The well-orchestrated violence in the tribal hill-town of Churachandpur in Manipur has for the time being been contained. Houses of legislators and ministers have been attacked and burned and a number of people have been killed. This should alert us to the sensitivity of the issues at stake, and caution us that violence could conceivably become stubbornly resistant to handling if the questions that are causing anxiety are not handled with political deftness, rather than in the spirit of partisanship.
Chief Minister O. Ibotombi Singh needs to demonstrate that he must act sufficiently as the guardian of the whole state, and it is time that he went back to the drawing board and called in the agitated tribal hill sections to reassure them that they have nothing to fear under his stewardship.
As is often the case, the August 31 violence, for which the trigger was the misunderstanding caused by three bills that have been unanimously endorsed in the state Assembly, is really about identity and the distribution of resources.
The Meitis — the valley people who are not tribal — are about 60 per cent of the population but have only 10 per cent of the state’s land, although they are relatively well placed in the social order. The Kukis, along with the Nagas and others, are the poorer 40 per cent of the population whose land — a good bit of it hilly — is about 90 per cent of the state. In the given situation, mutual suspicions are apt to arise and virtually any unknown or misunderstood circumstance can work as a spark that may light a prairie fire.
Manipur is a border state, with a stretch of the demarcation line with Myanmar being completely open in nature and ethnic tribes on both sides of the border having relatively easy passage. In any border region, the first factor for stability is the state government which must nip any signs of instability in the bud.
The hill tribes have constitutional protection under Article 371 (c), which prohibits the sale and purchase of their lands by non-tribe people even of the state. In the event, these people do not need to be insulated with an Inner-Line Permit-type arrangement which the British colonialists had brought into some other parts of the Northeast. There has consequently never been an ILP in Manipur. Since one of the bills which led to the violence appears to have proposed this, fear has been aroused among the tribes if steps may be underway to dilute Article 371 (c).
It would be salutary if uncertainties are removed forthwith. No occasion should be provided for the Kuki tribes to make common cause with the Nagas and others against the valley....