IN A MOVE to find a political solution to the ongoing ethnic conflict in Manipur, the state government has proposed to the Centre that it is ready to grant greater autonomy to the existing hill councils in the state but will not compromise with the territorial integrity of the state, sources have told The Indian Express. Since the onset of the conflict, the Kuki community has been demanding separate administration alleging the state government’s complicity in the targeted annihilation of the community.
“Separate administration, in whatever form the Kukis are demanding, is not acceptable to the government or the rest of the population in the state. However, we are ready to address the concerns of the hill tribes. We have proposed that the autonomy of the hill councils can be increased giving them greater freedom and control in the administration of hill regions. We hope Kukis will accept the offer and end the conflict,” a source close to Manipur CM N Biren Singh told The Indian Express.
The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has been holding talks with representative groups from both Meitei and Kuki communities to find a solution to the ongoing conflict. More than a dozen such sessions have been held since the conflict began with Union Home Minister Amit Shah himself engaging in some of these.
The Centre’s pointsman for the Northeast, AK Mishra, is separately in talks with Kuki militant groups under the Suspension of Operation (SoO) Agreement with the government. On Thursday, Biren Singh too discussed the state of affairs in Manipur which has witnessed more than 160 deaths since the onset of violence on May 3.
Sources in the Central government, however, said it was unlikely Kukis would readily accept the proposal given the situation in the state. “At the moment they have dug in their heels on separate administration. Only after a prolonged period of peace is established, perhaps, this will come under consideration by them. But there are other formulas too to resolve the hill-valley divide for which discussions have been going on for years,” said a source.
Meanwhile, the state government has constituted a committee of five members—three Naga and two Pangals (Meitei Muslims)—under the chairmanship of BJP MLA and Hill Area Committee (HAC) chairman Dinganglun Gangnei to talk to both Meiteis and Kukis in the state to find a solution.
Like several other Northeast states, there is a provision for governance through Autonomous District Councils (ADCs) in Manipur as well to provide an opportunity for self governance to tribal people, protect their identity, culture and land, and usher in development in remote regions. However, unlike other states, Manipur ADCs do not come under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution making them separate administrative entities, but are rather dependent on the state legislature.
More power, development
Tribal people in Manipur’s hilly areas have long been highlighting lack of development in their regions compared with the Imphal valley. A larger say in how resources should be spent by empowering elected councils in these regions will be the first step to bridge the divide.
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The ADCs in Manipur draw their power from Manipur (Hill Areas) District Councils Act passed by Parliament in 1971. The law provided for Hill Area Committee (HAC) which comprises elected representatives from hill areas. The HAC has certain legislative powers and oversight over the functioning of ADCs. Tribals in Manipur have for long argued that the ADCs in the state have been systematically disempowered over the years by the state government with their powers largely being recommendatory in nature. In most cases, they have no say in budgetary provisions, and this is seen as a reason why hill regions lag severely in development. This has also contributed to considerable resentment among the hill people with the state government.
In 2021, the HAC in Manipur had drafted the Autonomous District Councils (ADCs) Amendment Bill, 2021, to grant more powers to HACs and ADCs. The Bill, however, was not introduced by the government leading to protests in the state. There was resistance against the HAC-recommended ADC Bill from sections of the valley-based political leaders and social groups.
The HAC had maintained that the existing ADC law had various deficiencies that resulted in underdevelopment of the hill region as compared to more developed Imphal valley over the years.