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District Council Via Media For Integration

British Indian Empire expanded rapidly, extending to the entire Northeast within a short span of time in the nineteenth Century. There was a realization that the general laws for administering their territories were not suitable for the tribal people of the North East. The first step towards establishing an administrative set-up with legal framework suitable for the hill tribes which would provide a degree of autonomy and limited self-rule was taken when Northeast Rangpur Commissioner division was curved out from Rangpur Magistrate jurisdiction in 1816. Regulation X of 1822 having special provisions for administration of justice suitable to tribals was introduced in that hill division. In due course, jurisdiction of civil, criminal and revenue courts were withdrawn from Garo Hills under Garo Hills Act 1869.

Extension of the same to Naga Hills, Khasi and Jaintia Hills in 1871 made general laws inapplicable. A more comprehensive law known as Bengal Eastern Frontier regulation of 1873 or more popularly known as Inner line Permit was enacted in 1873. By this, it was intended to achieve the twin objectives of (i) preventing exploitation of tribals by restricting entry of outsiders and (ii) preserving different ethnic tribal customs, cultures and identities by allowing traditional self rule. This regulation was enforced even in plain district having sizable tribal population besides Hill districts. They were kept under direct rule of Governor-General. When Chief Commissioner Province of Assam was created in 1874, application of the same continued. Later on, areas known as Backward Tracts which included hill districts were declared ‘Excluded areas’ while the remaining areas were declared ‘partially Excluded areas’ under 1935 Act. Excluded areas did not have any representative in the provincial legislature as the others.

When preparations for Indian independence were underway, some Advisory Committees on fundamental right of minorities and tribals were set up. But the committee that functioned properly and made clear-cut recommendations was Bardoloi’s committee on Northeast Tribal and Excluded areas. Rev JJ Nichols Roy was another very prominent member.

The committee recommended establishment of district council as a democratic institution of local-self Government in the tribal areas of Assam Hills, whereby administrative arrangement is made to preserve ethnic identities and protect rights of indigenous people. The recommendations were accepted by the Constitution Drafting Committee and incorporated in the VI schedule. The Drafting Committee also placed other Tribal areas under V Schedule and the areas are to be known as schedule areas. Thus district councils were born and they started functioning in Garo Hills, Khasi and Jaintia Hills and Lushai Hills.

Later on, they were established in Mikir hills and North Cachar hills. District Council was rejected by Nagas as AZ Phizo did not want a half way solution. After attainment of Statehood of Nagaland, they set up their own Area councils and Village councils. As it is almost entirely inhabited by tribals, the need for having separate protection of identity etc does not arise at the district level.

Manipur and Tripura were princely States when India became independent. Therefore, they were not a part of the scheme of things as in the case of territories directly ruled by the British. They however merged to the Indian Union shortly. They became part ‘C’ States, then Union territories till they were conferred Statehood in 1972 under North East re-organization act 1971. This is not to say that similar problems as in the case of tribals of Assam did not exist. In fact, tribals in both the States were in the same position and have problems very much alike. How hills were governed in the past will give a clear picture.

Looking closely on how the hills areas were administered both during the time of Maharaja’s Rule and that of the British Government, a dichotomy had always existed in the administration of hills and valley. The king directly ruled the valley but not the hills. The hill tribes governed themselves completely uninterfered by any, according to their own custom and tradition till British annexation. The king personally handled the affairs of the hill people. No tax’”even annual tributes’”were imposed on the hill tribes which is the hallmark of the ruler’s control over his subject. The hill people acknowledged that the king was a bigger sovereign and accepted his suzerainty. On special occasions like Mera-Houchongba or during visits to the palace, there used to be exchange of gifts. There was a separate Durbar for the hills.

