Tuesday, August 17, 2021

75th Independence Day: In Search of True Freedom

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As the clock stroke past midnight on the 14th of August 1947, India gained not just its political independence but also its economic independence from the clutch of foreign rule. The story of India’s successful non-violent struggle has inspired many thoughts and movements across the globe, and it is one achievement that every Indian should feel proud of it. The Prime Minister has in January rightly appealed to people to write about freedom fighters and events associated with India’s independence. It is important that we remember the men and women who have the generous concern and the brave commitment to sacrifice their prime days for our today. 

We have come a long way from those days of channelizing our main resources, thoughts, and energies for the development of the primary sector and eradicating extreme poverty. The transition of India from being an entity composed of different princely states with individual interests to a country that not only stands united today but fought patriotically as one against external aggressions is no mean achievement by any yardstick. Today, our significant advancement in science and technology, defence, literature, medicine, and the economy at large has captured the world’s attention so much so, India today is regarded not just as an economic powerhouse but also a responsible world leader. That India’s ambition to be part of the UN’s permanent seat garnered overwhelming support from many countries is a testament to the fact that we are no longer a country with a begging bowl. It is however prudent to ask Is India's growth inclusive. If India lives in its village, as Gandhiji had said, the progress of the nation should thence be measured by the condition of the villages in India. The question which then arises is- “Are our villages self-sufficient today?”

Renewed focus on Subhash Chandra Bose and his Indian National Army is a heartening development, as freedom struggle, in as much as we would love it to be, is not just about Gandhiji and his followers. Also noteworthy is the little yet significant development in the acknowledgement of tribal movements in the North East, long ignored in mainstream narratives of India’s freedom movement; that native writers had to undertake painstaking efforts to rewrite the forgotten stories from scratch notwithstanding, several articles and books have appeared on the subject in recent times. However, taking the opportunity to evaluate the progress we have made so far, and more so the challenges faced, there are some glaring unfortunate developments and the lack of concrete remedial initiatives thereof that is worth contemplating today.

The fact that hundreds of years of exploitation in the hands of the British have finally ceased for good is a momentous occasion worth celebrating in any sense. Sadly though, a country formed on the underlying principle of non-violence has seen domestic violence right from the moment it was unchained. 75 years later, even as our achievements in many fields deserve applause, social freedom is still elusive to us. 

We still have certain sections of our society that have witnessed countless exploitations and discrimination. What will freedom mean to those thousands of families living in the slums of Mumbai and to the hundreds of thousands of Adivasis who are subjected to social stigmas even today? They may be free of exploitation from foreign force but are facing the same hardship if not graver from their countrymen, and there is certainly no guarantee that the latter is milder to tolerate. Social divisions such as -Hindu- Muslim, North-South, and the high caste-low caste exists below our artificial portrayal of a socially unified Indian, which manifested into unfortunate incidents on many occasions. In the words of Dr. B R Ambedkar, ‘So long as you do not achieve social liberty, whatever freedom is provided by the law is of no avail to you.’

The issue of social disparity is an issue as old as our civilization. The British made good use of it to further their agenda of divide and rule. Seventy-four years after the British left, it remains ever fertile to seeds of discord. It is a collective failure on the part of those running the government thus far and no political party can claim to have no responsibility for it. If the present government has received flake for introducing controversial bills in parliament like the Citizenship Amendment Bill and the Instant Triple Talaq Bill, the governments before have been accused of failing to address social disharmony efficiently, if not ignorant of it altogether. 

While the economic impacts of the unprecedented onslaught of the pandemic are surely felt by many countries and it will be incorrect to measure India’s growth development based on current situations, the prevalence of extreme poverty, loss of livelihood and the aforementioned lack of social freedom is a concern India cannot overlook in its effort to portray the India shining image; this should be a commitment irrespective of which party rules. For India to therefore effectively play a role as a world leader, it has to focus on its domestic issue. We might have comparatively fared better considering our Independence is not even a century old. But seventy-five years surely could have placed us in a far better position than we are at present. 

