Prologue: The Indian constitution contains a number of provisions for preserving and protecting the interest tribal communities in the country. Having realized that the northeastern region is a home to a large number of tribes, the framers of the constitution have secured for them Sixth Schedule for the administration to the tribal areas while providing Fifth Schedule for the tribals of other regions. A part from this, there is several other safeguards which enabled them to practice promote and preserve their distinctive identity and tradition The Kukis out here practice chieftainship, which is basically the traditional polity. Though it is a legally recognized institution unlike the Khap panchayat of the mainland rural India, it contains elements that are highly antagonistic to democratic principles and governance. As such the need is to reform the traditional system of governance in order to make more responsive to people’s need, and also upholding the rights of all the villagers. Further, there is a need to formalize and reconcile traditional polity with the modern day inclusive developmental bodies.
While every Indian citizen is equal in the eyes of the law, constitutional safeguards are given to tribal people to protect their unique cultural and linguistic identities, in the form of affirmative action. It may be noted here that cultural, linguistic and religious minorities’ rights are part of enforceable fundamental rights too. As such, the tribal people can practice, promote and preserve their distinctive culture and customs. In furtherance to this objective the Government of India also provides grants and other assistances. As part of democratic decentralization process in the country in the post-Independent India, the tribal people out here has also two important institutions for self governance namely, the Hill Areas Committee (HAC) and the Autonomous District Council to manage the hill areas. However, both failed to fulfill the aspiration of the people. People’s participation is one of the main ingredients of democracy and only through it people could be close to governance. India, being a country of vast cultural and ethnical diversity, it was recognized that a uniform pattern of local administration in the form of Panchayati Raj may not be workable. To this end the Cabinet Mission Plan in 1946 suggested that an Advisory Committee be formed to suggest for the formation of a suitable form of local self-governance for the minorities, tribals and excluded areas. Accordingly, the Constituent Assembly set up an Advisory Committee which appointed a sub-committee known as the North East Frontier (Assam) Tribal and Excluded Areas Committee with Gopinath Bordoloi, the then Chief Minister of Assam as its chairman. The Bordoloi Committee thus formed, was of firm conviction that the tribals of Assam, who are historically and culturally different from tribes of other parts of India, should be allowed to promote and regulate their own way of life according to their free will and choice. Consequently, it led to the formation of District Council which now operates as Autonomous District Council in north-east states of Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and in limited form in Manipur. In Manipur the Autonomous District Council came into being only in 1973 as a result of the Manipur (Hill Areas) District council Act, 1971. The way District Council operates here is very much different from other neighboring states. The traditional village council of the Kukis comprises SEMANG PACHONG and other functionaries. While the council is build upon the good traditional values, practices and management, there remain a number of challenges that needs to be overcome to ensure equitable and participatory governance. Democracy derives its strength from the people who need meaningful participation to make society vibrant and county prosperous and strong.
Chieftainship: It is the oldest form of polity known and it still exists among the Kukis. It is out of the purview of the Panchayati Raj Institutions or the Sixth Schedule. In the traditional past chieftainship ensured the development of the poor, weak and vulnerable section of the villager. It maintained justice, peace, law and order, security and service paid to the widow, respect of women, providence of land for grazing cattle, for cultivation, and so on. However, unlike the past, it has to a great extent lost all its inherent virtues and moral obligation towards its community in the age of materialistic society. It has more or less turned into a corrupted institution. It is being subjected to abuse and misuse by the chief and elites for their vested interest. The villagers are being often subjected to oppression and exploitation. Personal development of the chief assumed more prominence than community development. Chieftainship should serve the interest of the community and if it does not, the same should be replaced or modified in order to accommodate society’s particular needs. It is the Kuki tradition that chieftainship was handed down to head of the clan ‘Mi-upa’ and the subsequent line of succession went to the eldest male descendants. Then, there is collateral chief who are younger branches of the clan chief. But contemporary Kuki society has witnessed mushrooming of many new villages established legitimately or illegitimately for various reasons. One main reason among others is that they are highly tempted with the inflow of development funds or schemes from the central government like JRY, NREGS etc. Driven by the prospect of getting developmental funds and schemes, many aspired to become chief by fair or foul means unmindful of customs and practices. There is no methodology as to how a new village should be established. The old traditional system of setting up a new village by obtaining prior permission or authorisation from the lineage head is no more practiced. Today, the Kuki society has witnessed unprecedented ballooning of non-viable villages. It is not known whether salu belpeng (haosat kilah) ceremony is performed or not. They acquired some acres of land by purchasing the land from the earlier chief and got it recognized through the concerned district administration and then secured the gazette notification. In most cases, all the scheme/fund oriented chiefs are non-resident chief simply because he has no villagers, though in the government records they manipulated it to fulfil the minimum household requirement. Such phenomenal changes have disgraced and eroded the sanctity of the chief ship institution thereby spoiling age-old value system.
