Chronicle of a conflict foretold
In Manipur, everyone will have to agree to a shared homeland if the crisis is to be solved
(This article was first published in The Hindu in its December 28 edition)
The tragedy of the current communal flashpoint in Manipur is that for a long time there has been a sense of foreboding that things were headed this direction, and few did anything about it. What is surprising is the blindness on the part of all involved in the business of peace-making, and those waging supposedly people’s struggles, to the fact of a peculiar geographical destiny which has bound and still binds much of this troubled frontier, and that any effort to break this unseen bondage will likely result in deadly conflicts. This has been particularly true of multi-ethnic and multi-religious Manipur. Indeed, if geography predetermines conflicts as Robert Kaplan explains in The Revenge of Geography, Manipur would be a fine demonstration of this theory.
Thankfully, no ethnic carnage has happened. Although there have been pockets of arson and violence, there have been no human casualties, which gives hope that better sense can still hold. There are also signs now that the immediate cause for the heightened ethnic tension — that of the indefinite blockade along Manipur’s two major lifelines, the Imphal-Dimapur road and the Imphal-Silchar road, imposed by the United Naga Council (UNC) since November 1 — may end soon. Following commendable groundwork done by a group of citizens calling themselves the Goodwill Mission, the UNC has indicated on Monday that it is open to talks with the Manipur government on the matter. The latter on its part had extended invitations to the former for such talks on several occasions. The Central government too has woken up to the reality and has finally decided to send 4,000 paramilitary troops to open the highways in case the blockade remains.
Root of the crisis
The roots of any conflict can never been in black and white, but if a single overwhelming reason for the current crisis is to be identified, it is the primeval notion of an exclusive ethnic homeland so current in places like Manipur. The belief is that such homelands are a given and have existed since time immemorial. Communities who claim to be natural heirs and custodians of these homelands think of others as aliens. The trouble is, those thus excluded, as all traditional ethnic communities, have their own notions of homeland, and these more often than not overlap, and sometimes completely, with the ones in which they are supposed to be aliens. Depending on the state of economic bases of the communities in question, these homeland notions understandably vary. For instance, settle agriculturists, shift cultivators and hunter gatherers will have different relationships with land. Nagas, Kukis, Meiteis and many other smaller ethnic groups in Manipur are thus in a web of overlapped homelands. Under the circumstances, the unanswered question is, whose homeland is to be given precedence, especially when they overlap? The lack of courage and imagination on the part of the enlightened civil society as well as governments to address this question is what keeps places like Manipur perpetually on the edge.
Furthermore, these homelands have undergone a great deal of skewing with the advent of modern land revenue administration, brought in by the British beginning 1826. The clear-cut division between the hills and plains in Assam and Manipur is one of these. After the Treaty of Yandaboo, 1826 that concluded the Burmese occupation of Assam and Manipur, the British annexed Assam and made it a province of Bengal, but left Manipur as a protectorate state. No sooner, the British realised the need to demarcate revenue from non-revenue lands in Assam and came up with the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation in 1873, by which an Inner Line was drawn roughly at the base of the hills surrounding the revenue-earning fertile Assam valleys. The non-revenue hills beyond were left unadministered, except for occasional punitive expeditions to punish tribes who raided the plains in the lean seasons.
This segregation of the hills from the plains continued till the time of Indian independence. In the Government of India Act, 1919, the hills beyond the Inner Line were termed as Backward Tracts and continued to be left unadministered. In the Government of India Act, 1935, these Backward Tracts were redesignated and clubbed into two categories: “excluded areas” and “partially excluded areas”. The excluded areas were to remain unrepresented in the provincial assembly and governed directly by the Governor of the province. The partially excluded areas were to have some representations in the provincial government through representatives appointed by the Governor.
Although the British did not draw an Inner Line in Manipur, they brought in the tried and tested non-revenue space management norms from Assam. They left the fertile and intensely cultivated revenue lands of the Imphal valley to be administered under modern revenue norms while the sparsely populated non-revenue hills were generally left unadministered, but under the charge of the British Political Agent in the then kingdom, in his official capacity as the President Manipur State Darbar. This pattern of administration soon came to be institutionalised and was retained after independence. Today, the Imphal valley is under the modern revenue administration as defined by the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms Act, introduced while it was still a Union Territory in 1962, but not the hills, where customary laws continue to shape administrative norms. In the valley, the state is deemed to own all lands, and individual owners lease their small possessions and pay taxes in return. However, this principle of eminent domain is disputed in the hills.
Viewed against this backdrop, the UNC blockade should be open to different interpretations. The UNC was demanding an assurance from the Manipur government that what they deem as their ancient homeland — or Nagalim, reflecting the vocabulary of the Naga militant group, the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah) — will not be divided into districts without their consent. In particular, they did not want the Kuki-dominated Sadar Hills given this status, as they consider Kukis as migrants who settled in their land and who can only be their tenants. The Manipur government, which was expected to create this district together with Jiribam, a small enclave of predominantly non-tribal population, deferred the decision in the wake of the UNC protest, but a December 8 midnight cabinet meet, for whatever its wisdom, decided to go ahead and create not just these two districts but five more by splitting altogether seven existing districts, thereby stiffening the UNC’s blockade stance.
What then can be the way forward? First and foremost, conflict resolution in such a scenario cannot be a bilateral matter between the Central government and any single party, as it seems to be the case in the ongoing Naga peace talks. A chain can be as strong as the weakest link, and the Centre will have to look for a broader and more inclusive solution to suit what essentially is a multilateral issue. Second, everyone will have to agree to a shared homeland. The lofty goal of “shared sovereignty” and “competencies” being negotiated between the NSCN(IM) and the Centre cannot be the solution to the problem of the region unless this sharing extends to all other stake holders.
PradipPhanjoubam is editor of ‘Imphal Free Press’ and author of ‘The Northeast Question’.