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5 student leaders freed, but blockade on


GUWAHATI:  The five arrested leaders of the All Tribal Students’ Union Manipur (ATSUM) were released from jail on Monday, but the indefinite “economic blockade”, enforced on the national highways in the state’s hill areas since Friday morning, continued. The police had arrested the five on Thursday and charged them with conspiring to impose the blockade.

Earlier on Monday, an official statement said, “As the Seventh Amendment Bill of Manipur Hill Areas District Councils for devolution of power of ADCs (autonomous district councils) have been referred to Hill Areas Committee (HAC), the HAC will have consultation with stakeholders before recommending to the Manipur Legislative Assembly.”

Further, it said the five arrested ATSUM leaders would be released after lifting of the blockade without any charges and that the arrest warrant and FIR against the ATSUM leaders would be “nullified”.
Minister Letpao Haokip, who is on the HAC, had said an understanding had been reached to lift the blockade after the release of the student leaders.

The official statement had the signatures of ATSUM vice-president Vanlallien Khaute, Kuki Students’ Organisation president Sasang Vaiphei and All Naga Students’ Association of Manipur (ANSAM) president Peter T Wanglar.

The student leaders and the HAC had three rounds of meetings on Sunday which continued till midnight. The ATSUM on Monday said the meetings were inconclusive. “We did not enter into any agreement. The trio had appended their signatures in individual capacity, without the sanction of the three students’ organisations. It was not a collective decision,” ANSAM general secretary Thotso Chahong told this newspaper.

“The crux of the issue is the HAC-recommended Bill. The other Bill introduced by the government in the Assembly has been rejected by the tribals. Secondly, we did not enforce the blockade demanding release of the five leaders,” he said. The three students’ bodies held a consultative meeting with the leaders of all leading tribal organisations of the state on Monday and decided to continue with the blockade.

Why Is Manipur tense?

What is the ethnic composition of Manipur
The Meiteis are in a large majority in the Imphal valley. It is home to over 70% of the state’s total population of 28.55 lakh. The tribal communities, largely Nagas and Kukis, live in the hills. The land there is protected. Non-tribals cannot buy land there but the tribals can do so in the valley.

Is there a feeling of deprivation among tribals?
There has always been a divide between the hills and the valley. The tribals would often allege that the hills have not developed on par with the valley. After the BJP had wrested power from the Congress in 2017, the government took up some initiatives to bridge the gap. 

What is the Bill that stoked unrest? 

  •  The state government-constituted Hill Areas Committee, made up of all 20 tribal MLAs, recommended the draft Manipur (Hill Areas) Autonomous District Council (Amendment) Bill last year. It seeks to amend the Manipur (Hill Areas) District Councils Act, 1971 on the grounds that it has deficiencies. The draft Bill, if passed by the Assembly, will ensure greater autonomy to the six autonomous district councils in tribal areas.
  •  The tribals, led by the protesting All Tribal Students’ Union Manipur (ATSUM), demanded this Bill to be tabled in the Assembly but the government introduced the Manipur (hill areas) district council 6th and 7th amendment bills. ATSUM and all its units rejected it. They are upset that the word “autonomous” has been removed to deny autonomy to the district councils.

How does blocking the highways work for protests?
Two national highways are Manipur’s lifelines – one enters from Nagaland, and the other from Assam. Any blockade enforced on these highways in the hills chokes supplies to the valley.