There is no doubt that the chiefs had played useful role in the past because of which their office was retained as part of an administrative empowerment. It is also seen as complementary to holistic and inclusive governance. Undoubtedly, it serves the interest of the community at one point of time. At the same time, the fact cannot be denied that the traditional system of governance has been authoritative, conservative, autocratic and hereditary in nature. As such, the institution as of now is highly debated and questioned as it is not compatible with the principles of modern day inclusive/participatory or developmental governance. There is mixed opinions and views about the continuance of traditional chieftainship. While many people aspire for democratically elected chief still some are in favor of upholding the traditional governance system. Whatever may be the case, traditional institutions are seen undemocratic and instrument of domination of chiefs over others. It is also considered as one main reason for lack of progress and development. There are numerous reasons why the Kuki villages cannot develop into a bigger village but rather split into smaller village with just few households. Another negative impact of the traditional system is that many villagers left their native village for good and began to settle in towns and cities. It appears that often the chiefs do not respect the views, opinions and suggestions of their educated villagers whom they consider their rival and competitor. Many chiefs were generally not only arrogant but also filled with pride, egoism and self glorification. It is not the rule of the law but the rule of men which prevails. As for instance, during state and parliamentary election, more so in the ADC election, exercise of adult franchise is also controlled by the chief in total violation of the democratic rights of the individuals. The villagers are normally expected to vote for the particular candidate whom the chief support, if not the villager could face dire consequences. There are many instances of the villager facing the wrath of the chief resulting in the latter’s expulsion from the village. The redundant traditional governance system is the biggest hurdle of transparent governance system.
Constitutional safeguards of tribals: Under the constitution, the tribal people enjoy several safeguards such as educational & cultural, social, economic, political and service. This safeguard has enabled the tribals to retain their traditional polity and socio-cultural identities. Article 19 of the Constitution providing to the citizens ‘Right to Freedom of movement throughout the country and right to reside and settle in any part of the country ensures that the ‘distinctive culture and tradition of the tribals’ are safeguarded. According to Art. 19 sub clause (d) & (e) the state can impose reasonable restrictions on the freedom of movement and residence of people, in the interests of any Scheduled Tribes. The entry of outsiders in tribal areas is restricted to protect the distinctive culture, language, customs and manners of scheduled tribes and to safeguard their traditional vocation and properties against exploitation” (M Laxmikanth: 2010:7.11) For instance, the non-tribal in the Inner Line Permit (ILP) enforced state is mere residents. It strictly meant for preservation and protection of the tribals and their inhabited areas from encroachment, exploitation and assimilation of the plain people. Thus, it is very clear from the above sub clause of art.19, that the tribal areas/lands in North east are well protected by the Constitution and not by the tribal chief. The chief fails to understand that they are the custodian and own the land on behalf of his villagers. The chief and the villagers should know that their lands, identity and traditional culture are protected due to constitutional safeguards. The Constitution does not give any special privileges to Kuki chief or Naga Khullakpa either. Even the erstwhile Maharajas of India were reduced to an ordinary citizen by the Constitution. Are we still espousing the colonial writings such as “the chief are the lords of the soil”? Those are history and now we are living in Independent India within the directives of the Constitution which is supreme.
