Naba Kumar Sarania, independent MP from Assam’s Kokrajhar constituency, has been outspoken on the issues pertaining to the Northeast and the Adivasis – whether it is a separate religion code for Adivasis or the violence in Manipur that has persisted for the past three months. On 25 July 2023, Forward Press’ Editor-in-Chief Anil Varghese and Assistant Editor (Hindi) Rajan Kumar met Sarania at his residence in New Delhi. Given below is a lightly edited transcript of their conversation:
We’ve been hearing such painful accounts from strife-torn Manipur. Had you previously heard anything of this sort?
What is happening in Manipur for the past almost three months is sad, shameful and no words will suffice to condemn it. I had said in my first statement itself that our central government bears more responsibility for what is happening there than the perpetrators themselves. Because the party that is in power at the Centre is also in power in Manipur and it was for them to take steps [to stop the violence]. So the least Prime Minister Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah can do is to take moral responsibility and resign. This is the first point. The second point is that there was friction between the Kuki, Naga and Meitei communities from earlier. There were insurgent groups but even they had laid down their weapons. But now even the women and the children feel compelled to pick up guns. There is no more faith in the government and the system, and what is happening now is not at all good. The central government should take action. If they can’t, they should leave it to people like us. We will be able to rein in the situation with the help of civil society. Now they are not letting anyone go there. At least allow everyone – parties, activists, social workers, intellectuals – to go there. Once they do that, everything about Manipur will be exposed. The incidents of Manipur have brought India a bad name and shame, but once everyone goes there, something good can come out of it. When everyone goes there and makes the fighting communities understand, then they may be persuaded to cease violence. Otherwise, there will be no one to convince them.
Manipur has almost become part of the Golden Triangle (region known for its opium cultivation comprising Myanmar, Thailand and Laos). There is some outside influence too. Meitei and Naga are not only in India, a lot of them are in Myanmar too. The communities became divided at the time of Independence. Now people are being exposed. The chief minister’s friends have been found to be engaged in drugs business and running arms groups. Many such issues have come to the fore. For all this, the Centre is responsible first because they haven’t been able to get a grip on the situation. It should have been controlled within two days but has dragged on for three months now.
What fundamental changes has the Northeast undergone recently, which led to such a situation in Manipur?
The fundamental change has been that earlier the people of the Northeast would resolve their differences on their own. But since Manipur became a part of India in 1950, and especially now, what has been happening is not right. If becoming a part of India was good for Manipur, there would have been no issue, but the problems still persist. The issues of Manipur are not confined to Manipur alone. These issues are there elsewhere too. On the issue of being recognized as Adivasis, I have said in Parliament that any indigenous people can be Adivasi if they meet the criteria. The central government should have tried to resolve the issue. Who benefits and who is disadvantaged by granting Adivasi status to a community? How do you compensate the community that has been disadvantaged? I don’t think this is an issue without any solutions. A solution can be arrived at but from the attitude of the central government, they don’t seem to be interested in resolving the crisis. They are actually exacerbating the situation. It has now spread to Mizoram, and Assam is affected, too. The Mizos are relations of the Kuki. This is out of control. After becoming part of India, the situation should have improved but now it has gotten worse. Now that Manipuris are a part of India, they are not illegals, so all the responsibility falls on the Indian government. Since Manipur is a bordering state and is considered part of the Golden Triangle, this has also become an international issue. I have already said that only a man who is manipulated, motivated by a particular religion or caste can destroy churches, temples or mosques. This is the reason the names of the RSS and others have cropped up. What I feel is that there is “a hidden cause” behind the arson and the violence.
There may be several factors at play. For example, the government’s policy, the state of the economy, the aspirations of the youth and the developments in Myanmar. What do you think?