Independence Day is indeed a day of remembering our freedom fighters and celebrating their achievements. But most vitally, it is a day when we the people of India should celebrate our freedoms. Some of the unfortunate events that have happened post-independence would have left our freedom fighters surely in tears. It will be a befitting tribute to our freedom fighters to ensure that the freedoms they have fought and laid their lives for, are thriving and blooming today in the world’s largest democracy. Happy Independence Day!

Friday, August 6, 2021

Comprehensive settlement needed for N-E disputes

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PC: The Statesman

The 26th of July will go down as a turning point in the history of India’s interstate relations; five policemen lost their lives, and many were injured as a result of police firing between Assam and Mizoram.

Border disputes are not uncommon, but it is the warlike confrontation between police personnel of the same country that is regretful and alarming.

The run-up to the incident and the question of who is responsible is a mystery, the answer to which will vary depending on who is asked.

That Mizoram sticks to the inner line of the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation 1873 while Assam clings to the 1933 inner line has been a bone of contention between the two states for quite a while now. A day after the incident, a press release by the Assam Government stated that Mizoram started constructing a road by destroying a forest reserve and set up a police camp in Lailapur, Cachar District, Assam.

The release added that a team of Assam officials had visited the place to request the Mizoram authorities to maintain the status quo but were attacked by miscreants and visibly supported by Mizoram police, who would later open fire at Assam police using automatics and light machine guns thereby killing five Assam police personnel on the spot.

A press statement by the Mizoram Government refuted Assam’s claim by stating, “Around 200 (two hundred) Assam armed Police led by IGP, Assam Police accompanied by DC, Cachar, SP, Cachar, and DFO, Cachar came to Vairengte Auto-rickshaw stand at around 11:30 a.m. today i.e., 26.07.2021.

They forcibly crossed the duty post manned by CRPF personnel stationed there and overran a duty post manned by 1 (one) section of Mizoram police personnel.

The Assam Police also damaged several vehicles that were travelling along the National Highway between Vairengte and Lailapur.” The statement by the Mizoram Home minister further stated that unarmed civilians were assaulted and lathi-charged and tear-gas was used by Assam Police to which Mizoram police responded.

“The Government of Mizoram strongly condemns the unjustified act of the Government of Assam in this intrusion and aggression into the territory of Mizoram,” the statement added.

A day after ordering the checking of all vehicles originating from Mizoram to Assam for possession of illicit drugs, travel advisories were issued by Assam Government on the 30 July.

“The people of Assam are advised not to travel to Mizoram as any threat to the personal safety of people cannot be accepted,” the directive said.

The Mizoram Government on the other hand issued an order stating that during the last 10 years, huge quantities of illicit drugs have been seized in Mizoram which were smuggled from Assam.

It added, “The issue of drugs trafficking can be better solved by better communication between the states and flow of drugs can be better halted by co-ordination between district police on the opposing borders instead of threatening and harassing innocent civilians without any reasons at all.”

“Shri @AmitShah ji…kindly look into the matter. This needs to be stopped right now,” tweeted Mr. Zoramthanga, Chief Minister of Mizoram, as he shared a video of what appeared to be an altercation between a group of civilians and police personnel. He also shared footage of a Mizo couple being allegedly harassed and their vehicle vandalised. Assam Chief Minister quickly retorted by tweeting: Honble @ZoramthangaCM ji , Kolasib (Mizoram) SP is asking us to withdraw from our post until then their civilians won’t listen nor stop violence. How can we run government in such circumstances? Hope you will intervene at earliest @AmitShah @PMOIndia”.

A series of tweets from both the CMs continued, each justifying the acts of their police personnel and each accusing the other of violating norms. Thousands of users reacted to the tweets, which further increased the hype on social media so much so that hashtags such as #AssamShotFirst #ShameOnAssam #ShameOnMizoram were trending on Twitter.

Even as the war of words between Assam and Mizoram refused to die down, the Assam Police has summoned the Mizoram SP and six officials.

The notice issued by DSP Kalyan Das was served to Kolasib Deputy Commissioner H Lalthlangliana, SP Vanlalfaka Ralte, Additional SP David JB, Vairengte SDO (Civil) C Lalrempuia, Vairengte SDPO Thartea Hrangchal, and India Reserve Battalion Additional SP Bruce Kibby. The notices asked them to appear before the Dholai police station Investigating Officer on August 2.

