The MLR&LR Act generated a lot of dissent and the agitation against the uniform land policy was one of them. On 29 July 2010, the Committee on Protection of Tribal Areas in Manipur (COPTAM) and Churachandpur District Students Union (CDSU) called a 12-hour-long total bandh in the tribal areas of Manipur. Some of the main reasons of discontentment were overlapping census operations 2011, redrawing of district boundaries and improper maintenance of tribal land records and dual taxation of the hill tribes. The Manipur Remote Sensing Application Centre (MARSAC) redraws the maps of the hill districts. Many tribal villages in close proximity were merged with the valley districts. For instance, out of 14 villages within the revenue jurisdiction of Imphal West under Lamshang subdivision, 10 were also included in the Sadar Hills (Kangpokpi) according to the Hill house Tax payment records of the hill department.
The COPTAM demanded the rectification of overlapping district boundaries in the census operation. It also wants maintenance of land records in the respective hill districts and collection of land revenues thereof by the hill districts concerned and initiation of constitutional protection of the Manipur tribal areas as is accorded in all tribal areas of Northeast India. Subsequently, bandhs and strikes were frequent as a part of safeguarding and assertion of the traditional land rights of the hill tribes. One of the debates in the public domain within Manipur remains—Can the Sixth Schedule help resolve the conflicts centred on land and forest resources? The Sixth Schedule has the dual aim of providing for ‘self-rule’ as well as ‘integration into the mainstream-dominant social order’. It allows for the formation of autonomous district councils run by people from within the tribal communities. However, Manipur is still under the Manipur Hill Areas District Council Act (1971) and district councils in the state are not entrusted with any judicial and legislative powers. These councils were not put under the Sixth Schedule and were completely dependent on the state government and have few executive powers and minimal financial powers (Dena 2006: 8). They are not even empowered to mobilise sources of income. The elected district councils were superseded, and their administration was entrusted to district officials. The Act also empowers the District Commissioner to suspend or modify any decision and function of the councils. The Hill Areas Committee (HAC) of the Manipur State Assembly passed a resolution in 1974 recommending the replacement of district councils by the Sixth Schedule. The demand for the extension of the Sixth Schedule to the hills of Manipur was raised in a meeting of the Hill Areas Committee in March 1978.
From the 1980s, this demand has gained momentum and one memorandum after another was submitted by various tribal organisations to the chief minister, the union home minister and the Prime Minister (Dena 2006). Two successive state governments in 1991 and 1992 echoed and the state government sent this demand and recommendations to the centre. However, the issue still remains pending with the Government of India (Ray and Kamkhenthang 1997: 243–55). It is said that the administration of hill areas had been locked within the dominant structure of Meitei elites to enhance state authority. It conformed to the statement of Hassan, when he says ‘state power vested in an exclusivist Meitei elites severely reduced the state’s legitimacy in the eyes of the minority tribal communities in the state’ (2006: 14). It is also mentioned that the opposition by the Meiteis for the extension of Sixth Schedule provision in tribal areas displays the politics of denial by the dominant community.
The control over territory and land is related to the issue of identity and territoriality. Mention may be made that the Kuki chiefs had tried to preserve their territorial integrity during the British colonial period from the beginning of the Kuki rebellion of 1917–1919 (see Bhadra 1975). In the post-independence India, the Kuki National Assembly (KNA) demand a separate Kuki state where the Kukis would enjoy autonomy and be able to look after their needs within the Union of India and submitted a memorandum to the Government of India in 1960 (Kuki National Assembly 1960: 20–21). The KNA further asserted that the demanded state would enable a space for Kuki minorities which would secure their lives and properties and ensure their due share of development. Thus, the KNA have endorsed their demand for a Kuki state since the 1960s. The 1980s has witnessed another phase of political movements spearheaded by the Kuki armed groups for creation of a separate autonomy. The Kuki armed groups under the umbrella of Kuki National Organisation (KNO) and the United People’s Front (UPF) have signed a cease fire agreement since 1 August 2005 and several rounds of political dialogue are going on till now. Similarly, the Naga groups under the aegis of United Naga Council (UNC) are also demanding an alternate arrangement from the Government of Manipur for the Naga people.
It is loudly murmured and claimed that for tribals in Manipur, the post-colonial regime has turned out to be more repressive in comparison with colonial regime. The Government of Manipur has passed many acts which encroach on local customary laws and practices. The attempt of the state Government to implement the law across the entire hills has been met with stiff opposition from various tribal organisations. State manoeuvring of this nature, however, is stoutly resisted by the hill people as ‘alien’ and antithetical to their cherished traditional institutions and worldview (Suan 2009: 264). Various civil societies, human rights organisations, student bodies and tribal activists are in line of opposing it. The COPTAM is one such body formed to oppose the move of the state. However, at the present situation, the Manipur state is committed to passing the legislation and implementing it across the entire state. Thus, the hill people are opposing the law that treats the hills and valleys as homogenous or entails the enactment of a uniform law applicable to both the valley and the hills which undermine their historical and customary rights over their land and other natural resources.
The recommendation of Justice M Hidayatullah that land belongs to the community and individual simultaneously must be taken into consideration while appraising land relations and planning land reforms in the tribal areas of Northeast India (cited in Dasgupta 1991: 27) is relevant in this debate. Moreover, it must be equally remembered that there is no restriction of settlement of non-tribals, including migrants from mainland India in the hill areas. This is so because very often, pronounced statement came from the apologist that while the tribals are allowed to settle in the valley districts, the Meiteis or the non-tribals are not allowed to settle in the hill districts. However, there is no such law which restricts or prohibits the settlement of non-tribals or the Meiteis in the hill districts. There are number of Meitei settlements in Churachandpur district alone which is also found in other districts like Chandel and Senapati (Sadar Hills). 124 N. Kipgen as Fernandes (n.d.) rightly argues ‘The change of the law is only one step in it but it is essential. One has to begin by recognising their customary law as basic to their identity formation. The law has then to be updated instead of being replaced by another system that can weaken them as a community’. Given the symbiotic relationship with the land, the community views the resultant conflicts as defence of its culture, identity and livelihood. Therefore, the umbilical connection and relationship that the tribal have with land need to be acknowledged. To conclude, since the MLR&LR Act is entirely framed for the valley district of Manipur, the application of it in the hills areas in its present form is bound to create further sociopolitical turmoil as it is going on now unless amended for uniform land policy.
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