According to demands of the situation some special assignments were given to hill tribes. Some Naga tribes were part of the palace establishment for some specific jobs or some were called upon to supply forest produce etc. As for Kukis they used to provide fighting forces as and when required. Thus, the degree of autonomy enjoyed by the tribals under the king and British were the same as those enjoyed by tribals in Assam under British rule. So much so that Meiteis and Kukis fought their wars against British separately, independent of one another. Being fully aware, the British made separate arrangement for administration of the hill areas. Britisher made the king President of Manipur State Durbar in 1904 but also made an ICS officer Vice president of the Durbar, who independently handled the administration of the hill areas and was directly responsible to the Political Agent’ only. There was also a separate Hill Bench Court’¦ When India was becoming independent, the then Interim Chief Minister appointed a Constitution Making Committee at the behest of the Maharaja to pave the way for setting up a Constitutional Monarchy when British paramouncy was to lapse Prominent members were A Daiho, R Suisa and TC Tiankham representing hill peoples’ interest. Amongst others, the hill representatives put up two conditions i.e. (i) to provide for large measure of autonomy and (ii) the option to secede after five years, if they are not satisfied with the arrangement.

The Manipur State Constitution was passed sans these provisions. Thereupon Naga National league under A Daiho’s presidentship launched a movement for tribal rights and independence. In suppressing the movement, three persons were killed at Mao in 1947 by Manipur Rifles. Meanwhile Manipur merged with the Indian union in 1948 and became a part ‘C’ State. This rendered adoption of Constitution for Manipur infructuous.

Manipur shortly became a union territory till Statehood was conferred in 1972 under Northeast Re-organization Act 1971. Before this, Presidents Kuki National Assembly and Tangkhul long were consulted by Pandit Pant, the then Home Minister. They urged Government of India to set up six District councils in the hills, Shri DG Bhave; former Chief Secretary was assigned to draft Autonomous District Council Act 1971. As things were done post haste, District councils were introduced without placing the same under VI Schedule. Tribal areas in Manipur being under V schedule, the District councils also function under it which is an exceptional case. The proper thing was to have placed them under the VI scheduled from the initial stage. Side by side, Article 371 C provides for constitution of Hill Areas Committee comprising of all MLAs of hill areas. Much more power had been added in due course to District councils functioning under VI schedule. Such more powers are being added to District councils in Manipur too and the exercise will go on according to experience gained. The basic difference however is that District councils under schedule VI have Constitutional protection. The scope for bringing under the VI schedule is always there as the same is in line with the policy of decentralization for setting up local self government. So much apprehension expressed that VI schedule is a government within a government is true to the extent that though part of the constitution, it is only local self government Local self government like Panchayat and Zilla Prashads also have the sanction of the Constitution. Fulfilling the aspiration of the hill people by extending Sixth schedule to the existing District councils will go a long way in subsiding unrest among hill people. This measure will also isolate those having very extreme views.

It is so sad to see such sharp Meitei-Naga divide about which even the Prime Minister had commented upon. The Kukis are also feeling very much let down and taken advantage of by both Meiteis and Nagas. The compartmental and self centered existence of the three major communities of Manipur is retarding progress. The resultant distrust of one another has made each community preoccupied with finding means to protect their own. It also leads to fragmentation of approach on every problem. This is anything but antithetical to harmonious living and development. Perhaps the majority Meitei community feels that bringing the District Councils under VI schedule will be used as a stepping stone for breaking away which will disintegrate the State.

The hill people, on the other hand feel vulnerable and insecure. This stems from the fear that the brute force of majority will trample upon their rights and appropriate their shares, as they suspect it being done now.

In fact, District councils under schedule VI is not such a big deal as made out to be as it is only local self government. All said and done, the solution we desire should strengthen Manipur integrity. Fulfilling the aspiration of the tribals will make them feel that Manipur is their homeland. An accommodating gesture on the part of majority community of the valley will give a sense of belonging to the hill people and strengthen the tie that binds. The chants for integrity then need no longer breed fear for the hill people. Once mutual distrust of one another is shed and all people of Manipur can stand unitedly, the State can march forward in the spirit of partnership and sharing.

*The article is written by C Doungel

(Courtesy: The Sangai Express)

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