Mizoram responded by revealing that an FIR was lodged on 26 July at Vairengte Police Station. The FIR named Sarma IGP Anurag Aggarwal, DIG Cachar Devajyoti Mukherjee, DC Cachar Keerthi Jalli, DFO Cachar Sunnydeo Choudhury, SP Cachar Chandrakant Nimbalkar and OC Dholai police station Sahab Uddin.

They have been ordered to appear at Vairengte Police station in Mizoram. But later, in what could be termed as a huge development for the improvement of relations, both states decided to drop all FIRs registered with regard to the incident of 26 July.

The Assam- Mizoram border dispute has the grave potential of disintegrating the cohesive regional relationship politically, socially, and economically harboured by states for long. Border disputes have emerged between Assam and Meghalaya and Assam and Nagaland. The Mizoram CM has said that the border dispute will not come in the way of the North-east being “one”.

However many are already skeptical of the fate of the North-east as an entity with common interests. The North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA), for which BJP and Assam CM Himanta Biswa Sarma shoulder key responsibility is poised to lose its credibility and acceptability in the absence of a lasting solution to the border disputes.

The present border fiasco, if not amicably handled, could see Dr. Sarma lose his standing as a regional leader and be seen only as a state leader. And, unless more pacts such as the one between Assam and Nagaland signed at Dimapur, Nagaland on 31 July, are arrived at, the North-east as a family of eight sisters will not be a happy family.

Considering the contesting claims of the parties and the complexity of the issue, the foremost priority in working out a solution should be the institution of an independent Interstate boundary commission.

After a careful consultative study, the commission should formulate a solution that considers concerns of all stakeholders. One option could be the utilisation of disputed lands by the Union government after compensating both the states.

Alternatively, the option of compensating one state and awarding land to the other or awarding the disputed land to both the states equally could be considered. Whatever be the solution, once worked out and accepted by the states, courts could play the role of guardians and take serious note of any arbitrary acts.

If there is one reason Assam and Mizoram have to resolve the matter, it is because there is no alternative. Two states in the Union cannot target each other violently. It is important for both states to accept that any conflict-resolution measures would involve compromise and sacrifice for the larger good.

The present chestthumping stance of not ceding even an inch of land adopted by both states has to be given up.

The intervention of the Ministry of Home affairs by ordering Central forces to man all areas of disputed land until a lasting and amicable solution is reached should be respected in letter and spirit in the interim.

The Union government should use the opportunity to settle once and for all the boundary disputes between different states in the North-east. There is absolutely no sane reason why Indians should kill themselves when enough precious lives have been sacrificed for the freedom of India and in its defense.

The writer is a freelance contributor and author. He is a former development professional and has served as a consultant in the Ministry of Rural Development, Government of India

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Why Manipur Government is right in Monitoring Social Media

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The Manipur government’s recent decision to monitor comments and posts on social media is a much welcome move as social media in its unchecked form has the potential to spawn communal hatred in the state causing irreparable damage to the peaceful coexistence among different communities of the state. That Manipur has past incidents of communal conflicts gave a few miscreants the opportunity to flare up more misunderstandings. The state is in such a delicate environment that, a simple quarrel could develop into inter-village and in some cases inter-tribe and inter-community feud. Social media with all its convenience as a platform for connecting people also poses a huge threat of it being misused to invite law and order disturbances.. 


Communal contents

A Facebook comment by one user reads, “ Kukis are Myanmar refugees”. Another commented, “They should be kicked back to Myanmar.” Many more such comments could be found. Putting aside the fact that Kukis have a clear history of residing in their ancestral land in which defense they have fought the mighty British, it is beyond all measures of decency to rebuke a community as refugees. 

That Myanmar today is in a state of chaotic governance post the military coup is a matter of concern for all right-thinking individuals; the country has witnessed gross violations of human rights that compelled many Myanmarese nationals to seek refuge in neighbouring countries. It is a humanitarian call to feel for their cause instead of branding them illegal immigrants and mocking their ill-fated conditions. Mizoram has set a tremendous example, worth emulating in that regard. 

