This is a guest post by DEEPAK NAOREM
Violence and the accompanying disruption of everyday life in Manipur is not a recent phenomenon. This year too, the state was plunged into a spiral of violence following demands for the implementation of Inner Permit Line, a law originating in the colonial period. This demand is based on real or imagined fears that Manipur, like Sikkim and Tripura, would be overwhelmed by the ‘outsiders’ and that the ‘indigenous people’ of Manipur would become a minority in their homeland. Such demands are neither new nor surprising in this part of the world, where a nearly-unfathomable ethnic, demographic and political jigsaw puzzle was created by British colonialism; one that was deepened by even more myopic and inconsistent policy in the post-colonial years. However, this year, following the death of a young student by police firing during a student protest in Imphal, the movement demanding the Inner Line Permit (ILP) gained considerable momentum in Manipur. Subsequently, the legislature was forced to introduce three bills in the Manipur State Legislative Assembly on 28th August, 2015, ensuring the implementation of Inner Line Permit in the state. This in turn triggered another wave of violence with the ‘tribals’ and tribal organizations opposing the three bills, eventually bringing life to a standstill in the state.
Having been born and brought up in Manipur, I am as concerned and drawn to the movement as its other denizens. Moreover as a student and practitioner of social science, I realize that the state is riddled with structural problems – ethnic tensions, demographic pressure and the widespread prevalence of corruption – to name a few. In the face of these, the solution for Manipur definitely lies in constitutional protections. However, these protections must take the form of rights to land and property as granted in other states of the country, and not necessarily in the form of the colonial-era ILP. Introduced in the 19th century in Assam, the ILP was intended to protect the colonial regime’s economic interests – primarily the tea plantations. Historians have pertinently argued that such laws were responsible for spawning the problematic binary of hill-plain in the Northeast region, thereby challenging the notion that these dichotomies are self-evident axioms. Today, unfortunately these dichotomies have been reinforced as quintessential accounts of understanding the history and politics of the region (read James Scott’s notion of “Zomia” for an alternate geographical and political imagination of the region).
What then was the relation between the hills and the valley in the pre-colonial period? We can make two major arguments. The first one is popular among the Meiteis – the most dominant ethnic group in the state. This is the idea that the Meitei kings “always” enjoyed absolute sovereignty over the hills and their inhabitants. The other argument appeals to the so-called ‘tribal’ population of the hill districts – that the hills were always independent, autonomous and segregated from the valley. The valley-based states are presented as perennial oppressors or invaders in the hills. Both these arguments are equally problematic. The relation between the hills and the valleys is more dynamic and complex than is assumed.
Were the politics and the economy of the hills confined only to the hills? Similarly, were the politics and the economy of the valley confined only to the valley region? The answer is no for both the questions. At least by the beginning of the 18th century, the political economy of the ‘hills’ was very much invested in the plains and vice versa. Contrary to commonsensical notions, the societies in the hills were not static and unchanging. By 18th century, many of the hill tribes had undergone dramatic metamorphosis leading to the emergence of powerful chiefdoms and small hill states. The political economy of such states was not necessarily confined to the hilly tracts, and in many cases extended to the Brahmaputra, Surma or Barak river valleys. Trade between such states and the valley regions was very common, controlled sometimes by hill chiefs who even collected taxes. A large volume of different types of commodities found their way into the hill regions through trade, and similarly many forest and hill products found their way into the plains.
Moreover, an important issue for both the states was the paucity of labour. Hence, many of the chiefdoms followed the practice of raiding the plains for slave labour. This was a major concern for the valley states and later for the Company state in the 19th century. By the second half of the 18th century, British East India Company began to make inroads into the Brahmaputra, Surma and Barak plains. The Company was keen on controlling these existing trade routes leading to Burma and Yunnan as well as the expansion of commercial tea plantations. The Company not only had to contend with the valley states like Tripura, Cachar, Manipur and the Ahom state, but also with aggressive chiefdoms in the Naga and the Lushai Hills, perceived as a bigger threat.
