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Indigenous Labour Pain

A social movement for safeguarding the interests of indigenous people have been going on for a long time in Manipur. Today the issue has grown out of control with grave consequences.

I’m a Meitei from the valley of Manipur. It is necessary to declare my identity for all the reasons mentioned herein.

Some people prefer to use Meetei, which is considered as the correct nomenclature. There’s a lot in our name: for example, as much as there are strong refutation in the use of Meitei and Meetei, there is also contestation in the use of Manipur, a late medieval name which was coined after the arrival and onslaught of Hinduism, particularly in the valley. As has been the belief since the dawn of civilisation, the Meiteis follow the Sanamahi faith. Though I admit I’m an atheist, it is my belief that religion is inseparable from politics.

Manipur is one of the states in the so-called Northeast India, a region which according to official estimates has 220 ethnic groups with a population of 40 million. Enveloped by nine ranges of hills, Manipur has a population of a little more than 2.7 million, 34 recognised ethnic groups and 29 dialects plus Meiteilon with its own script as the lingua franca. There is nothing fancy in calling ourselves the majority but the Meiteis, who constitute 27% of the total population and are mostly valley-dwellers, is the main ethnic group. We are amongst the most vulnerable indigenous groups in the world. This is the problem.

Photo: Centre for Organisation Research and Education (CORE) Manipur
       
Who Are the Indigenous People?

Indigenous people (or yelhoumee in Meiteilon) are known by different names: tribal, natives, first peoples, aboriginals and ethnic groups, amongst others. In the new millennium they have been recognised for playing a vital role in the evolution of humanity. Reports indicate that, across the globe, the indigenous people are 370 million strong and are spread over 70 countries—that is around 5% of the world population—of which 70% of them live in Asia and the Pacific. But who are these people?

In the Permanent Forum of Indigenous Issues* (www.un.org), the United Nations have defined seven parameters from which indigenous people are identified. This includes:

1.    Self- identification as indigenous peoples at the individual level and accepted by the community as their member
2.    Historical continuity with pre-colonial and/or pre-settler societies
3.    Strong link to territories and surrounding natural resources
4.    Distinct social, economic or political systems
5.    Distinct language, culture and beliefs
6.    Form non-dominant groups of society
7.    Resolve to maintain and reproduce their ancestral environments and systems as distinctive peoples and communities
Since 1995 the UN has been celebrating
the International Day of the World’s
Indigenous People on Aug 9
[* The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly during its 61st session at UN Headquarters in New York City on 13 September 2007. Read the complete text on the UN’s site: www.un.org/esa/socdev/unpfii/documents/DRIPS_en.pdf]

According to the First Peoples Worldwide (www.firstpeoples.org), a Native American non-profit organisation, explains why ‘indigenous lands contain so much of the world’s natural assets, yet they are not the wealthiest, healthiest people on Earth.’ It mentions: ‘The answer is clear—we are not simply losing control of our assets, our assets are being stripped from us. At the same time, we are systematically denied access to the legal and political tools to secure our rights. This is the single most unifying issue for all indigenous peoples.’

Throughout the world, these people are bogged down with the problems of eviction, violence, exclusion, discrimination and disenfranchisement. This has naturally led to poverty, health crisis and cultural destruction. Further, other dominant people’s ignorance and discrimination have displaced them from their original dwelling places, but not before depriving them of their historical and natural resources. This has resulted in a vicious cycle of underdevelopment and general crises.

In India, most of these people are grouped under scheduled tribes (STs). According to the Constitution of India, ‘an ST is an administrative category defined by Article 366 (25) as such tribes or tribal communities or parts of, or groups within such tribes, or tribal communities as are deemed  under  Article  342  to  be  scheduled  tribes  for  the  purposes  of  this Constitution. Clause 1 of Article  342  identifies  the  STs  as  the  tribes  or  tribal communities  or  part  of  or  groups  within  these tribes  and  tribal  communities  which have  been  declared  as  such  by  the  President  of  India  through  a  public  notification’. (Source: The Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Government of India, http://tribal.nic.in)

In the Census of India 2011 (censusindia.gov.in/) report, the strength of ST in the country is 84,326,240, which is 8.2% of the total population; plus, the state with the highest proportion of STs is Mizoram (94.5%), located to the south of Manipur, and the union territory with the highest proportion of STs is Lakshadweep (also 94.5%).

For indigenous lives, the natural world and the land occupy the most important space. These are a source of sustenance, a marker for identity and a site for spiritual development. While the cases are always of a majority-versus-minority issue, the problem is much deeper. The example of Manipur clearly illustrates this confusion clearly. As in some Latin American countries, the dominant Meitei, a non-ST group, is also an indigenous people. There are no statistical reports but the numbers are all against the natives.

A symbolic funeral for the Manipur chief minister
Photo: Jit Ningomba

Implementation of Inner Line Permit System in Manipur

If we go by textbook definition, Manipur—with its multiple ethnic groups—is the perfectly neglected indigenous society. Political representation is minimal; in fact, electoral politics has been equated with democracy while militarisation has turned the province into a buffer zone. The people are not considered as equal citizens of the Indian union. Economic marginalisation, poverty and extreme backwardness follow naturally in such a condition. Blatant discrimination of the common people along with the lack of infrastructure and services have only added insult to the injury.

