multiple cuts. Each community - Meiteis, Nagas and Kukis - has mutually strained relations due to several historical reasons. In such a sensitive region, the state government's responsibility is to repose faith in the rule of law, take a just stand on vexed issues and gradually stitch open wounds. The BJP government in Manipur has shown what an inclusive and accommodative governance can achieve.
Yesterday, the sun rose brighter upon Churachandpur. The dense air has become sublime. There is a sense of ease. As government officials breathe a sigh of relief, they realize the daunting task ahead. They need to fill the governance deficit of years and restart the growth engine in one of the remotest areas of our country. As the nine bravehearts rest in peace, Manipur needs to look forward. "Forgive and forget" - as the 'People's Chief Minister' N Biren Singh pleads to thirty lakh Manipuris - should be the guiding force.
(Rajat Sethi is the Advisor to the Chief Minister of Manipur and a Senior Fellow at the India Foundation.)
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