Hence, the Bengal Inner Line Regulation of 1873 was introduced, not to protect the ‘tribals’ or to keep the ‘outsiders’ from entering the hills, but to confine the tribals across the inner line to contain their frequent and devastating raids into the plains; hence protecting the interests of the Company in the region. However, this line was never implemented in the Manipur state as it was largely autonomous till 1891. After 1891, the administration of the princely state was handed over to the office of the Political Agent. However, when Churachand Singh was installed as the Maharaja of Manipur in 1907, a document, ‘Rules for the Management of Manipur State’ was framed by the Judicial Department of Eastern Bengal and Assam in April same year. The document stated without ambiguity that the political agent was solely responsible for administering the hills; hence a dual administrative system emerged in Manipur where the administration of the valley was passed on to the Durbar, and that of the hills was entrusted to the Political Agent. However, being a princely state Manipur regulated the entry of British subjects and subjects of other Indian states other than Manipur into the state. By 1897 a ‘foreigner’s tax’ was collected by the state police. In 1931, a ‘Foreigner Department’ was introduced headed by the ‘Foreigner Mauzadar ’and a member of the State Durbar, which was responsible for collecting foreigner’s tax, grazing fees, income tax, trading license fees, taxes on cattle export, cart tax and sales tax on cigarettes and biris. However, the jurisdiction of the ‘Foreigner Department’ was confined only to the valley which was under the administration of the Durbar, while permit to enter the hill tracts was granted by the office of the Political Agent. Evidently, colonial policies including the Bengal Inner Line Regulation were instrumental in engendering the hill-plain dichotomy.
By the 1940s, when it was certain that the British state would cease to exist in the region, policies determining the future of this region continued to be undergirded by these dichotomies. This is palpable in treatises such as Sir Robert Reid’s ‘A Note on the Future of the Present Excluded, Partially Excluded and Tribal Areas of Assam’; James P Mills’ ‘A Note on the Future of the Hill Tribes of Assam and the Adjoining hills in a Self-governing India’; Sir Andrew G. Clow’s ‘The Future Government of the Assam Tribal People’; and Philip F. Adam’s ‘Some Notes on a Policy for the Hill Tribes of Assam’ – which have all suggested maintaining discrete administrative units for the hills and the plains.
Of course, to state the above is not to plead the case for reinstating the pre-colonial set-up. Admittedly, much has changed in the relations between the hills and the valley in the last two centuries, and it would be better to accept this fact to find another solution to this crisis. Tzvetan Todorov, while discussing European imperialism in South America, points out that Europeans harbour two kinds of approaches toward the native South Americans. If one sees equality between the Spaniards and the Indians, it implied an identification of the Indians with the Spaniards; but, it is assimilationist in orientation where the identity and values of the Spaniards were imposed on the Indians. On the other hand, if one sees inequality, it implies differences between them and a notion of inhuman characterization of the Indians. He aptly argues that there is little difference between these two approaches and both are equally problematic.
Similarly, both the narratives, be it the paternalistic, patronizing one of the valley (read Meitei) wherein the ‘tribals’ are deemed as part of a larger Manipuri nation, or that of the tribals wherein they perceive themselves as independent and autonomous from the plains and the valley population as a monolithic hegemonic society, are flawed. I aver that it is much better to accept that historical forces have in the last two centuries unfortunately produced the hills (tribes) and the valley (Meitei) as different. There is nothing wrong in accepting these historically fashioned differences, but they should not be the basis of any type of social and political inequality.