The increase in  incriminating communal remarks has fuelled a sense of alienation and the eventual yearning for a separate system of governance. Having said that, no community in the state is neither completely innocent nor free of being victimised on social media. The Meiteis have had their share of similar attacks on social media; many undesirable comments that targeted their religion, beliefs, and culture have been made against them. These recent phenomenons of targeting communities in social media have polluted the minds of the youth in the state and it is these regrettable developments that make it all the more important for the Government to monitor social media content. 


Religious Divide 

Apart from the alarming rise of communal tones in social media interactions, there has been several irresponsible comments attacking other religions and faith. That Manipur has been a peaceful place tolerant of different religions, where Hindus celebrate Christmas with their friends from the Hills and where the celebration of Yaoshang(Celebrated as Holi elsewhere) has attracted many people from Hills, is now unfortunately at stake thanks to irresponsible social media posts and comments. The fact that most of the perpetrators are not questioned for their deplorable acts further emboldened them which leads to the spawning of their kinds. Social media instigations could be attributed to the few instances of attacks on places of worship in the state. Since the state has a clear demarcation of religious followers- Hindus and Muslims in the valley and Christians in the Hills, such religious attacks contributed largely to the strengthening of the Hill-Valley divide in the state. 


The Concern of Free Speech

While many are appreciative of the Government’s order to monitor social media posts and comments, there are voices that raised concern over its potential to be  misused by the state to silenced voice of dissents. The concern appears to have germinated from recent attacks of journalists and activists over social media posts. Also quoted by a few who are wary of the Government’s order is the Supreme court’s order that struck down Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000, relating to restrictions on online speech, as unconstitutional on grounds of violating the freedom of speech guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India. The recent observation made by the Supreme Court on the arrest of a social activist from Manipur that the “continued detention of the petitioner would amount to a violation of the right to life and personal liberty under Article 21 of the Constitution” is expected to send a strong message to the Government.


Way Forward

The question that naturally arises now is how to strike a balance between the need to check social media contents having venomous potential to disrobe the fabric of peaceful coexistence, and shouldering the profound obligation of the state in a democratic country to safeguard ‘the freedom of speech’ rights of its citizens. Any effort that favours one to the disadvantage of the other could have detrimental consequences causing unrest, thereby defeating the whole purpose of its introduction. The thin boundary that decides content classification should be fair, transparent, and uniform so that there is no room for its misuse. Devoid that, clauses like ‘hurting public sentiment’ could be clearly staged against a person by mobilising a few people and indicting him/her social media post irrespective of the content being mild or severe. While there is no doubt the Government is formulating the directive with the best intention, it cannot shy away from its responsibility of being answerable to its citizen, more so to those who have doubts on its initiatives. And what a better way to answer than to show it in action- of promoting and ensuring peaceful coexistence in the state.

(T S Haokip is a freelance writer and author of the book HILLY DREAMS)

Linguistic test and the question of inclusivity

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The recruitment notification of Public Sector Banks, Regional Rural Banks and Reserve Bank of India, and other few financial institutions for the post of Junior Associates/ Assistants/Clerks have a clause that mandates the knowledge of local language as an eligibility criterion. When SBI released a notification for the recruitment of its junior associates in 2021, many aspirants in the state of Manipur raised their concerns on the Bank’s requirement of Manipuri language orMeiteilon for all the aspirants in the state. It may be mentioned that Manipur has 32 recognised tribes, belonging to Manipur Naga and Chin-Kuki-Mizo communities, other than the Meiteis. 


