RELATIONSHIP OF THE TRIBAL/INDIGENOUS PEOPLES OF MANIPUR TO LAND, FORESTS AND NATURAL RESOURCES


by S.K. Ngaihte; first published online on Zomi Human Rights Foundation (http://www.zhrf.org)

About Tribal/Indigenous Peoples and Issue

The world’s biological, cultural and linguistic diversity are imperiled. While the nature and extent of the threat to the Earth’s biological richness is much debated, there is no doubt what is happening to human’s cultural and linguistic diversity. Indigenous peoples account for most of the world’s cultural diversity. Their distinct ways of life vary considerably from one location to another. Of the estimated 6’000 cultures in the world, between 4,000 and 5,000 are in indigenous. Indigenous peoples speak approximately three-quarters of the world’s 6,000 languages. When looked at the global distribution of indigenous peoples, there is a marked correlation between areas `of high biological diversity and areas of high cultural diversity. This link is particularly significant in rainforest  areas,  such  as  those  found  along  the  Amazon  Central  America,  Africa, Southeast Asia, the Philippines, New Guinea and Indonesia. The report of the World Wide  Fund (WWF  International),  in  collaboration  with  the  international  NGO Terralingua,  a  report  entitled,  Indigenous  and  Traditional  people  of  the  world  and Ecoregion Conservation: An Integration Approach to Conserving the World’s Biological and Cultural Diversity, that 4,635 ethno-linguistic groups, or 67 per cent of the total number of such groups live in regions of the highest biological importance. The study reports that languages spoken by indigenous and tribal peoples are rapidly disappearing due the developmental policies of the Governments and multinational corporations’ continuation of constructing hydro-electricity Dams and roads and conducting mining and logging activities, that threaten to harm the land’s fragile ecosystems and damage large areas of land inhabited by indigenous peoples. It’s, therefore, widely accepted that biological diversity cannot be conserved without cultural diversity that the long term security of food and medicines depends on maintaining sustainable relationship between biological and cultural diversities. Thus, the link between cultural and environment is clear among indigenous peoples.  All indigenous peoples share a spiritual, cultural, social and economic relationship with their traditional lands. Traditional laws, customs and practices reflect both an attachment to land and a responsibility for preserving traditional lands for future generations. Because of all these reasons, the physical and cultural survival of indigenous peoples is dependent upon the protection of their land and its resources.



Tribal/Indigenous Peoples’ Rights with regard to Lands, Forest and Natural Resources: 

The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (the Earth Summit), held in Brazil in 1992, represents a turning point in the promotion indigenous people’s’ rights relating to the environment. A number of legal instruments and the Earth Summit, such  as  the  Rio  Declaration,  Agenda 21 and  the  convention  Biological  Diversity, establishes international legal standard to protect indigenous peoples’ rights to their traditional knowledge and` practices in the area of environmental; management and Conservation.  Most importantly, there now exists an international legal framework, which recognizes the unique relationship indigenous people have their traditional lands. As per the UN Declaration on the right of Indigenous Peoples states that, inter alias:

Article 3: Indigenous peoples have the right to self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.

Article 28: Indigenous  peoples  have  the  right  to  maintain  and  strengthen  their distinctive  spiritual  and  material  relationship  with  land,  territories,  rivers  and coastal seas and other resources which they have traditionally own or otherwise occupied or used, and to uphold their responsibility to future generations in this regard.

Article 31: Indigenous peoples as a specific form of exercising their right to self-determination, have the right to autonomy or self-determination in matters relating to  their  internal  and  local  affairs  including  culture, religion,  educations, information,  media,  health,  housing,  employment,  social  welfare,  economic activities, land and resources management, environment and enter by new member, as well as ways and means for financing these autonomous functions.

International Labor organization Convention No.169 (7th June, 1989) at Geneva, states that, inter alias:

Article 15: The right of the peoples concerned to the natural resources pertaining to their lands shall be specially safeguarded. These Rights include the right of these peoples to participate in the use, management and conservation of their resources.