While the oppositions of the tribal communities is not surprising, considering that there is mistrust and suspicion towards the Manipur government and the majority Meitei population, I want to dwell on other serious implications if the bills are implemented. One of the three bills passed in the Legislative Assembly, ‘The Protection of Manipur People Bill, 2015’ defines Manipuri people as “people of Manipur whose name are in the national register of citizens, 1951, in the census report 1951 and village directory of 1951 and their descendents who have contributed to the collective social, cultural and economic life of Manipur”. This single line in the entire document is capable of inflicting heavy damages on the lives of many people. It not only defines who a Manipuri is, it also defines who is not. During the Second World War, Manipur and the Naga hills were totally devastated by the Japanese as well as Allied Actions. So, immediately after the war, a large number of people in the region started demanding war compensations for loss of movable and immovable properties. F. F. Pearson, the Political Agent, argued that the issue of war compensation was the most crucial concern for the state immediately after the war. Since the demands were considered genuine, the state initiated bureaucratic mechanisms to facilitate the payment. Now the state has to decide who deserves to get compensation, the amount of the compensation and the nature of the compensation. It was subsequently decided by the state that only those people who filed a petition seeking compensation before 15th August 1947 would be given compensation. It was further decided that compensation will only be given for immovable properties such as house plots or agricultural fields. In order to claim compensation, the claimant has to produce various types of documents such as a ‘patta’, copies of land registrations, or any documents proving the ownership of a particular plot of land or a property. Only such documents which could authenticate such claims, which Emma Tarlo calls ‘paper truth’, was acceptable to the state. The outcome was that most of the people who demanded the payment of monetary compensation were denied any type of compensation. By 1949, payment was doled out in 6397 cases only, out of a total of 107747 cases received at the claim office in Shillong, a mere 5.94% of the total number of cases. In 1955, when the government of India sanctioned sixty lakh rupees for the payment of compensation, only few qualified to receive it. The bureaucratic processes meant to identify the deserving candidate for receiving the monetary compensation was ultimately responsible for denying monetary compensation to most of the claimants.
This particular type of violence has more devastating implications than mere physical violence. Many historians are now discussing about such violence, sometimes termed as ‘bureaucratic violence’. Vazira Zamindar has written how various bureaucratic practices denied Indian citizenship to many Muslims after the Partition. The hill population of Manipur state was adversely affected due to these bureaucratic practices. Most of them were disqualified from receiving any type of monetary compensation though the hills were relatively more afflicted by the war than the valley regions. The hill population did not file any petitions seeking compensation before the deadline because they were unaware of the requirement of filing paper petitions and many did not possess any documents supporting their claims. More importantly, their demands for monetary compensation were for movable properties and not immovable properties, which were straightforward, defined as inadmissible for seeking compensation. Therefore, this article strives to draw our attention to various bureaucratic exercises and the violence they are capable of perpetuating. So anyone who did not register in the national register of citizens, 1951 census report and village directory of 1951 would be declared as non-Manipuri and hence would lose any right to buy and own land, properties and business in the state.
The fixing of 1951 as the base year for deciding who a Manipuri is might open the Pandora’s box. First of all, most of the political boundaries, state or international boundaries are arbitrary and artificial in nature. They do not stop people from moving across these boundaries. Many of the tribes in north-east are scattered across these boundaries, and they continue to move across the boundaries even after 1951. We also know that many of these tribes had settled down and new villages were established even in the late 1950s. Many of these tribes and even the Meiteis were scattered in all directions by the Japanese invasions. In many cases, they returned to their villages well after 1951. More importantly, it will be difficult for many to produce documents verifying their residence in the state. Moreover, my own research on the issue of war compensation (1939-1955) clearly shows the absence or weak semblance of the bureaucratic state apparatus in the hill districts as well as in the valley. So it is possible that many in both the hills and the valley will not find their names in either the National Register of Citizens, 1951 or the various village directories.
When the witch hunt begins, many including both the tribes and the non-tribals will find themselves on the wrong side of the fence. So a line which produced the dichotomy between hill and valley in the region in the colonial context might result in reinforcing the already existing fissures between the hill and the valley in a totally different historical context if preventive steps are not immediately taken.
Deepak Naorem is a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Delhi.