Will nine coffins in Jantar Mantar end the bloody 'plains versus hills' strife in Manipur?
Tribal students of Manipur living in New Delhi are displaying a slice of the ongoing protest back home against the state government's passage of three bills by placing nine coffins in Jantar Mantar.
By Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty
In the twilight hour, under the halogen lights slipping through the tree canopies, the popular protest venue of the National Capital -- the Jantar Mantar -- looks unusually restful. The day’s discontent of the various groups of protesters sitting under their makeshift tents, and on the stages lining the road, easily gets overshadowed by the soothing chirps of the homebound birds.
There is some action near one such protest venue though. It certainly looks unique to the passers-by. Random foreign tourists and one or two cars going past slow down to take note of nine black coffins sitting on the stage with a banner at the backdrop that features a row of nine faces with their names. All of these people reportedly fell to police bullets during a violent protest in Manipur’s Churachandpur town on 1 September.
Present at the venue is Ro Hmar, the convener of Manipur Tribals Forum, a group of 24 tribal students’ organisations formed to carry out the Delhi leg of the protest. Ro says, "We have been at Jantar Mantar from 4 pm to 8 pm every day since 4 November. The coffins have been placed on the stage to highlight to the Centre, and also to the national media, that the bodies have since been lying in the coffins in Churachandpur."
The decision not to bury the dead needs a little explanation for someone not clued in to the protest going on for the last two and a half months in Churachandpur town, a far cry from the hullabaloo of Delhi and its issues.
On 31 August, the Manipur Assembly passed three bills in response to a demand for reintroduction of the Inner Line Permit (ILP) by the valley people -- the Meiteis living in four non-hill districts -- to stem the influx of migrants into the State. They were the Manipur Shops and Establishments (Second Amendment) Bill, 2015, The Protection of Manipur People Bill, 2015 and the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms (Seventh Amendment) Bill, 2015.
Next day, a violent demonstration took place in Churachandpur town against the bills which the hill people -- those occupying the six hill districts of Ukhrul, Senapati, Tamenglong, Chandel, Sadar Hills and Churachandpur – allege will give the Meitei-majority state government "sweeping powers" to not only take away their traditional rights over their land — as granted by Article 371 C of the Constitution, but will also eventually compromise their tribal identity.
The demonstrators took to the streets and burnt the house of the State Health Minister Phungzathang Tonsing and that of five MLAs, accusing them of "keeping quiet in the Assembly" when their "rights" were being taken away. Media reports say the vehicle of the Churachandpur Deputy Commissioner was also torched. According to police, the mob prevented fire engines from reaching the sites. The police opened fire to quell the demonstrations, which reportedly killed eight men between the ages of 20 and 30 and an 11-year-old boy.
These are the nine bodies that have since been kept in coffins in a makeshift morgue in the local hospital, a point that MTF wants to particularly highlight in Delhi. Also, that protesters have refused to bury them till the Manipur government withdraws the bills and the Centre fulfills the long pending demand of the people for a separate administration.
Says Ro, "In our tribal culture, whoever dies before 12 noon has to be buried the same day. But people have kept the bodies for over 77 days now because they are angry at the discrimination they face in various ways in the state." He gives an example, claiming, "The Manipur Police never use live bullets on protesters in the valley districts but always does it in the hill areas." A school boy died in the protest against ILP in the valley too, but Ro claims, "not because of a live bullet but from a sharp rubber bullet".
As per tribal traditions, the Joint Action Committee (JAC) spearheading the protest held a Hiam Kham with the state government early this week. "Hiam Kham is a meeting where one party admits its mistake and the other party accepts it and the process of rectifying the mistake begins. In old days, a Hiam Kham typically meant a man admitting his mistake after killing another man’s animal. The owner accepts it and cooks the meat of the animal to have a meal together, meaning they have moved on. In the Hiam Kham with the government, the JAC stated a charter of demands which the Government refused to accept," says Ro.
So the stalemate continues. Also continues MTF’s effort to draw the attention of the national media to the issue. "We have contacted every news organisation to highlight our concerns but the media is as usual not interested in the North East issues," he says.
The effort is also on to involve the Centre to intervene on their behalf. In fact, soon after the protest erupted, the Autonomous District Council (ADC) members of Churachandpur visited Delhi and gave memorandums to President Pranab Mukherjee, Congress president Sonia Gandhi, Home Minister Rajnath Singh, Minister of Home for State Kiren Rijiju, then minority affairs minister Nazma Heptullah and Tribal Affairs Minister Jual Oram besides having many rounds of meetings with Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) officials.
The ADC members' contention was that "These bills have been deliberately termed money bills by the Ibobi Singh-run Congress government though they have nothing to do with finance. It was to bypass the Hill Area Committee(comprising elected leaders of the hill districts) because the Manipur Legislative Assembly (Hill Areas Committee) Order, 1972, states that any bill, other than a money bill, has to be referred to the HAC for consideration after it is introduced in the Assembly." They allege that "the state government’s aim is to take over the hill area land as the new amendment to the Land Reforms Bill gives the state cabinet the sole right to allot any hill area land which otherwise needed permission of the ADC."
The MHA sent special secretary (Internal Security) Ashok Prasad to Churachandpur on 22 September to take stock of the situation. Meanwhile, the state governor has sent the bills to the Centre for approval. On 9 November, the MHA released a press note saying, it "will consult all stakeholders including the State Government, hill and the valley people and other interested parties on the issue before arriving at any decision."
Rickey Haokip, president of Kuki Students Federation of Delhi, present at Jantar Mantar, however, says, "That has not convinced people back home. They now also want the Centre to start peace talks with the militant outfits, the United People’s Front and Kuki National Organisation operating in the region, and name a Central interlocutor for it." The UPF and KNO have been demanding a Kuki state sliced out of Manipur.
The back channel dialogue with the MHA has been on to resolve the impasse. On the evening of 17 November, Ro leaves the protest venue "to meet Rijiju". By the time he leaves, the protest picks up steam with over 60 students and others trickling in to listen to speeches and protest songs by student leaders and to light candles in memory of the dead. They also want Ro to take a request from the protest ground to the minister "to pay a visit to Churachandpur and at least give a concrete promise that would convince the people to bury the dead."
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