NE Dispatch: Former IB Chief Interlocutor for Manipur Peace Talks; Majauli Has Shrunk by 28%

A roundup of this week’s news from the northeast.

The UPF/KNO peace talks with representatives of the central and Manipur governments in New Delhi. Credit: Twitter

The UPF/KNO peace talks with representatives of the central and Manipur governments in New Delhi. Credit: Twitter

Manipur: Centre appoints former IB director as interlocutor for the KNO/UPF peace talks

On August 9, the Narendra Modi government named former director of the Intelligence Bureau (IB) Dineshwar Sharma as the interlocutor for the tripartite talks between the Centre, the Manipur government and the Kuki-Zomi armed organisations.

In a meeting held at the Ashok Hotel in New Delhi, Sharma was introduced to the leaders of the armed groups under the umbrella of the United People’s Front (UPF) and Kuki National Organisation (KNO), under suspension of operation since 2008.

The meeting, the third in New Delhi since the talks formally began in June 2016, also led to an extension of the militant groups’ ceasefire agreement with the central and state governments till August 31, 2018.

Speaking to The Wire after the meeting in New Delhi, Calvin H. of the armed group Zomi Reunification Organisation, which comes under the UPF, said, “The outcome of the meeting was positive. Sharma told us that he will call a meeting to discuss our demands, most probably by this September.”

In the second round of talks held in New Delhi in October 2016, these militant organisations submitted a charter of demands to the central government which included implementation of Article 244A or “a state within a state” for the Kuki-Zomi  areas of Manipur. Calvin said the August 9 meeting didn’t discuss those demands.

“The meeting was basically to introduce us to the interlocutor and extend the time period of the ceasefire. We are hopeful that the next meeting will take up our demands, also because Sharma said that we may not need to extend the ceasefire period anymore, thus hinting at arriving at a solution soon,” he said.

Prior to the March assembly election in Manipur, the UPF/KNO leaders expressed their preference for former Mizoram chief minister Zoramthanga to be their interlocutor for the peace talks. The Centre apparently refused.

While ten senior-most members of UPF were present in the August 9 meeting, nine others were from the KNO, besides Manipur additional chief secretary Suresh Babu representing the state government and officers of the director general of military operations, director general of military intelligence, IB and the home ministry.

Following the naming of the interlocutor, there were reports of people taking to the streets in Kangpokpi, the new district sliced out of Sadar Hills by the former Congress government, in support. Prayers held by church leaders in Churachandpur for the success of the tripartite talks were also reported.

Speaking to reporters in Imphal about the talks, United Committee Manipur (UCM), a civil society organisation spearheading the campaign for safeguarding the state’s territorial integrity, however, “cautioned both New Delhi and the Manipur government against bargaining on the state’s boundary.”

Elangbam UCM leader Johnson said, “The agenda should not include creation of a Kuki state. If the agenda include division of Manipur in any form representatives of the Manipur government should walk out of the talks.”

Though KNO had been demanding a Kuki state sliced out of the Kuki-inhabited areas of Manipur, mainly bordering Myanmar, it is learnt to have agreed to the UPF’s suggestion for Article 244A. However, the Centre is apparently “more willing to create a Bodo Territorial Council (in Assam)-like model.”

Mizoram: Chakma students protest government’s denial of medical seats after meeting criteria

Chakma students protesting in New Delhi. Credit: Suhas Chakma

Chakma students protesting in New Delhi. Credit: Suhas Chakma

Since mid July, Mizoram’s capital Aizawl has been seeing unrest triggered by a sensitive issue related to the admission of four students belonging to the Chakma tribe to a medical college.

The students – Darshan Chakma, Nibir Chakma, Mini Chakma and Nibhir Tongchangya – had passed the national eligibility cum entrance test (NEET) reportedly by securing fourth, ninth, 17th and 23rd positions in the state, thereby becoming eligible to claim seats from the state’s quota of 38 set aside in various medical colleges. Since Mizoram doesn’t have a medical college, these seats, along with 11 more for bachelors of dental sciences, are reserved for students belonging to the state as per their ranking in the NEET exam.