Appraisal of Hill Area Committee: Art. 371C provided for the constitution of the Hill Area Committee. It is a powerful constitutional body meant to serve as an instrument for the protection of the interest of the tribal people of Manipur. It should ensure effective implementation of developmental programmes with a view to promote good governance in the hill areas. The HAC, despite a constitutional body, has been totally incapacitated over the years by the Manipur Legislative Assembly controlled and manipulated with scanty regard for the interest of the tribal people by ruling parties and the concerned executive departments. The tribal MLAs could not evolve any consensus or common ground on various tribal problems due to party politics and infighting among themselves for ministerial berths. In short they all want to be in the good books of the chief minister. As loyalty to their political party became supreme the tribal leaders ignored if not totally forgotten to assert their constitutional rights. The Chairman of the Hill Areas Committee, being always a man from the ruling party makes the committee simply one of the organs of the ruling party. It appears that they simply play the role of advisory and suggestion without any tangible outcome. The Governor of the state is duty bound to do his job in conformity with the Constitutional provisions by monitoring the powers and functions of the HAC and its working system. It appears that the Governor needs to do a lot more and see whether the interest of the tribal people is properly safeguarded as per the provision of the Constitution. Sadly, neither the Governor nor the Government bothers the functioning of Hill Area Committee.
The HAC is a mere puppet in the hands of the Chief Minister as they invariably follow the dictates of the latter. The members are easily influenced by money power and other inducement. There should be half yearly furnishing report by the Governor to the President through the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Govt. of India regarding the administration of Hill Areas of Manipur. Annual reports of the same should be easily accessible to the public to make them aware of the progress of administration. Union Government should also direct the State on issues of tribal customs and traditions, law and justice, land alienation and reservation in jobs, projects affecting the interest of the tribals, fund allocation to ADCs etc. Thus, it is to say that the tribals in Manipur are not happy in contrast to the tribals in Sixth Schedule areas of other states. The members of HAC should take pro-active role and should ensure that their legitimate demands are met by the government so that development programmes penetrated at the grass root level. In short, they should fulfill their constitutional mandate. They should come to the forefront on every issues affecting the interest of the tribals. But the tragedy is that due to disunity among tribal MLAs the very purposes of this constitutional body to safeguard their interest is defeated. The loosely structured Hill Area Committee does not serve its purpose. Without reviewing the committee’s power and functions, with revolutionary changes in its working mechanism it will continue to remain worthless. They are supposed to be pro-active towards the interest of the tribal community. The HAC is formed to provide legislative protection to the tribals but it has done nothing substantial. It is to note that during the last 40 years of its existence as a constitutional body, it has failed to act as an effective committee to protect the interest of the tribal people. Despite the fact that the tribal areas of Manipur are included in the Scheduled Areas they are not provided the same provisions similar to that of the Sixth Schedule areas. So far the traditional land use system which sustained their life, culture and identity is not threatened except for the recent incidents of overlapping of census, proposed Manipur Village Authorities Act-1956, the recent introduction of Manipur government Police jurisdiction, Forest Rights Acts, etc.
Appraisal of Autonomous District Council Decentralized governance or democratic decentralization in the form of district council among the hill people of Manipur fails to satisfy their aspiration. Being under the state legislation, the success and failure of district council depends entirely on the state government. There is no real autonomy in the hills. The aspiration of the tribal people is that the provision of Sixth Schedule of the Constitution of India be extended to the present District Council of Manipur and even beyond that. The present district council does not serve the purpose without having judicial and executive powers. The ADC members were not given legislative and judicial powers except limited executive power that too depends on the political mood of the government. The state legislature in consultation with the HAC should empower the Autonomous District Council so as to ensure good governance. In this connection, the mistrust and suspicions between the state government and the tribal as a whole should be eliminated. Then with regard to developmental governance, the state government should take the tribal people into confidence if at all election for village developmental bodies are to be held under their supervision. Then, the village administration should be reformed thoroughly with proper safeguards for preservation of their customary laws, culture, identity and land. The HAC should exercise their power and rights to ensure that interest of the tribal people are well protected. Experiences and all research evidences have point to the fact that efficient local self governance and Human Development Index is co-related. As the government developmental schemes hardly reach to the public, poverty, hunger and starvation continues to dog the tribal mass. In today’s world of globalization, per capita income does not indicate the real growth and development and the new indicator being Human Development Index, we have to look for the success of ‘inclusive growth through inclusive governance’. The unrest among the tribal and the consequent mushrooming of various militant groups is the fallout of the ‘failed state’ coupled with ‘hill–valley divide’ syndrome. Unless the hills of Manipur are well developed peace in the state would be elusive. Besides, the present demand by the tribal people for the extension of the Constitution Sixth Schedule in the hills areas may also be attributed to mainly economic reasons.