The historical background of the Manipur Tribal/Indigenous Peoples

Before the conquest and annexation of the tribal areas in the North-East India in general and the tribal areas in Manipur in particular, the Sovereignty and authority of each villages under the chiefs exists without any outside interference by governing and ruling themselves in accordance with their own customs under the despotic administration the Chiefs. Chiefs of each village were all in all over the land, forest, forest-produce and wild life within the jurisdiction of their respective village boundaries and the decision of a village chief was the last and final and binding to all the subjects. Therefore, revenue/tax was taken in kind for the chiefs from each house in the villages. In short, the tribal Chiefs are ‘Lord of the Soil’ within their respective jurisdiction. Chiefs of each village looked after the cultivation and were responsible for realization of tax payable by each cultivator. However, members of Chief’s council were exempted from tax-payment Thus, in this way the  landed  properties  of  the  subjects  were  protected  and  their  institutions  of  the administrative machinery under the chiefs of the tribal were fully preserved. During the colonial administration under the British-India the tribal areas were divided into different units merely for the sake of the colonial administrative convenience and each unit was kept under one political Agent of the British India. It was the same to the case of Manipur. Even though the areas of tribal were under the British colonial administration, the British did not much involve in village-affairs over the traditional administrative set-up by the chiefs, land ownership, forests, forest-produce and wild life therein. Instead, they (The British) confirmed and consolidated and respected the rights based on the primitive and traditional administrative institution set up by the chiefs. The landed properties of the tribal of Manipur were so attached to the authority of the chief that none can disturb it. Further, in the matter of administration of justice and trial of cases, the political Agent was given the power over the hill tribes.

Prior Independence

The indigenous peoples/tribal of Manipur are the inheritors and practitioners of unique culture and ways of relating to other peoples and to the environment. They have retained their social, cultural, economic and political characteristics that are distinct from those of the dominant society in the state in which they live despite their cultural differences,  the  Manipur  tribal/indigenous  peoples  also,  as  other  various  groups  of indigenous peoples around the world, share common problems related to the protection of the rights of their ancestral land, forests and natural resources. The Naga and Zomi in Manipur have sought recognition of their identities, their ways of life and their rights to traditional ancestral lands and resources. However, their lands, forests and natural resources have been violated being minority groups in the country and state they live.

Before the advent of the British into the tribal/indigenous peoples’ areas in the South-East Asian region, the tribal/indigenous peoples particularly, the Naga and the Zomi were never subjugated, dominated, conquered, influenced and assimilated by any outsiders at any time. They lived independently and freely with their own traditional set-up culture, economy, legal system, polity etc. Unlike other parts of mainland India, where the tribals had assimilated to a great extent the life and culture of the plainsman, the process of assimilation was minimal in the interior of Assam hills particularly in the Naga and the Zomi/ Lusai hills. They were very much sensitive about their land, forests, system of judiciary and their traditional polity. Knowing the facts that the British during their period they made some kind of protective measures so as to save their lands, forests, forest-produce,  their  distinct  culture  etc  against  exploitation,  domination  and assimilation from the advanced peoples around them. Thus, the British dealt with peoples that differently marked from those living on the plains and who were more strongly influenced by mainland Indian culture. So, they took up a policy of segregating the hills and the plain peoples: The “Inner Line Regulation, 1873, the Government of India Acts, 1919 &1935 and on the recommendation the so-called Simon Commission of 1830 classified the tribal areas as ‘Excluded Areas and Partially Excluded Areas, were introduced for the Indigenous peoples of India including the   areas of indigenous Naga and the Zomi of Manipur in the North-East India.

Post Independence

During the British colonial period, the land ownership, control and management of forests and forest-produce and administration of the villages were in the hands of each of the village chiefs. However, in the postcolonial India, and after the merger agreement of Manipur into Indian union, a number of radical changes, on land ownership, control and management of forests and forest-produce and traditional administrative system and traditional set-up institutions, took place in the tribal areas of Manipur, which directly or indirectly disturbed the symbiotic relationship between the land, forest and natural resources and the indigenous peoples of Manipur. In 1947 the Manipur state Constitution Act was passed for the administration of Manipur. It was extended to the whole of Manipur, but it did not apply in the matters where a specific reservation of powers were made to any authority in the hill under the provisions of the Manipur State Hill Peoples (Administration) Regulation Act, 1947.(Separate rule was made for the Hill peoples).Under the said Manipur state Hill Peoples(Administration) Regulation Act,1947,the lands, forests and natural resources rights of the tribal of Manipur were well protected. However, the said Constitution and Rule for the Hill was repealed due to the merger agreement of Manipur into Indian Union in 1949.But, for the well-being and protection of the tribal rights with regards to their lands, the Manipur Hill village Act was passed in1956.Again In 1960, the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms Act, which purely aims at confiscating/depriving   the territorial/land rights of the Manipur Indigenous peoples-the Naga and the Zomi against the land rights inherited by them from their ancestors since time immemorial times. This was done in the disguise of economic development. However, the Act under part I, sub-section 2 of the said Act, provides  a  provision  for  the  protection  of  the  territorial  right  for  the  hill  peoples. However, in the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms (Amendment) Act, 1976, one provision was inserted by the Government of Manipur, which reads that ‘That the Government may, by notification in the official Gazette, extend the whole or any part or any section of this Act to any of the hill areas of Manipur as may be specified in such notification.’ It well-known fact that through this acts the Government of Manipur encroached into the tribal lands, which they inherited from their forefathers.