Manipur’s peculiarities 

Unlike many other states which have common languages, Manipur has different story; while Meiteilon or Manipuri is widely spoken in the valley and a few districts, many people are not well versed with Manipuri. The Board of education and council of higher secondary thence provide an alternative subject in lieu of MIL (Major Indian Language) so as to not force students who are not comfortable with recognised major languages. It is pertinent to note that English language is widely used as the medium of communication in official matters. For states like Nagaland and Meghalaya, English has been recognised as the official language in SBI’s recruitment exam whereas for aspirants belonging to Manipur, there is no provision to choose English language as the official language. The policy stands to exclude the aspirations of many candidates belonging to the Hill tribes as they are not proficient in the prescribed local language. Apart from the challenges faced by aspirants, there is a question of serving people in the hills in Manipuri language. In Churachandpur, the second largest town in Manipur after Imphal, serving the locals in Manipuri/Meiteilon will be more of an inconvenience to the customers as the majority of them are non-Manipuri speakers. Thus English has become a natural choice of option for communication.


Being vocal for local language 

The concept of recruiting people with knowledge of local language stems from the idea of empowering the local people by positively discriminating them in job opportunities. Another factor is the consideration for the convenience with which front desk officials would seamlessly serve local customers in local languageWhile the demand by aspirants in Manipur is for the acceptance of the English language as an alternative to the prescribed local language- Manipuri in the eligibility criteria, there is a different demand elsewhere in the country. Many aspirants, especially those in the Southern states have demanded conducting exams in local language in addition to English and Hindi as practiced now. The argument is to not discriminate against those students who have possessed the required educational qualification in local language. The supreme court on the 15th of July 2021 has ordered public Sector banks to halt their recruitment process for clerical grades until further notice. 


Petition for fresh notification in Manipur 

Urging concerned authorities to reconsider the criteria of ‘Manipuri language’ in their clerical recruitment, the All Tribal Students Manipur (ATSUM) had written to the State Bank of India. “It is pertinent to note that the Scheduled tribe communities are not proficient with Manipuri/Meitei language and the Meiteis are not well-versed with the Scheduled tribes’ languages. In this regard, the inclusion of only Manipuri/Meitei language in test opted for the official language of the state in the recruitment of Junior Associates/Clerks is discriminatory to many aspirants from the hills,” a statement issued by the student body said. It may be mentioned that the lone Member of Parliament (MP) representing the hills of Manipur had also raised its concern in a letter addressed to the Managing Director of the Bank. SBI in its reply addressed to the MP had clarified that the same practice of mandating Manipuri language for clerical examinations has been followed by other organisations like RBI etc. However, the Bank has decided to put on hold the recruitment process for Manipur until the issue is resolved. “A fresh notification with revised list of languages will be be notified separately,” reads a letter from Chief General Manager (HR) SBI to the outer Manipur MP.



What now? 

In a country like India where policies should ideally be formulated with the principle of inclusivity, mandating a language that can exclude many aspirants from the scheme of things needs adequate redressal. Government and Public Sectors, especially those in the service sector which have local language eligibility criteria should take into account the peculiarities of Manipur and formulate their recruitment policies accordingly. Also, the demand to conduct recruitment examinations in local language needs thorough consultations and considerations. After all, language should not be a barrier in communication, rendering service, and most importantly in availing job opportunities provided by the government.


(The writer is an author and freelance writer.)


Sunday, July 11, 2021

The politics of turning ancestral lands of indigenous tribes into forest reserved in Manipur


        Representational Image/EastMojo

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Amidst the calamitous onslaught of the second wave of Covid-19 in Manipur, where hundreds have died, thousands have been affected by the disease and tens of thousands are struggling to make ends meet due to loss of livelihood, the state government has considered planting trees and landmarking the so-called Kanglatongbi to Kangpokpi Forest “reserved” as an urgency above all things.

Earlier, in 2020, the state government had released an order to declare the Koubru range as a reserved area. In May 2021, Manipur’s Forest, Environment, and Climate Change minister, Awangbou Newmai, asserted that Mount Koubru falls under the Kanglatongbi-Kangpokpi Reserved Forest, which was declared as such in 1968 under the Indian Forest Act, 1927. Interestingly, the tribes inhabiting the forest have no knowledge of the said statute, which was formulated before Manipur attained its statehood and before the Hill Area Committee came into existence.

Does all land belong to the state?

While attending the first mass tree plantation at Mangjol village, Kangpokpi District, Manipur chief minister N Biren Sing was quoted saying, “All lands belong to the state government.”