One issue pertaining to the Northeast is that of insurgency. Whether it’s Manipur, Nagaland or Assam, there are ceasefires or other agreements in place, solutions have yet to emerge. If the central government settles for ceasefires and does not look for a resolution, the problem is going to get worse. There should have been a resolution but it hasn’t been arrived at. The central government can resolve the crisis if it wants to. Another issue is that a lot of people from the Northeast are living outside as contractual labourers, etc. They don’t occupy good posts. There are no initiatives taken in the Northeast for the development of industries and businesses, so when such a situation arose, they got ready to fight. I have seen this in Kashmir, too. After the withdrawal of Article 370, there has been no government to listen to them; it is centrally governed. Now who do they share their problems with? All development programmes are suspended. Many of the youth are coming out of there. They are saying they will do something but they don’t have any opportunities.
Even in my place [Kokrajhar], the system failed. I now have the charge [as an MP], so there is peace. The system helps make things worse, not improve them. We have asked everyone to converge on Jantar Mantar on 27 July 2023 to discuss matters. The issue of Adivasi identity has come up because Kukis are Adivasis, Nagas are Adivasis and Meitei are not Adivasis yet they are indigenous. A lot of people are thinking that our Adivasi brothers are fighting among themselves and bringing a bad name to the country. This is not right. Everyone feels that this government is not doing anything. It even feels like the government is itself instigating those involved. All this is not right.
Looking from here, it feels like the polarizing politics has gone from here to the Northeast. What do you think?
Look, because of the situation in Manipur, BJP’s graph has dipped. The houses have been burnt down in Manipur but this is not just an issue of Manipur. This has become a national and even an international issue. No matter the caste or community they belong to, if such atrocities are committed against the mothers and sisters, who are India’s mothers and sisters, anyone who believes in the Republic and the Constitution, won’t be able to take this, because they at the very least respect the mothers and sisters. This is very sad. The news about the violence spread internationally. This shouldn’t have happened. Steps should have been taken early on. If it was controlled within the first two days … if any one thinks that by inciting violence, it would help the country, I think this is wrong. That is why I said if there is a hidden policy, it should be exposed. I think not just the Human Rights Commission but a committee under the Chief Justice of India and a joint parliamentary committee should be set up. Only when you go there and investigate the violence from these three-four angles, will the truth emerge.
What should be the way ahead for Manipur?
Where will they go? That’s their motherland. Today, no state or person provides shelter to foreigners. There should be a national policy. First, people should be allowed to go there so that all the incidents that have taken place there are exposed. The people who were working behind the scenes will run away. The truth will come out and then a reconciliation process can begin. Nelson Mandela spent so many years in jail for his struggle against racial discrimination in South Africa, yet he started the reconciliation process. Now you don’t hear about discrimination in South Africa, although it may be there, suppressed, somewhere. Kuki and Meitei are talking about what happened a century ago. If you provoke them, they will fight. If you tell them lovingly – like I have to the entire Northeast – that we shouldn’t fight among ourselves, come, rule from Delhi; they are not in power; those in power are using them as material [tools] … For them Manipur’s people may be a tool. But not for us. For us, Manipur are a people and and for the sake of humanity, they should be getting all the facilities they are entitled to. Why would you fight over there? If you have any issues, bring them over to Delhi. We will come together and fight. If not today, we’ll surely be partners in power tomorrow. I have talked about all the pending issues, including insurgency, peace-keeping forces. Join me, we will come together, bring 20-25 MPs with us – only then we will be to compel the government to act, tell them that they should fulfil their promises, otherwise we will unseat them. What I am trying to do is to bring 100 MPs from the Gana Suraksha Party and the alliance of 18 organizations. Even if we have 50 MPs, we can intervene at the policy level, have a role in governance. I have asked our brothers from Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam, what have our national parties achieved so far? Nothing. All the MPs and MLAs haven’t been able to do anything.
That was what we were going to ask you. Could all of the Adivasi MPs from the Northeast come together and forge a platform to launch a struggle from?