In 1966,’The Manipur Hill Areas (Acquisition of Chiefs’ Rights) Bill was introduced in the Manipur Legislative Assembly. The objectives of the Said Bill according to the government of Manipur were to acquire the rights and privileges of the tribal chiefs over their lands, forests and forest-produce in the tribal areas. The another objective of the government was to introduce Land Reforms with a view to distributing lands (Feudal system) to the tillers. The tribal chiefs were not in agreement to the said Bill. If it is going to be so, the government had to give compensation in return for the lost rights over the land. However, the said Act was not implemented due tone or another reasons.

In 1963, the union of parliament passed ‘The Government of Union Territories Act. This Act allowed Manipur to have a legislative Assembly and a council of ministers. Under Sec.1 (1)&44(1) of the Government of Union Territories Act,1963,there was a provision for the Hill Areas of Manipur. Further, there was also a provision for the constitution of a standing Committee of the legislative Assembly, which shall consist of the members of the legislative Assembly, who for the time being represented the constituencies situated in the hill areas of the territories. The powers given to the said Standing Committee-land allotment, management of forest other than a reserved forest, the regulation of the practice  of  shifting  cultivation,  establishment  of  village  or  town  committee  or councils. They were also entrusted with the responsibilities of the appointment or succession of the chief or headman, the inheritance of property, marriage, and social customs. In addition, any Bill with the exception of Financial Bill, which will be effect, the Hill peoples/areas, be referred to the Standing Committee for their consideration and commend. The Hill peoples of Manipur demanded Sixth Schedule under the Constitution of India for the protection and safeguard of their lands, forests natural resources from 1969, and an Autonomous District Council(As its present existence) minus financial power sanctioned to the Hill Peoples(Tribal) of Manipur under the North-Eastern India Re-organization Act,1971.That’s in fact a third Class political appeasement compared to the political status of Union Territories sanctioned To Manipur, Tripura and Meghalaya and Autonomous District Councils under the provision of the 6th Schedule in the Indian Constitution to Maras, Lais and Chakmas in Mizoram.

As everybody knows that the tribal/Indigenous peoples especially the Naga and the Mizo/ Zomi  are  very  sensitive  about  their  lands,  forests,  system  of  judiciary  and traditional polity and there is a complex set of legal protection for their states which are reflected in the Article 371A (Nagaland),371G (Mizoram), Article 244 of the Constitution of India and various other state laws. However, in the case of Manipur Tribal/Indigenous peoples, no legal protection of their lands, forests, system od judiciary and traditional polity in the Constitution and the state laws. Instead, the state government has been planning to snatch and deprive the right and privilege of the tribal Chiefs and peoples over their lands, forests and natural resources through the on-going Acts, Amendments and Notifications in the Gazetteer, The guidelines notification of Hon’ble Supreme Court Order, Forest and Environment, Secretariat, Government of Manipur issues on the 1st April,2002,creates  an  indirect  advantage  to  implementation  of  Manipur  Land  and Revenue and Land Reforms Act of 1960 in the hill areas. For, any Act that is detrimental to the rights privileges and traditional customs is purely a form of encroachment into the ancestral land and natural freedom of the Tribal peoples.

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For more information, contact,
Zomi Human Rights Foundation,
Information Network Centre,
Post Box-86, Lamka-795128
Manipur
Contact No. +91-9856289723
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