The hills of Manipur continue to simmer with tension ever since the state assembly, in a specially convened session on August 31, passed three controversial bills ostensibly to protect the rights of the indigenous people in the state.
The passing of the Protection of Manipur People Bill, the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms Bill (Seventh Amendment), and the Manipur Shops and Establishments (Second Amendment) Bill was the culmination of months-long mass agitation by people living in the valley districts of the north-eastern state.
They demanded an inner line permit (ILP) system similar to the ones in force in Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland to be introduced in Manipur.
That very day, the hills of Manipur erupted in flames – literally – with protesters, mainly comprising tribal organisations, torching five houses belonging to Congress lawmakers, including those of state Health and Family Welfare Minister Phungzathang Tonsing and Outer Manipur Lok Sabha member Thangso Baite.
The violence and resultant police action left at least nine people dead.
According to people living in the hills of Manipur, the three bills will directly undermine the existing safeguards for the tribal hill areas regarding land ownership and population influx as the primary threat for the tribal people comes not from outside the state but from the Meitei people living in the valley itself.
Of Manipur’s total area of 22,327 sq km, the valley covers 2,238 sq km while the hills cover the remaining 20,089 sq km. Of the nine districts in the state, five are spread across the hills.
"Manipur emerged as a political entity only in 1891 with the British invasion," Lakpachui Siro, spokesperson of the Manipur Tribals Forum (MTF), Delhi, told IANS here.
"They made Imphal the administrative headquarters and gradually brought the hills under them without the people’s knowledge or consent," he said.
A main grouse of the hill people is that the Protection of Manipur People Bill has made the 1951 National Registry of Citizens (NRC) as the cut-off year for deciding on native and non-native people of Manipur.
"This will create a lot of complications as many people in the villages in the hills are still not registered in the NRC," Siro said.
"It will make it difficult for relatives of Nagas of the Manipur hills to come to Manipur from Nagaland. Similarly, Kukis are spread over various parts of the northeast," he pointed out.
According to Siro, many villages in the hills are cut off from the Manipur government.
"Only central government schemes have reached these far-flung areas while there is hardly any state government footprints," he said, adding that is why the people living in the hills want an administration separate from the state government.
As the debate rages on, the hills continue to simmer with tension. On Friday, a torchlight procession by women filled up an entire football field in Churachandpur while on Saturday, protesters formed a 12-km-long human chain to the hospital where the bodies of the nine victims of the violence are still lying.
The protesters have refused to take the bodies, pending the Centre’s intervention.
"The hospital does not have freezer facilities and this is creating a huge problem," said Romeo Hmar, convenor of the MTF, Delhi.
"We need the central government to initiate a dialogue so that a permanent political solution could be found."
Hmar said though memoranda have been submitted to top central officials, including the prime minister and the union home minister, "we are yet to hear from the Centre".
"We heard that the home minister has directed the home secretary to send a team of observers to Churachandpur but we don’t know when or who will go," he said.
According to Hmar, with authorities stopping the mainly valley-based media from covering the situation in Churachandpur, the real story of the people in the hills has not been heard by the mainstream media at the national level.
"The Centre should ask how long the Manipur government will continue to subdue the voice of the hills," he said.
"The Manipur Tribals Forum will do whatever it takes to fulfill our political objective – total separation from Manipur government administration," he added.
Observers feel the current stalemate has been caused because people in the hills and valleys have not held talks directly.
"Neither the people in the valley nor the hills reached out to each other and tried to understand each other on the matter," senior journalist Pradip Phanjoubma wrote in an article.
According to him, even now it is not too late.
"The Manipur government must initiate the process to find out what exactly are the objections of the hill people to the three bills and prepare for further amendments," Phanjoubma stated.
With the bills now being forwarded by the Manipur governor to the president for assent, only time will tell how the problem can be resolved.