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Hill People of Jiribam, Quo Vadimus (Where Do We Go)?

Op-Ed

Hill People of Jiribam, Quo Vadimus (Where Do We Go)?

Jiribam District is a small district located at the western border of Manipur adjoining Assam. Jiribam is inhabited by communities such as Meiteis, Meitei-Pangan, Bengali-Muslims, Bengali- Hindus, Bishnupriyas, Hmars, Thadous, Rongmei, etc. Urban Jiribam is dominantly comprised of Meitei community with colonies of tribal communities living amidst the dominant community. Rural Jiribam is inhabited by tribal hill pocket villages with vast areas of village land which comprises the hills of Jiribam. The plain portion of rural Jiribam is inhabited by Bengali Hindu and Bengali Muslim villages.

Status of Jiribam- Jiribam, hill area or plain?

After the defeat of Manipur in the Anglo – Manipuri War of 1891, the British administered Manipur. In 1947 Manipur became an independent democratic monarchy with the passing of the Manipur State Constitution Act 1947. When the first Manipur Assembly election was held in 1948 Manipur was divided into hills and plain areas. Jiribam was among the areas declared hill area and the first assembly election was held in July 1948. Later, under the provision of section 2(j) of the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reform Acts 1960 Jiribam was again declared as Hill area by Presidential Notification. The tribal hill villages have been faithfully paying hill house tax since then. Jiribam was, apparently, under Tamenglong and Churachandpur Districts till the creation of Imphal East District in 1997 when Jiribam, in spite, of being over 200 kilometres away from Imphal was included in Imphal East District as Jiribam Subdivision.

After becoming a part of Imphal East District, a slow but steady erasure of the hill status of Jiribam began with the changing of terms such as ‘ hill area allowance’ (which government employees in hill areas enjoy) to ‘difficulty allowance’; the extention of PESA (Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Area) Act in the 1980s to tribal areas, which has resulted in the scheduled tribal areas coming under a plain administrative system; and the eventual attempt at stoppage of the payment of hill house tax by the tribal villages. It is known that the Manipur Hill House tax Act 1960 has made it mandatory for the payment of hill house tax in hill areas of Manipur. Hill house taxpaying villages are, by default, in a hill area. So the hill people of Jiribam have been deprived of most of their constitutional rights and privileges and this has been the reason for the extreme lack of development in the hill villages of Jiribam.

Any history of Jiribam prior to 1997 has become vague for lack of availability of records in government institutions. Tribal lands adjoining urban Jiribam had been systemically relieved of the authority of the tribal chiefs by the state government by means of the extension of the MLR and LR Act, 1960. The state government had compromised tribal land for government projects implementation.

Condition of the Hill People of Jiribam: The hill people of rural Jiribam subsist by depending on village forest land. The village forest land offers cultivation of broom grass, rice, vegetables, bamboo and timber. Community land holding is practiced where the village chiefs distribute village land annualy to the villagers by means of drawing of lots. Business enterprise is absent and there are hardly any government servants. Village life is connected with village land and the living standards of the villagers are naturally low. Assimilation by the larger non tribal communities and deprivation of their land rights is a constant threat that rural Jiribam hill people face.

Jiribam Hill People Movement

The inception of a movement for the upgradation of Jiribam subdivision to a full fledged revenue district led to the formation of the Jiribam District Demand Committee. On the realization that the tribal communities of Jiribam are unrepresented nor consulted in the demand for the upgradation of Jiribam subdivision to a district, various organizations like the Hmar Students Association, Kuki Students Organization, United Chief Committee, Tribal Rights Demand Committee and All Jiribam Tribal Union had asked for the status of the the hill people and the status of their land and holdings be made clear. Memoranda were submitted demanding transparency, inclusion of hill people in decision making regarding the fate of Jiribam, and consideration of Jiribam to be declared a hill district. Agitations, sit in protest, highway bandhs were also undertaken. All these efforts became futile with the declaration of Jiribam as a district among the seven districts created in Manipur on 9th December 2016.

After Jiribam was declared a district, the first reaction among the hill people was to ‘leave’ Jiribam District with their land and all their holdings and join the adjoining newly created Pherzawl District. It was an emotional wave which touched all hill people-the hill people of Jiribam believe that it would be better to be with their brothers and sisters in the newly created Pherzawl District. A signboard to this effect was put up at Jirimukh which reads ‘Welcome to Pherzawl District’.

A signboard put up by the tribals at Jirimukh in Manipur.

The tribal civil society leaders shared the emotion in every household in the hills of Jiribam. The  hill leaders of Jiribam then decided that if the hill people are to ‘stay’ in Jiribam District, they would  settle for nothing less than a TD Block and Subdivision encompassing 16 of the hill villages, where, 10 of the villages are Hmar villages, 3 Thadou village, 2 Khasia and 1 Rongmei village. A memorandum was submitted to the then Congress government to this effect.

With the change in government in Manipur and the BJP ascendancy, a joint representation of tribal organisations in Jiribam-The Hmar Students’ Association, Kuki Students ‘ Organization, Tribal Rights Demand Committee and United Chiefs Committee- met the Chief Minister of Manipur on 12th May 2017 to put forward the demand for the restoration of the rights and privileges of the hill people in Jiribam. The restoration of Chieftainship rights, subdivision and TD Block encompassing 16 hill villages in rural Jiribam, polarization of tribals in urban Jiribam to create tribal wards in the Municipality areas, etc., are the demands tabled before the Chief Minister. The delegation of hill leaders of Jiribam again met the Chief Minister in 10th June and 10 th July 2017. The Chief Minister said that he would look into the matter.

But with the passage of time, there is growing uneasiness amongst the hill people of Jiribam. The keen desire to be a part of Pherzawl District is surfacing again because the of Jiribam hill people believe that they would be emotionally and administratively secure in Pherzawl District. There is also a desperate opinion of the Chiefs that the matter should be taken up to the High Court by filing a case against the government of Manipur.

The hill people of Jiribam are in the  precarious position of a hill people’s expression – a chicken on a clothes’ line. Much as a chicken trying to settle itself comfortably on a clothes line find it impossible to do so, as it has to precariously balance itself all the time, the hill people of Jiribam finds no rest in their present condition.

Hill people of Jiribam – Quo Vadimus?

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Rev. Benjamin Shakum is a pastor, educationist, musician and social activist based in Jirbam, India. He is currently head of Abundant Life Development Initiatives.

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