Tribal chieftains particularly the Kuki groups are once again gathering forces to oppose the state’s policy on land resources and forests. It is quite evident in the formation of a new grouping titled Sadar Hills Tribals' Union on Land and Forest (SHITULF) whose stated objective is to protect land and forest in Sadar Hills from ‘external’ forces.
The new group includes among others tribal village chiefs, civil organisations like Sadar Hills Chiefs' Association (SAHILCA), Nongmaiching Area Chiefs/Chairman Khullakpa Association, Kuki Inpi Phailengmol, Island Block Development Committee, Bungpi Area Chiefs' Association and Vaiphei Peoples' Council Eastern Block.
The external forces they are talking about are the state government and forest laws of the country. They seek to challenge the state government’s intent to rationalise the overlapping boundaries of districts adjoining the Sadar Hills area in terms of both revenue and police jurisdiction besides the laws of the nation governing forest land, including reserve forests and protected forests. It is as if they do not recognise the state and its laws.
We will have to see how the state deals with this latest assertion. They had earlier claimed ownership rights over whole mountain ranges including reserved and protected forest areas. The claim of ownership over mountains have started in Sadar Hills and repeated in Thangjing hills in which villagers tried to prevent forest officials from afforestation drives.
It was one Tongmang Haokip, Chief of Saitu and also advisor of COPPK who claimed ownership of the whole range and he had quoted a document supposedly issued by Manipur State Durbar in 1947 in a FB post to buttress his claim over the mountain. What he conveniently forgot to mention was that a 33 square mile area including the Koubru range had been notified as Kanglatongbi-Kangpokpi Forest Reserve back in 1968 after considering all claims and objections from the surrounding villages, as per the Indian Forest Act, 1927.
We had predicted then similar claims would crop up in other areas also including Thangjing hill range. And the organisations who tried to prevent the tree plantation drive in Thangjing tried to paint a communal angle to it by terming it as a sort of intrusion by valley based individuals and groups. The basic question is, who are they to restrict or allow people in and out of the mountain ranges? How could one claim to own a mountain? It is simply ridiculous.
Till today, the people of Manipur regard Mt Koubru and Mt Thangjing as sacred mountains in the state. And the communities living in the state should be alive to the geo-political reality of ‘Ching-Pat-Turel’ and affinity with hills, lakes and rivers which is very inherent in a shared historical experience through the ages. As we said before, there simply should not be such a thing as ‘ancestral land’ in a composite state like ours and anybody who flags such terms always has an ulterior agenda. They should rather be questioning themselves on what they have done so far for conservation and upkeep of the land or mountains or rivers they are claiming to own.
Land and territory is a dear thing for individuals and groups, even in the animal kingdom. Everyone tries to zealously guard their land and territory. But, any claim has to be backed by proper land records and verifiable documents. Just as the valley people respect the land rights of the people in the hills, the hill people also need to respect the land rights of the valley people, also.
It would be considered unwise if the hill dwellers go on claiming every mound and molehill as their ancestral land. The issue of land reforms in the hills had been made very complicated over the years by some powerful lobbies by spicing it with wrong notions of indigenous land rights, an imagined threat perception of the valley people coming to settle in the hills, and of course flavours of sentiment while all the time sidelining the rights of common people in the hills with regard to individual land ownership.