I have written to Kiren Rijiju, chairman of Northeast MPs Forum, that the Northeast MPs be invited to Manipur. Even if they don’t invite us, I have to go because I am an MP and a responsible citizen, and I am part of society. Until the MPs are allowed to go, civil society will not be allowed in either. I have heard that the central government has provided relief aid worth Rs 100 crores but there are so many areas this aid is yet to reach. The people are thus not happy. The chief minister is not the chief minister of the Meitis. He is the chief minister of the entire Manipur state. Therefore there has to be someone there who sees and treats everyone as equals. And once normalcy has been restored, a special committee has to be set up to address the Meitei demand for ST status, the Naga demand that their land shouldn’t be given to others, and the Kuki demand for security. I don’t think this is going to be difficult; someone needs to explain things to them and pacify them. But first normalcy has to be restored and the central government has to take the initiative. If the central government cannot do this, they should resign. We have told them – if they give us power for 48 hours, we will be able to bring the situation under control. How we go about doing it is our concern. Civil society, the people of Manipur will stand with us, because they suspect even the central government of a dual role; that they suspect the chief minister is a given.
Do you plan to go there?
First, I have written to the Northeast MPs Forum. Second, I have written to the local MPs too that we should talk to the Speaker. I have already talked to a few people. Let’s see, we may end up going during the Parliament session as well.
There has been a lot of opposition in the Northeast about the proposed Uniform Civil Code (UCC). The Sixth Schedule applies to four states of the region. In the other states, Article 371 (A), (B), (C), (G), and (H) has been enforced. How relevant is the UCC in such a scenario? Also, the states have been granted autonomy through these special provisions. Autonomous Councils are in place. Yet, most of the people of the region go elsewhere looking for work. Why haven’t these special laws been effective?
About the UCC, it hasn’t been tabled in Parliament yet but only suggestions have been sought. We will openly insist that this doesn’t apply to Sixth Schedule Areas and the areas that come under Article 371 (A), (B), (C), (G) and (H). Not even 10 per cent of the Adivasi population of India live in the Northeast. The remaining 90 per cent live in the rest of India. If Adivasis are going to be kept out of the purview of the UCC, this should apply to all Adivasis. We have also said that all the areas under the Fifth Schedule should be brought under the Sixth Schedule. But there is one condition. All the non-Adivasis who have been living in these areas for a long time – whether they be 2 per cent or 10 per cent – should also be provided such facilities available to the Adivasis, because they come under the “last class”. The second point is that India is so diverse that you can’t bring in a law like the UCC. Even the Jains have to be treated separately from the Hindus. We have been telling the government that it should bring uniformity within the Hindus first. First, give the Adivasis a separate religion code. If they claim to be Hindus or Christians, then you’ll say that they aren’t Tribals. But then there is no recognition for their own religion. That’s why I raised this issue in Parliament. First, there should be a separate religion code for Adivasis. Once the Tribal religion has been recognised as separate, then there will be more differentiation, such as Sarna, Batho, Gond. Second, a number of tribal languages, including Gondi, Kurukh and Bhili, have yet to be recognized. Third, the Sixth Schedule could partly address issues pertaining to water, forests, land, minerals, governance. When the Chhattisgarh state was formed, the Adivasis thought that a state had been set aside for them. But the state is not just for Adivasis, it is for everyone. The same thinking went around when Jharkhand was carved out of Bihar. But the new state didn’t belong to Adivasis only, it belonged to everyone. Hence this is a misunderstanding. In our area, a struggle was launched for a separate state but 50000 people died. We don’t want such violence today. Neither the Constitution nor the civil society will allow such violence. The only thing you can do is include these areas in the Sixth Schedule while addressing the fears of the non-Adivasis. My appeal to all Adivasis today is that they should come on to one platform, under one flag. Even if you belong to different parties, you have to strike compromises, you will have to have a single vision and mission. We are preparing to bring together Adivasis from Kashmir to the Northeast, and from Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, Orissa to Uttar Pradesh. We have made significant progress. In terms of sentiment, we have become one. There are practical issues to be sorted out. Discussions are going on. This is the one thing we lacked: an alliance and leadership at the national level. I am confident that in the coming days we can come together under one flag and have one vision and mission, and other people will also stand with us. There are many oppressed sections of society who have no representation. They come under OBC but they don’t get any facilities meant for OBC. Then there are EBCs, SCs and even some communities categorized as General. If all these people come together, there will be a positive result for the nation and this will usher in a phase of wholesale change.
There have been conflicts in the Northeast for sometime now, not only in Manipur but also in Mizoram, Meghalaya. Who do you hold responsible for this – the central government, state government or industrialists?
