Much ado about nothing

Thongkholal Haokip

The melee surrounding the proposed district councils bill in Manipur is nothing but a manifestation of deep divide between the hills and valley.

A collective of eighteen MLAs from the hill areas of Manipur, including Chairman of the Hill Areas Committee, drafted “The Manipur (Hill Areas) Autonomous District Councils Bill, 2021” to be introduced in the 13th Session of the Eleventh Manipur Legislative Assembly as private member bill. The Committee recommended and desired the money bill to be tabled on the 20th August during this monsoon session of the assembly.

The Committee claims that despite several amendments of the Manipur (Hill Areas) District Councils Act 1971, there are “deficiencies which resulted in disproportionate development between the areas of the hills and valley of Manipur over the years”. In order to address this imbalance the present bill “seeks to repeal and replace” the 1971 Act “in order to provide more autonomy to the Hill Areas Committee and the District Councils”. It also seeks to increase the number of constituencies of the autonomous district councils to 31, out of which 3 members will be nominated and one fourth of the seats will be reserved for socio-economically backward areas and need based geographical areas within the respective Autonomous District Councils. The bill also seeks to create Hill Areas Secretariat to ensure coordination of the workings of ADCs, review and monitor all the projects and programmes undertaken, and coordinate and manage budgetary allocation of the hill areas of the state.

After expressing the intention for introduction of the bill in the current session of the assembly a debate between the government and members of the HAC emerged wherein the government blamed the HAC members for trying to divide a small state into two power centres and not following proper channel. The HAC, however, defended that as per the law the HAC can pass resolutions and recommend to the state government for legislation on scheduled matters of the hills.

One thing is clear, the government which is controlled by the majority Meitei legislators are reluctant to share power. For the valley of Manipur, the voices of the hills are but of the aspiring states that would break their hegemony and eventually lead to the creation of Kukiland and Southern Nagalim. Despite the bill seeks to establish “internal autonomy” within the state for the hill communities, the majority community is reluctant to part with the hegemonic power that has been enjoyed for half a century now.

Even an astute observer would reckon that majoritarianism is at full play and the state has fallen into ethnocracy trap. And the words of Robert Reid, who was the Governor of Assam from 1937-1942, will not be totally unfounded: “History shows that the Manipuri cannot and will not give the hills an administration of the standard to which they are both entitled and now accustomed and it can only be maintained by the control now exercised”.

A patriarchal bill

A brief assessment of the bill points to several shortcomings. Even almost three decades after the passage of a largely inclusive legislation like the 73rd Amendment Act in 1992, which gives constitutional status to panchayats, the proposed autonomous councils bill ignores women representation and fails to use gender inclusive terms.

The union cabinet of India in January 2019 decided to increase the financial and executive powers of autonomous councils in the north-east region which were formed under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution through a constitutional amendment. The 125th Amendment Bills introduced on 6 February 2019 in the Rajya Sabha has interesting features including the nomination of not only a specific numbers of women but also the “unrepresented tribes” by the Governor. Currently, there is no such provision to ensure the nomination of unrepresented tribes as members of the autonomous district councils. It is purely the Governor’s discretion on whom to nominate.

In the proposed autonomous councils bill in Manipur there is no specific mention of women reservation or nomination, including the use of gender exclusive terms such as “Chairman” and “Vice Chairman”. These also indicate that no woman will occupy such posts. Even after 73 years of independence from the yoke of colonialism the mindset of legislators is still exclusivist and reeks such representative institutions with patriarchy.

No provision for regional councils

The amendment to the sixth schedule of the constitution is long due to give effect to autonomy of microscopic minorities, which the 125th Amendment Bill also failed to take note of. Such minority communities are the most neglected and also the least represented in the institutions that were created to serve their interests. Since the Pawi-Lakher Regional Council in Mizoram no such regional council is formed under the Sixth Schedule. Even the basis on which regional council was formulated seems to be largely forgotten despite that fact that smaller minority groups within new states in the north-east region can be accommodated in the relevant existing provisions.

It is a fact that smaller or microscopic minority groups were largely ignored within the north eastern states. In Manipur Komrem is a nomenclature consisting of the six kindred tribes categorised as Aimol, Kom, Kharam, Chiru, Purum and Koireng in the constitution. In the 2011 census of India their total population was 27,156 persons only. These kindered Komrem tribes are scattered in all over the state of Manipur. Their small population and scattered nature of population coupled with their inability to come together under one platform has made them more vulnerable and invisible.

The aspiration for smaller provisions of autonomy such as regional councils, were not even thought in the mainstream political circles today. As per the lived experiences of these microscopic minority groups, besides linguistically endangered, they continually faced socio-political exclusion as they are not able to assert their presence as a distinct ethnic group out of several compulsions. Taking a cue from the formation of Chakma Autonomous District Council in Mizoram, which is based not on a compact territorial district but on ethnic population of the Chakmas in the state, regional councils can be formulated for microscopic minorities in Manipur as well as in different parts of north-east India. The Koms needed a regional council on the lines of the Chakma Autonomous District Council which is not based on compact geographical area but on the ethnicity to preserve their language and culture. Besides, there are several minorities in every hill district of Manipur. In every districts regional council/s should be formed to empower them.

 Sadly, the major tribes who were once fighting for some form of autonomy are now unwilling to grant even minuscule power for self-governance of smaller tribes. The need for formation of regional councils for microscopic groups in the Northeast region is urgent and requires immediate attention. These councils can provide an institutional platform and a means of countering the fear of losing identity in the midst of aggressive constructivist identities much prevalent in the region. The granting of regional council need not necessarily stems from a strong agitational demand or even armed movement. It has to be established as per the need of minority groups. As much as the major tribes needed a protective mechanism of self-rule, microscopic minority groups need much more to continue existing as a group and maintain their culture and identity. The proposed bill in Manipur not only ignores for the establishment of such smaller councils but totally deleted such provision in the 1971 act.

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