Manipur which is known as ‘Jewel of India’ is a tiny state situated in the North Eastern part of India. It has a total area of 22,327 sq. kms. of which the valley or plain area covers 8% and hill areas 92%. This hill area is occupied by the tribal people who are grouped into the Kuki-Chin and Naga. Govt. of India recognises 33 ethnic groups as schedule tribe. There are five hill districts in the State – Senapati, Churachandpur, Chandel, Tamenglong and Ukhrul.
Tribal Land System
The tribal people occupied hill areas since time immemorial and it is their most important heritage. God has created human being and given places of habitation. Their land is their identity (T. Lunkim, Tribal Land Heritage, N.E. Context). It is their basic foundation from which emerged their culture and economic tradition. They have adopted different political system in their land. Kuki-Chin have autocratic form of governance with the chiefs having control over the land. In the case of Nagas, their political system is essentially democratic with the whole village community participating in the decision making.
In the traditional tribal society, the chiefs enjoy political autonomy and rule independently. They had the land to rule and were fighting to protect it. The Kuki Inpi (Kuki Govt) had to wage several wars to protect and defend their territory against invaders since 1700.
Although there is no pattern of land law, yet the tribal people have their own system of land ownership and land holding. Their land use system and demarcation of village boundaries, etc have been traditional practices and are of common phenomenon till this day.
Sovereignty over land
The areas occupied by Kuki-Chin (Chikims) remained one until the British came to India during the later half of the 19th Century. They were never known to be under the rule of Hindu or Muslim India. They remained as good friend to the Manipur Rajas and not as his subject. Kukis rescuing Manipur King Chandrakirti from the Sukte Captivity may be cited as an example. They were independent from Meitei Raja rule in Manipur.
A Political Agent of Manipur had stated, ‘The Kukis have long enjoyed an evil reputation for their ferocity and have always been left severely alone by the Rajas of Manipur who preferred to avoid them’ (The Hindu Patriot, May 19, 1893).
The British brought the two – hills and valley under their control for administrative convenience, merging the two into one State.
During the British period the hill areas were administered by the Political Agent who was an ICS officer. Their administration in the hill areas was based on the tribal people’s tradition and religious belief. The tribal chiefs were not deprived of the right of ownership from the land. The British in short, refrained from direct interference from the legislation power of the British India in Manipur (Dr. S. Kipgen, Land, Identity & Dev.: Perceptions focusing on the tribals of Manipur).
The Kukis paid nominal taxes (House Tax) as offering to stranger based on their old superstitious belief. They soon, however, came to realize British subjugation in 1917 which culminated to the historic Anglo-Kuki War of 1917-19. (Read Kuki National Assembly Memorandum to PM of India, 1960)
Kukis defending tribal’s land
The Kuki Inpi defended the whole tribal land (Independent Hill Country as described by some writers from 1761 AD) since First World War. In the historic Kuki war against imperialist British which is called Anglo-Kuki War by T.S. Gangte or Kuki Rebellion by Guardians of the NE (2003, pp. 19-20) and Kuki-Rising (Oriental & India Office Collections in London), the Kuki people fought bravely, never surrendered to the British Govt, rather chose imprisonment to save the tribal land. The Kukis fought mainly to defend and protect their land and rights. Many Kuki chiefs were imprisoned and died. The result of it is that North Eastern land remain still in the hands of tribal people. Dr T Lunkim, Tribals land Heritage in NE India Context (A booklet) wrote,
‘The present political chaos in within the independent hill country’. The people own land. The British colonial Govt was just an umbrella Govt to keep and guard the land for the indigenous people. Because they had imprisoned the land defenders. Therefore the Britishers were obligated to keep the land safe against any invasion during the Kuki leading chiefs whom they imprisoned. It was the duty of the British Colonial Govt to guard the tribal land.’
The British realizing that taking away the land and colonize it was a sin, since they knew that the tribal people own the land, they leave on it, therefore made safeguards for the people by introducing ‘Inner Line Permit’ and Chin Hills Regulation, etc. which are an instrument used to safeguard the tribal land during Kuki leading chief in jail.
The war also transferred administration of the hill areas. The Maharaja and the State Darbar came to be eliminated in the administration of Hill areas. The anti-British movement lead by Rani Gaidinliu too played a significant role in effecting the change.
The British rule in India came to an end in 1947. Here, it may be noted that the British left the hill areas of Tripura and Manipur as independent countries. The Independence of India in 1947 did not include these two States. Realizing this the Government of India made the Regent Queen of Tripura and Manipur King forcibly sign the Merger Agreement and declared officially these States merged to India on Oct. 15, 1949, two years later.
Threat on Tribals’ land and forest
In the post independence period the tribal people had been subjected to threat on their land and forest. This ‘process of invasion’ by the Govt and non tribals under the democratic India have generated great concern, threatening their very existence. Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru in his speech delivered at Shillong on March, 1959 said, ‘Tribal right in the land and forest should be respected’.
Hill areas to the tribal is their most important heritage. They are the landlord and forest on it is their well loved home, their livelihood, their very existence. It gives them food and others which provide their needs. The gradual extension of the authority of the Govt in this areas and the natural desire of the forest officials deeply disturb the tribal.
T. Lunkim had expressed the need for tribal people to have an introspection as to why so much lost occurred during the last fifty or more years to the tribal people in the North Eastern region. The various designs to slowly replace the traditional democratic system and direct undermining the local authorities and indigenous system by the State have created great problem to the tribal areas. The MLR and LR Act if implemented will take over ownership of tribal land and resources by the Govt and non-tribals.
Here, we may quote Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru as saying, ‘It is our policy that the tribal areas should have as much freedom and autonomy as possible so that they can live their own lives according to their own customs and desires’.
‘The problem of the tribal areas is to make the people feel that they have perfect freedom to live their own lives and to develop according to the wishes and genius. India to them should signify not only or protecting force but a liberating one. Any conception that India is ruling them and that they are the ruled, or that customs and habits with which they are unfamiliar are going to be imposed upon them will alienate them’.
Source: The Sangai Express