On clearing the NEET exam, the directorate of higher and technical education (technical wing) calls the students to appear for counselling in which they are assigned a particular medical college outside the state. However, on July 19, the state government had to postpone the counselling session by a day due to protests held by the powerful student organisation Mizo Zirlai Pawl (MZP) outside the directorate office. Though the session was held under high security on July 20, MZP protesters clashed with the police outside the office, leaving many injured. According to news reports, by then, the students were allotted their college by the directorate. However, the status of their admission is now unknown due to MZP’s opposition to it.

In a press note released on July 18, MZP said that the Chakmas, who live in the district of Mamit along the Bangladesh border, are not the “sons of the soil” and therefore are “snatching” the quotas set for the indigenous Zo (or Mizo) tribes. Therefore, the MZP has asked the state government to immediately cancel the allotment of medical seats to the Chakma students.

The Chakmas may not be from the Zo tribes, but they are recognised as a scheduled tribe living in the state. Following British action in 1894, a small part of their traditional homeland, the Chittagong Hill Tracts – now in Bangladesh – was added to the then Lushai Hills attached to Assam. The area thereafter remained with the Lushai Hills and later became part of Mizoram. Some Chakmas also moved into the area after they were displaced by the construction of the Kaptai dam by the then East Pakistan government in the 1960s. The present Chakma area in Mizoram is administered by the Chakma autonomous district council, set up as per the sixth schedule of the constitution.

However, many from the majority Zo tribes see the Chakmas with suspicion, leading to a huge protest against them in the 1980s, triggering the deportation of some Chakmas to the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

In protest to the MZP’s latest action, the All India Chakma Social Forum, a civil society organisation representing the tribe across the northeast, and the All India Chakma Students Union held a protest in New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar on August 7, demanding that the state government “work as per law.”

Though Chakma students have cleared the NEET exam to be eligible for the state’s quota of medical seats for the first time, it is not the first time that the MZP has tried to stop Chakma students from claiming the state’s student quota. In 2015, following MZP pressure, the Congress government tweaked the existing rules for student eligibility to push the Chakmas out of the first selection category, which is reservation for indigenous Mizo tribes. The Directorate of Higher and Technical Education thereafter included the Chakma students under the second selection category, which is non-indigenous permanent residents of Mizoram.

The Chakmas moved the Gauhati high court against the amendment of rules. The high court gave a stay to the state government order.

In 2016, as per local news reports, the state government tried to tweak the rules again by stating that 95% of the seats would be reserved for the first category, and pushed the Chakma students out of it yet again. The Chakmas went to the high court, which again put a stay on the order.

According to political observers in the state, the issue has “political overtones” since the state is going to polls early 2018.

Assam: Majuli has shrunk 28% since 1940, Union water resource minister tells parliament

Clay pots made by the resident of Majauli stacked by the Brahmaputra river. Credit: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

Clay pots made by the resident of Majauli stacked by the Brahmaputra river. Credit: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

It was once the world’s largest riverine island. Some decades later, it became Asia’s largest; the only reason for this loss of global status was the decrease in its land mass due to erosion.

Since 1940, Assam’s Majuli island in the Brahmaputra river has lost over 28% of its land mass, according to government data.

On August 10, replying to a question in the Lok Sabha on whether river erosion on the island has increased, Union water resource minister Sanjeev Kumar Balyan said as per a 2013 study, Majuli, in focus lately for being the assembly constituency of state chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal, has come down from 733.79 square km in 1940 to about 522.73 sq km in 2013.

He reportedly said, “As per the information provided by the government of Assam, the land mass area of Majuli Island has reduced from 733.79 sq km as per Survey of India map of 1940 to about 522.73 sq km in year 2013.”

He, however, added that since 2004, work by the Brahmaputra Board has led to the recovery of some lost land mass. From 2004 to 2016, because of phase-wise implementation of work by the board, there has also been a gain of about 22.08 square km land mass, he said.

The minister said satellite imagery is also showing the increase.

Every year, the inhabitants of the island suffer due to the annual floods, invariably leading to the loss of land to river erosion. Recently, the Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region offered financial assistance worth Rs 207 crore to the board to control erosion on the island.

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