Therefore, provisions similar to the Sixth Schedule areas should be granted as it appears that without it the political aspirations and traditional rights of the tribal people of the state cannot be effectively safeguarded. It is to say here that the power of allotment and land records lying within the district and others mentioned under the sixth schedule of the constitution of India be transferred to all the district councils in Manipur. The tribal MLAs who are supposed to be the prime movers and key players of the HAC or this constitutional body should assert their power and constitutional rights without any fear. The elected representatives should come to the forefront on every issue affecting the interest to the tribal people. In short they should claim their power and fulfill their constitution mandate. The need of the hour is to set up a committee comprising tribal members to bring out separate land laws to be enacted effectively. Only under exceptional circumstances should the state be allowed to acquire lands lying within the hill districts. Amendment of Manipur (Hill Areas) Village Authorities Act in the context of 73rd amendment of Indian constitution which is long overdue needs to be addressed. There is also a need to harmonise the traditional village authorities and village development board/council under the government and make them co-exist without being antagonistic to each other. The tribal people of Manipur are the only group in the northeast who do not have district council or local government according to the Fifth or Sixth schedule. If they are to be given true form of local self government, the provision of 6th Schedule needs to be provided or the Hill Areas should have separate land laws.
With all due regard and respect for Kuki tradition and culture, it could be argued that the institution of the Chieftainship is at a state of decadence. The prime need of the hour is to ensure participatory decision making in local development and also to facilitate a strong community spirit among the people. Sixth Schedule needs a serious review and revival at the earliest especially in Manipur so as to ensure participation of common citizen in the village planning and development. Granting real autonomy and devolution of Sixth Schedule viz, funds, functions and functionaries to the Village Authority are essential and central for the purpose. Gandhiji’s dream of giving ‘power to the people’ which presupposes inclusive growth can only be achieved through inclusive governance. The key to this is an effective, well functioning system of the village authority not simply a hotchpotch functionaries depending on the whim and fancies of the chief. As such, the functioning of the village governance crucially depends on the devolution of resources, transfer of subjects, and passing down of administrative control of the civil servants. There is a great need for capacity building in accounts, budgeting, monitoring and so on. Unless larger powers and resources are devolved and elected representatives are trained, the talk of local government will simply be a dream. Hence, there is a need to reform the Village Authority system of governance to develop them as really a local level of governance within the broad parameter of the constitutional directives and to make democracy meaningful in the state. The state has to rise above the politics of deprivation and consider certain genuine demands in the right earnest for peace, prosperity and progress of the tribal people in particular and the state in general. Coming to governance at the village level, how long we remain in this traditional set-up or what is called ‘Thinglhangpa kivaipoh’ when the system is not compatible with modern day-to-day governance. Without democratic participation at the grass root level, how shall we promote the value of equality and individual rights? How shall we instill the sense of belongingness and participatory development? Hence the need of the hour is to reform village governance system. We have been living too long in the past. It is immaterial for the elected ADC members whether they belong to NPF, BJP, Congress etc. unless the elected tribal MLAs under the banner of Hill Area Committee unite and assert their constitutional rights irrespective of their party affiliations, the Autonomous District Council as a developmental tool would be a farce.