On an incremental basis, friction between Manipur’s many ethnic communities is taking a new visage. At the moment, this is centred around the contentious exclusive rather than inclusive administrative demarcation between its hill and valley. This is especially so in the foothills, which during the British days had come to be designated as the Sadar Hills, affiliating its administration to neither the hills or the valley fully. Indeed, much of Manipur’s land administration mechanism is a legacy from the British days.
While similar frictions over the idea of land and land ownership among indigenous communities is common throughout the Northeast, arguably none is more complex and sensitive than in Manipur. The state’s peculiar geography and history predicate this. It is a small state of 22,327 sq. km, mostly mountains except for a central fertile valley of 1,864 sq. km.
After taking over Manipur, the British introduced its tested administrative strategy in its province of Assam in this kingdom as well. Assam was annexed into the British province of Bengal in 1826 after the Treaty of Yandaboo with Ava Kingdom (Burma) that had occupied it a few years earlier. It became a separate Assam province under a chief commissioner in 1874, but a year earlier, the British introduced the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation 1873, which created the Inner Line, clearly dividing its revenue land in the plains from the non-revenue hills.
The territory beyond the Inner Line was designated first as “Backward Tracts”, and after 1935 as “Excluded Areas” and “Partially Excluded Areas”. These hill tracts were also not brought directly under the newly introduced modern administration but left unadministered under the broad gaze of the Governor of the province. There probably was no other way. Imagine having to deal with several hundred different small villages, each independent and sometimes hostile to the others. The British would have seen it as a better option to partner with existing states that already exercised control or can control these small villages, and this is precisely what they did.
At about the same time, Christian missionaries found this out their own way too. It became obvious to them how impossible it would be for them to preach or translate the gospel in all the different languages, so they also ended up uniting these tribes into larger identities, promoting a single lingua franca for them, etc. It cannot be a mere coincidence that the penetration of Christian missionaries into these non-state spaces beyond the Inner Line and the expansion of British colonial administration into them always was a parallel process. The stories of Miles Bronson in Assam hills or William Pettigrew in Manipur hills are evidences of this, and this is repeated across what has come to be termed by scholars like Willem Schendel and James Scott as the Zomian landscape, spanning Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam and beyond.
In 1891, the British took over Manipur but they left the kingdom as a Protectorate State, though after ousting the then rulers who opposed them and installing a new ruler from a different royal bloodline. The new king designate, Sir Churachand, was only five years old then; so a British political agent was made regent till the boy completed his education at Mayo College in 1907 and was officially made king. The new pattern of land administration of the British was introduced at this point, with the British political agent, who thereafter also assumed the title of President, Manipur State Darbar, taking the role of the Governor in Assam and briefed to keep a broad gaze on the “unadministered” hill territories.
The demarcation between revenue and non-revenue lands in Manipur coincided with its valley and hills, and the legacy from this is the somewhat more hardened hill-valley divide in the state today. The foothills, then designated Sadar Hills and now Kangpokpi district, were not clearly in either category; therefore even today this is not a reserved constituency unlike all other hill constituencies.
In recent times two ugly flare-ups—following a hill community’s claim to ownership of land acquired by the government for construction of the National Sport University, and in the objection to developing a mountain peak, Koubru, considered a sacred worshipping place by the valley people—have yet again pointed to the need for overhauling the land revenue administration in the state. As of now, while the revenue land in the valley is open to ownership by anybody, people in the valley who have come to be classified as non-tribals by virtue of a majority of them following the Hindu faith, cannot do so in the hills, even though the hills have been rid of the colonial era “unadministered area” tag.
The Koubru tussle also highlighted a peculiar history of the people of the state, both those in the valley as well as in the hills. Brought to the fore is also the difference in the indigenous outlook to the homeland and the modern state. In the former, it is a sense of belonging and attachment to land, while in the latter it is more about possession of the land and its resources. Homelands also overlap without contradiction, for there is no friction regardless of how many identify with and love the lakes, rivers, mountains and valleys, unlike in the latter where these abstract qualities are temporalised and commodified, and therefore can only have very definite owners. It is in the inevitable transition from the former to the latter that frictions are caused.
The reverence for Koubru is also often interpreted as an indication of how those in the valley were also once in the hills while the valley was waterlogged, as told in the folklore of the place, and that the hilltops that valley people now worship were their last stations before descending to settle. A revisit and reset of the notion of land and belonging to synchronise them with the modern state is what Manipur and the Northeast need urgently at the moment.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics