Wakha Villagers Reveal the Colours of the University of Culture
By G. Amarjit Sharma
This summer in June 2019 Wakha village in Imphal East (Manipur) had two significant public rituals. The rituals do not merely mean the collective village’s regular religious ritual to bring a good crop and good health in the village, but more importantly the rituals that use the religious site and space of the village for conveying a strong message to the state and political class that includes the local MLA, his supporters, the forest department officials etc. Two such public rituals are Kuraklamtaiba at the foothill of Nongmaiching at Wakha Village and a Public Meeting at a site of the guardian deity (Umang Lai) of Wakha village.
The context in which the public rituals acquired much significance is the attempt of the Department of Arts and Culture, Government of Manipur to acquire more land beyond the space mutually agreed by the villagers to build a permanent campus for the Manipur University of Culture. The Manipur University of Culture is also an initiative under the Manipur Cultural Policy, 2002 that envisages a center or institute which will become a university for ‘Manipuri Culture.’ A Foundation Stone was laid at a site in Wakha village on 29 December 2017, mutually agreed by the government and village community, represented by the members of committees like Lai Committee, Village committee to conserve forest and the Wakha Youth Club. However, the development that unfolds now in the last few months requires a closer observation.
The members of the Wakha Youth Club have discovered that the proposed area of the Manipur University of Culture at Wakha covers a total of 38 hectares of the community forest area. More importantly, this touches and mostly violates so-called sacred ecology of the village. Roughly about six-seven hectors of the total thirty-eight hectors is considered to be the forest that not merely provide the religious material resources for some of the important rituals of the land, but also have formed a vital part of the religious and sacred cosmology of the land. The Wakha Youth Club submits a series of letters to convey as well as seek the intervention of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), its regional office located at Shillong, State Human Right Commission and State Forest Department.
What do the villagers expect of the state? The villagers expect the state to listen to their voice that acquisition of land and diversion of forest be done based on prior information and consultation with the people. Such stance came from their rightful accessibility to the community land and forest as per the earlier state government’s legislation and concerned forest department orders. But on the side of state government, the legal entitlement that the community enjoys on the forest does not come up naturally to determine or check forest diversion and planned land acquisition. Instead, village committees and youth club of Wakha had to assert their right by reminding the state of such privilege of the community through submission of the past official orders. In this context, documentation of the village past that shows a rightful and legally accessible village land and the forest is a necessary strategy. Villagers’ committees and their members refer the old Durbar resolution of 1932, and subsequent Government of Manipur’s forest department order in 1969 and 1994 that protect villagers’ traditional right to access forest and land at the Noimaiching hill range at Wakha.
But the monopoly of the state on the issue of environment and forest is lucidly seen in this context also. It is reported that the Forest Department has given ‘in principle’ Stage 1 forest clearance to the Department of Arts and Culture for the University of Culture. This clearance is found to be given under the Forest Act of 1980 in spite of the above legal entitlements and precedence that protect community forest and land. The ‘in principle’ forest clearance given by the state government (forest department) means that the state is not stopped from taking any initiative in spite of the legal entitlement already given to the villagers of Wakha.
Usually, the state justifies such clearance on the interest of ‘public.’ However, ‘public interest’ tends to restrict not just the community accessibility to their forest for livelihood, but also the religious and cosmic relationship of the villagers with the surrounding. What is public in the eyes of the state is, in fact, against the interest of the villagers. Truly this is another case of the state monopoly in our times. The state government in the past gave legal entitlement to the Wakha villagers to access the forest at Nongmaiching as the community forest. But at another moment now state takes it away. Series of letters submitted to various departments of the state is to remind the state to respect its earlier Act or Office Order in favour of people. But it appears that the state rests on the monopoly logic that gives a sort of free hand to interpret its laws, even to the extent of violating its previous legislation or concerned office order.
The monopoly is also clearly visible once we see the gap between the state in paper and state in practice regarding ‘promotion, preservation and enrichment’ of culture (as per the objective of the Manipur Culture Policy 2002). This is important in the context of diversion of forest area and acquisition of land in Wakha. The Wakha village committees argue that the proposed site of the Manipur University of Culture destroys the sacred sites and space of their religious beliefs and practices. If this is so, not only one can question university itself for erasing sites of cultural practices, but also argue that the state does not respect the cultural autonomy state is supposed to give to the people; hence, the state violates its policy and objective of conserving culture. The Preamble of the Manipur Culture Policy (1.10) states that the state as far as possible would play only ‘a catalytic role in the development and progress of culture with an arm’s length intervention.’ However, the state in practice neither listens to the voice of the traditional institutions and organizations to spare the religious sites and space nor promote and conserve culture. This is truly an instance of state monopoly.
The villager engages such monopoly state base on the moral principle of consent. Wakha villagers say nothing of the state cannot be taken up or advanced without the public consultation and the ‘necessary consent’ of the villagers. The notion of consent in fact draws from both the international principle of self-determined right of ‘indigenous people’ over land and natural resources and the India’s Forest Right Act of 2006 (FRA) that contains a clause on the necessary prior consent of the local body like Gram Sabha before any development initiative that involved diversion of forest area for non-forest purpose is taken place.
While giving in-principle stage one clearance the state government disregards such international principle and the specific provision of consent in FRA. However, such so-called developmental initiative based on public interest hides the interests of a powerful section of our society. It has come to the knowledge of the Wakha villagers that forest diversion for development work (university), road construction and few housing initiatives taken up in the context of university building hides large interest of MLA and his men. The developmental initiatives, in reality, tolerate the illegal acquisition of land and resources, private plantation of the elites closer to the state.
The public meeting held at the village of Wakha on 20 June 2019 is not just an important site of engagement, but also a site of active communication to the state, power elites and also to the masses. But then, in the present context, the ritual of Kuraklamtaiba at the foothill of the village represents not just the culture of the commoners, but a serious warning to the state to follow the will of people and not to proceed without the consent of people. Kuraklamtaiba while performing its religio-social and economic function proclaim the beginning of the wet rice agricultural activities. The ritual involves chanting of Laisol (of the supreme god) to avert the evils and pray for good crop and good health in the village. But the ritual acquires new and additional role of engaging state and the power elites. The ritual of Kuraklamtaiba is an important ritual performance to convey how the community lives closely with its environment. It is also an important site of strengthening the claim of the community to recognize cultural and political right over the land and forest.
The public meeting at the site of guardian Umanglai deity conveys additional strong message. The guardian deity as per the belief of villagers decides the destiny of those individuals, including the power elites and even the ‘insurgent,’ who go against the wishes of the local people. The destiny usually for these people is death. The Wakha villagers believe that the political leaders who do not follow the will of people may bear a similar faith. When will state listen to such moral and cultural pronouncement? Whether the state listens or not, it is important to see that Wakha villagers expose the true colour of the state’s conservation of ‘Manipuri culture.’
(G. Amarjit Sharma teaches politics of development in Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. He can be reached at [email protected])
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