Insights into Editorial: How Nagas Perceive the Creation of Seven Additional Districts in Manipur
Blockade of the national highways leading to the Manipur valley by the United Naga Council (UNC) has severely affected life in the State. The economic blockade has caused misery and untold sufferings to the common people and has fuelled ethnic tensions in Manipur. Nagas feel that their peaceful protests and appeals to the state as well as the Centre have been ignored. Thus, the economic blockade was seen as the only means through which they are able to raise the pitch.
Reason behind this:
The Manipur state government created seven new districts by bifurcating seven (of a total of nine) districts. This decision had as much to do with long-pending demands — in particular, for a new Kuki-majority district to be carved out of the larger Senapati hill district — as with easing administrative access to far-flung areas from the district headquarters.
However, this move was not welcomed by the UNC.
There were four Memoranda of Understanding signed between the Naga civil society and the Manipur Government. According to these, all stake holders would be consulted and the land rights of Naga people would be ensured. Given this, the Nagas perceive the creation of the seven new districts without consulting the stakeholders as a demonstration of utter disregard for the four memoranda as well as for the assurances given to them about consultations on matters affecting them.
Why the UNC is opposing this move?
- While residents and groups in the new districts have welcomed the decision, the UNC has protested, alleging that areas with a Naga population have been divided and that the lack of consultation is a violation of commitments made by both the Centre and the State in various memoranda of understanding.
- While better administrative management of the seven new districts should be feasible, the Manipuri Nagas of the existing hill districts of Tamenglong, Ukhrul, Senapati and Chandel feel that some of the new smaller districts would be under greater political control of the Manipur state administration at Imphal.
- There is also a foreboding among the Nagas that non-Naga tribes like Kukis would eventually dominate in districts like Kangpokpi — where presently there is a coexistence of Kukis, Nagas and the Meiteis. The UNC also claims that the creation of new districts in the Naga dominated hill areas will encroach upon and divide the traditional land holdings of Naga tribes.
- Besides, the government has not consulted the Hill Area Committees before taking the decision. The Hill Area Committees are formed to protect the rights of hill people, and under Article 371(C) of Constitution, must be consulted on matters relating to tribal people.
Article 371C and the Hill Areas Committee:
In the North Eastern State Reorganization Act, 1971, Parliament provided a constitutional safeguard for the interests of the Hill Areas. Accordingly, the Hill Areas Committee was constituted under article 371C. As per this article, the President may, by order made with respect to the State of Manipur, provide for the constitution and functions of a committee of the Legislative Assembly of the State consisting of members of that Assembly elected from the Hill Areas of that State.
- The Hill Area Committee is empowered by the Constitution to monitor law making for and administration of hill areas.6 Since the Hill Area Committees were formed to protect the rights of the hill people under Article 371C of the Constitution, the powers of the state legislature are limited by the Hill Areas Committee.
- The contention of the Nagas is that any law affecting the hill areas must be vetted by the committee, a rule that the state government overlooked when passing the three bills last year and again while creating the seven new districts. This is viewed by Nagas in particular as a violation of their tribal rights.
- Also, they feel that the state government has neither consulted the Hill Area Committee nor the Autonomous District Councils, thus disrespecting not only the constitutional provisions but also the local self-governance institutions. The Nagas also contend that these Committees/Councils are denied funds and not consulted by the state government on vital issues pertaining to the Hill people.
What’s the main concern now?
The state of turmoil in Manipur appears to have become a recurrent phenomenon. About a year ago, serious disturbances affecting public order arose after the Manipur Assembly hurriedly passed three controversial bills on August 31, 2015. These related to compulsory registration of non-Manipuris, non-alienation of their land rights, and registration of employees of shops and establishments in the Imphal Valley. These were passed without prior consideration and vetting by the members belonging to the hill constituencies and hill councils. These bills, deemed to be negatively affecting the interests of tribals and violative of the afore-mentioned constitutional provisions, had triggered a huge reaction in the hill districts and Churachanpur. These three bills did not finally get Presidential accent, and perforce had to be reverted back by the Union Home Ministry (MHA) to the state government for reconsideration. As in the case of the creation of seven new districts, the state government`s unilateral and non-consensual action triggered the earlier crisis as well.
What needs to be done now?
The Union government has a residuary responsibility to assist in turning around the present situation. While a direct assumption of executive responsibility by the Union government may not be warranted, a more proactive role of the Governor at New Delhi`s behest, may be justifiably required. The Constitution has adequate scope for this purpose under its Seventh schedule and Article 371 C, without impinging on the autonomy of the state.
MHA may simultaneously use the instrumentality of the state governor for suitable overview and to ensure that the consultative process necessary with the hill councils is mandatorily followed within the existing constitutional framework.
The institutional divergence and diversity in property rights is a unique phenomenon in Manipur and land has been the root cause of many conflicts in the state. Here the socio-economic and political systems are centred on the issue of land. Land, particularly for the tribals, has remained the single most important physical possession. Land also plays an important role in shaping cultural and ethnic identity. Furthermore, the tribal communities have a symbiotic relationship with land and forests on which their livelihood depends. Given all this, the Nagas see the creation of the seven new districts as a threat of encroachment on their tribal land rights.
Hence, there is a need to understand the perspective of the Nagas and the reasons for their agitation. That is essential for the governments at the Centre and the State to suitably address the issues involved and work towards bringing peace and harmony in Manipur.
While many tribal groups spearheaded by the Naga fraternity have expressed reservations about the creation of the seven new districts, the majority Meiteis and even the Kuki minority have welcomed the move. The onus now remains with the new Government of Manipur to embrace the perspective of the Nagas and address their core concerns. The views of the Nagas on the formulation of the new districts must be considered and addressed to foster peace and harmony in the state.