First, today’s negative politics is responsible. Whoever comes to power – I have seen it happen when the Congress, BJP or the regional parties were in power – they will resolve one issue and create ten other issues in the process. Today, we say we are Indians, but if we as Indians get Mizoram, Manipur or Nagaland to fight with each other, this is not right. So we need a platform for positive politics. This is what we are going to do. Nothing is going to be achieved by simply shouting or opposing.
In the coming days, our states, Mizoram, Telangana, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, are going to the polls. If in these states we become a force to reckon with, we will be a bigger force in the 2024 General Elections. We’ll need to become such a third force to rein in ‘INDIA’ or NDA so that they don’t become autocratic. There are OBC chief ministers and ministers but those in the lower rungs of the OBCs don’t benefit at all. But at least because I am Adivasi, everyone trusts me and has faith in me – that what I say I do. Hence I have given this open invitation and I believe that in the coming days we will come together and move forward. We will certainly be able to rein in and overcome the negative circumstances. There is no other way.
In several Adivasi areas of central India, industrialists are taking over water, forest, land, minerals …
See, if I have a clear policy. In Jharkhand, what did the previous BJP government do? It cleared all Adivasi lands, which were given to some industrialists or relatives. The Adivasis opposed it with bows and arrows, which were symbolic, of course, to boost morale and build unity, and not to be used in war. The result was that the lands were returned. So, do not open up all Adivasi lands for sale. What you can do is set up an economic zone or an industrial zone. You usurp all Adivasi lands without compensating them properly. In the coming days, we are organizing in such a way that if any government, be it NDA or India, dare to remove Adivasis from their land, we will remove unseat the government for sure. So we will have to improve on what we are doing now and move forward with a new policy.
We had spoken to Adivasi leaders from central India. They say that just as outsiders have been allowed into the Adivasi areas here and the Adivasi lands have been handed over to industrialists, similar efforts are on in the Northeast. They say that the plan is to create unrest, infighting among the Adivasis and that highways are being built in the name of development but the hidden agenda is to bring in outsiders and industrialists. What is your view on this?
The Look East policy of the government is only on paper. At the moment, the government doesn’t have any policy to promote industries and businesses in the Northeast. We Adivasis are not opposed to businesses and industries. It does not have to be industries by outsiders. We need to focus on developing entrepreneurship among the Adivasis. If Adivasis become part of the government, then we will work for the cause of development but only once we have secured ourselves. We may release a portion of our land. It doesn’t mean that we will release all our lands. We can do this in several areas in a way Adivasis are not affected. I have seen what has happened in Madhya Pradesh. They have built a nuclear power plant in an Adivasi area, in Mandla-Jabalpur. The Adivasis had already been displaced for building a dam, now they have built this plant in the land they had been rehabilitated in. This, when India has a large swath of uninhabited desert land. If Jabalpur comes under attack during a war with China or Pakistan as it has happened in Ukraine in its war against Russia, the entire Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh will be wiped out. Mostly, Adivasis live here but non-Adivasis will also be affected. So, development has to be people-friendly. I have nothing against the nation’s development but I have asked in Parliament whether the plant built in the land of the Adivasis can be relocated. The Adivasis, in whose land this plant has come up, have been cheated. Their account details were taken promising 15 lakhs from Modi but what they got was only 3.5 lakhs per acre as compensation for the land that was taken away from them by stealth. I told them that this cheating of Adivasis can’t go on. If there is no one else, I am with you to take this fight all the way to Parliament. I invited everyone. Come to Parliament and fight. Don’t send a slave of the BJP or the Congress to Parliament. We have many social activists who work for society. They have to contest elections. We will help them. They have to come to Parliament and to the assemblies. We will stand with them.
(Read the interview in the original Hindi here.)
Forward Press also publishes books on Bahujan issues. Forward Press Books sheds light on the widespread problems as well as the finer aspects of Bahujan (Dalit, OBC, Adivasi, Nomadic, Pasmanda) society, culture, literature and politics. Contact us for a list of FP Books’ titles and to order. Mobile: +917827427311, Email: email@example.com)