In addition to the already fragile situation, there are armed movements for the right to self-determination, protests for autonomy and homelands, multiple overlapping claims for territories, hostility towards each other and transformation of the tiniest issues into full-scale violent agitations on account of the pathetic governance and administration systems.

A curfew–protest scene from my leikai
Photo: Rakesh Meihoubam
These are not a sporadic happening but a regular symptom. It is so predictable that the Manipuri valley people have a notion that June is the month of tragedy: that one case or the other will certainly jolt the people and government alike and it is true. The government, on the other hand, is quite used to this mêlée, which is obvious from their time-tested wait-and-watch approach to every kind of problems.

How could we expect the people’s representatives will come up with any reliable measures for protecting the indigenous people, in light of the recently renamed Act East Policy, which has been predicted to assist a great demographic change in the region?  

The indigenous people are under threat in the state. Several outsiders (read people from mainland India whose sole identity is ‘Indian’) are outnumbering several ethnic groups. The condition is grave as the outsiders command the labour market and their number is rising swiftly. Then there is the case of natives in Tripura where they have become a minority in their own homeland. So, in this part of the world, it is quite reasonable how people are desperate for a law or regulation to contain the issue. In this context, it is essential to note that the state has been in a vicious cycle of political violence.

Here is a brief about the ILP system:   

Inner Line Permit (ILP) is an official travel document issued by the Government of India to allow inward travel of an Indian citizen into a protected/restricted area for a limited period. It is obligatory for Indian citizens from outside those states to obtain permit for entering into the protected state. The document is an effort by the government to regulate movement to certain areas located near the international border of India. This is an off-shoot of the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulations, 1873, which protected Crown’s interest in the tea, oil and elephant trade by prohibiting British subjects from entering into these Protected Areas (to prevent them from establishing any commercial venture that could rival the Crown's agents).

The word British subjects was replaced by Citizen of India in 1950. Despite the fact that the ILP was originally created by the British to safeguard their commercial interests, it continues to be used in India, officially to protect tribal cultures in northeastern India. There are different kinds of ILPs, one for tourists and others for people who intend to stay for long-term periods, often for employment purposes.

—    Ministry Of Development Of North Eastern Region (MDoNER, www.mdoner.gov.in), North East India

While critics are lambasting the ILP as a colonial legacy, it will be interesting to know their take on AFSPA, another colonial masterpiece.
Who let the dogs out?
Photo: E-pao.net

The opponents have also put forward some points on the demerits of ILP. For instance, they argue many states in the region are deficient of labours needed for a modern market. So, the system will only further deepen the crises. Besides, migration is a natural affair and thus inevitable. In this region—that share 4,500 kilometres of its border with neighbouring countries as compared to mere 21 kilometres with India—there are always threats of infiltration as well as actual influx from neighbouring countries such as Bangladesh, Burma and Nepal. However, the grand solution of beefing up border security will solve the problem, or at least, it is presumed so. Finally, there is the eternal argument of if-someone-eats-crap-you-will-also-start-eating-it logic, or precisely, if it is applied in Manipur, others will try to follow suit. 

Amongst the NE states, the ILP system is enforced in Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland; while protests for the implementation of this system are underway in Manipur and Meghalaya.

In an attempt to safeguard the interest of the minorities, the Federation of Regional Indigenous Societies (FREINDS) started the movement for the ILP. To further the demand for implementing the system, a Joint Committee on Inner Line Permit (JCILP) was formed in July 2012. The committee was constituted comprising the members of several civil society organisations (CSO), which had earlier taken up the issues of indigenous people separately. Some of the major CSOs include the Ethno Heritage Council (HERICOUN), FREINDS, Information Centre for Hill Areas, Manipur (ICHAM), Komrem Union, Kuki Inpi and National Identity Protection Committee (NIPCO). Two student bodies, All Manipur Students’ Union (AMSU) and Democratic Students’ Alliance of Manipur (DESAM), also have members in the committee. The driving force is the belief that this system will provide a constitutional defence for the existence of minorities.

Around the same time in 2012, the union government had rejected the request from the state government outrightly. Instead New Delhi had commanded the local feudal lords (a.k.a people’s representatives) to solve the problem and take care of the non-Manipuri people residing in the state. Behind the scene lie the complex issues of migration with its threats and challenges. Apparently the demand is only too pro-Meitei, which counts for nothing in the national interest. Yet the protests continue till today. This cannot be without reason.

On one level, several outsiders have been killed at regular levels. Most of these victims are small-time tradesmen. The civil societies have been facing the flak for selective amnesia because of their silence on these killings. However, it is an open secret how the indigenous people’s claim for land and the right to self-determination are against the outsiders, while many of us would reduce it as an anti-mayang (mainland Indians) movement. The stakeholders include the state, which in the name of growth and development are exploiting the people and the land.