The remark was made to justify the installation of a boundary pillar to mark the Kanglatongbi to Kangpokpi forest area as ‘reserved’. Going by the simple logic that the government belongs to the people, his remarks only strengthen the view that land belongs to people. What the Manipur government failed to acknowledge is the land ownership rights of the Kuki tribes. It is worthwhile then to ask ‘who owned the lands before Manipur was formed, before India gained independence, and before the British came’.

Whose land is it anyway?

The Kukis have a clear history of living freely in their ancestral lands. That they fought the British during the Anglo-Kuki war 1917-1919 in defense of their ancestral land and freedom is well documented and acknowledged worldwide. Ironically, the state government had declared a restricted state holiday in acknowledgement of the centennial commemoration of the Anglo-Kuki war, also known as the Kuki Rising, or the Kuki Rebellion.Till date, there has been no formal agreement between the Kukis and the government after the British left India, with regards to their ancestral land. It is, however, understandable that since the ancestral lands of the Kukis politically fall under India and Myanmar, they will be subjected to the laws of the respective countries. But to disregard their interests and proclaim their ancestral lands without any consideration and consultation whatsoever is authoritarian and does not augur well for a state government in a democratic country that should adopt people-centric approach of governance.

The hidden agenda

The Manipur government had earlier stated environmental concerns as the reason for the need to declare reserved forests in Koubru and Thangjing ranges. Local CSOs have more than once solicited the kind attention of the government to discuss and chalk out an amicable solution to the highly delicate issue. It is not understood as to how the government refused an opportunity such as the co-operation of the local people if its real intention is to resolve environmental issues. Notably, the state government had earlier, in November 2020 through its Art and Culture Department attempted to declare Mt. Koubru and Mt. Thangjing as sacred sites of the Hindus, ignoring the sentiments of other religions, especially the local populace who practiced different religions.

Local Resistance

Ever since the Manipur government made its intention clear of declaring Koubru range as reserved forest in 2020, the local populace has voiced its displeasure. The committee on protection and preservation of Mt. Koubru (COPPK) and Sadar Hills Chief Association (SAHILCA) have fervently appealed to the government to respect the rights and privileges of the forest dwellers.

“Despite our efforts to meet on the issue for the past months, the Chief Minister has turned a blind-eye till today and, considering all the above matters and to show our strong resentment, we unanimously declare to boycott the mass tree plantation and landmarking at Mount Koubru range,” a statement of COPPK said.

Eviction of forest dwellers

Earlier, the government of Manipur is reported to have mulled eviction drives in more than 700 places located within KK Reserved and many other places in different reserved areas, taking the year 1980 as a baseline. The move, if it materializes anytime in the future, will be a perilous step that is ignorant of the presence of unregistered villages before the areas were declared as reserved forest; it will be a misadventure on the part of the government to not acknowledge the fact that the tribesmen did not feel the need to register themselves or their lands.  They were unaware of the land registration process then and have been moving freely in their ancestral land. Prohibiting their occupations and ordering them to vacate their lands  by citing the chronology of the registration of their habitat will be a clear violation of the ‘The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers’ (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006.’

The Road Ahead

The government of Manipur needs to be reminded that they represent both the hill and valley. It must respect the constitutional safeguards of the hill tribes enshrined by the Constitution and the various acts. The continued attempts to demarcate the lands of indigenous tribes into reserved land or forest will only alienate the already deprived and marginalised tribes in the state.

To ensure inclusive development, it should also review its policy of instituting all infrastructure of importance in the valley and reserving the hills to cater to its environmental concerns and obligations. While India is contemplating an inclusive idea that is considerate to the concerns of  SCs and STs, the recent move of the Manipur government has deeply affected the faith and trust of the Hill tribes in the system.

The government will have to rethink its policies and approach to prove people wrong about the infamous notion it enjoys – of being biased, harsh, and inconsiderate towards the hill tribes. 

(TS Haokip is a freelance writer and author.)

75th Independence Day: In Search of True Freedom

Outlook India (Click here to visit)      File Photo PTI /Outlook India As the clock stroke past midnight on the 14th of August 1947, India g...

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