Filmstar Boney participated in a
street protest in Keishamthong
Photo: CORE, Manipur

This boils down to the maxim that we are a selfish animal. Politics makes us brute and manipulative.  

On another, we have already the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms Act, 1960. One of its contentious issues is that the hill-dwelling tribal can buy land anywhere in the state but it is not applicable to others, including the valley people. The act, according to official documents, ‘intends to bring about uniformity in distribution of land throughout the state and is extended to the whole of the state of Manipur except the hill areas thereof.’

Here it is noteworthy that the decadal census data of India, according to its 1931 report, had included the Meiteis in the general category, just on account of this group following the Hindu faith. No wonder, often these days, there are also protests for demanding to include the Meiteis in one of the scheduled groups (The Scheduled Caste Plan of the Meitei: Rewatching the Theatre of the Absurd).

Inner Line Permit as Redeemer

If not for the case of Tripura, history is a witness to the drastic consequences resulting from the settlement of outsiders in indigenous territories. Indirect colonisation has affected self-sufficient natives to the level of annihilation. For instance, there are proofs that the European settlers would poison a water source to eliminate the Australian aboriginals as well as pursue their golden divide-and-rule policy.

History is just a testimony; and the problem exists in various corners of the contemporary world, and Manipur is the perfect example. The only favourable matter is that the people have started speaking out before an emergency. It is totally another issue why the government—despite knowing the sentiments of the people and the logic behind the demand for a constitutional solution—is as usual acting deaf and dumb.
Many people have been apprehensive about
school students taking part in the agitation. Here’s a scene
from a sit-in protest by the students of Tamphasana Girls’ School.
Photo: E-pao.net

We might understand if the authority is studying the problems from economic and statistical perspectives. However, there is no such initiative from its side. If there is anything apparent, it is their expectation that another crisis will take over the current issue. Just a few days ago in Manipur, the government was the centre of attraction on another issue. Chadong, a village in Ukhrul district, has been literally submerged and the people evicted involuntarily—all in the name of development and building a dam. In another case, several people from Mao were chased away after a row over Dzuko Valley. It is another story how they had escaped from there and descended to Imphal to sell their produce and in no time, they have to beat the brunt of curfew. Today the authority is occupied with imposing curfew: a student has been killed in a street demonstration for demanding the implementation of the ILP system. Tomorrow, nobody knows what is in store.

In this kind of situation, it will not be wrong to declare that the government is stirring up the ideals of neo-colonialism. The union government, in particular, has been supporting militarisation and using the region as a buffer zone. The dictionary definition of this zone mentions it is a neutral area serving to separate hostile forces or nations. There is also the concept of a frontier, or an area that needs to be protected with military hauteur. We have seen how much or rather less the region shares its border with India. For Manipur, it is merely a three-hour ride from the capital town, Imphal, to Burma; while two of the hill districts, Ukhrul and Chandel, lie adjacent to this country. 

In Making the Case for a Regional Approach to Peacebuilding written by Necla Tschirgi in the Journal of Peacebuilding and Development (http://www.sandiego.edu/peacestudies/research-fieldwork/jpd/), wars ‘are a web of interlocking conflicts involving the transfer of populations, arms, armies, finances, and conflict goods across increasingly porous boundaries’.

If we view the problem with an open heart, just like many people including some of the benevolent natives have been preaching, the issue is even more tragic. The exodus of outsiders is not a charity, period. It is sheer commercial interest only. To achieve the objective they need not be concerned with the plight of the natives. For these outsiders, land is just a resource, the community an ecosystem and the people mere assets. Remember how the indigenous communities are closely related with their lands. The western concept of ownership or legal title is as foreign as the look of the people. On the other hand, migration might be indispensable but we cannot just afford to maintain the status quo for the obvious reasons.

However, there is a caveat in the ILP system. For long we have always seen that the laws exist properly only on papers. Again, the call for open heartedness does not seem to be a good suggestion. There is a desperate need to change the existing mentality and the ways of life. It is hard to say how a single system is going to balance that equation. For that matter, we are not a logical people. We rely too much on instincts and our lives are not more than a collective mess. How would it be if we seek for a better alternative to the ILP system? Though the ILP system might be a good foundation, we need the birth of a thousand new ideas for growth and survival, and not a mere constitutional safeguard.

Police, protests and the people: The most recent demonstration is a protest against the Manipur Regulation of Visitors, Tenants and Migrant Workers (MRVTMW) Bill, 2015, which the government had passed in March 2015. The bill, allegedly manipulated from the original draft prepared by an All Political Party Committee on the implementation of ILP, has been rebuked for its impotency. Check the contents of the bill on Epao gallery page. (Addendum: The secretary to the chief minister has issued a press release on 12 July that the government has decided to withdraw the bill and that a special sitting of the state assembly will be convened soon.)
Photo: Pradeep Salam

Related pieces on the ILP system:

  1. Enforce Inner Line Permit System in Manipur
  2. Campaign Banners for the Inner Line Permit System in Manipur 
  3. An Account on the Present Status of ILP Movement in Manipur 

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