To find a political solution to the ongoing conflict in Manipur and assuage Kukis, the state has proposed to the Centre that the autonomy of the existing autonomous hill councils be increased. The state government is opposed to the demand of “separate administration” made by Kukis since the onset of violence in the state on May 3 and has proposed this as an alternative. Sources, however, say Kukis are unlikely to compromise, claiming hill councils have been ineffective.
When the British took over the-then Assam, their imposition of formal laws on the land was resisted ferociously by tribal populations living in the hills, who had their own customary laws. To avoid confrontation — as they were only interested in economic exploitation of the region — the British divided the hill regions of Assam into “excluded” and “partially excluded” areas through the Government of India Act, 1935. In these areas, federal or provincial laws would not apply until the governor felt it was needed for peace and development.
The ostensible aim of the provision was to allow tribal populations to govern themselves.
When India became independent, this provision was adopted with improvements into the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution based on recommendations made by a committee under then Assam premier Gopinath Bordoloi. It had recommended creation of autonomous district councils (ADCs) in the six hill districts of Assam — United Khasi-Jaintia Hills District, Garo Hills District, Lushai Hills District, Naga Hills District, North Cachar Hills District, and Mikir Hills District—so that the tribal people could protect their identity and resources.
Some of these hill districts later became states—Khasi-Garo districts became Meghalaya, Naga Hills District became Nagaland, while Lushai Hills became Mizoram, and the existing ADCs were either subsumed in statehood, were renamed, or new ones were created. Tripura was added to the list in 1986.
Currently, there are 10 ADCs under the Sixth Schedule in the North East, with three each in Assam, Meghalaya and Mizoram, and one in Tripura. Manipur has six ADCs, but these came into existence in 1971 under an act of Parliament.
The Bordoloi committee also recommended creation of regional councils under ADCs which would cater to the needs of minor tribes in the jurisdiction of those ADCs.
How was it adopted in the Constitution?
The Sixth Schedule was adopted under Article 244 of the Constitution with provisions for formation of autonomous administrative divisions within a state. These divisions, in the form of ADCs, were granted certain legislative, judicial and administrative autonomy within the state.
According to the Sixth Schedule, the ADCs administering a region within a state have 30 members with a term of five years and can make laws, rules and regulations with regard to land, forest, water, agriculture, village councils, health, sanitation, village and town level policing, inheritance of property, marriage and divorce, social customs, and mining, among other issues. The Bodoland Territorial Council in Assam is an exception to this with more than 40 members and rights to make laws on 39 issues.
ADCs also have powers to form courts to hear cases where both parties are members of Scheduled Tribes and the maximum sentence is less than 5 years in prison.
During debates in the Constituent Assembly, the proposal brought by Meghalaya (then Khasi Hills) politician James Joy Mohan Nichols Roy was opposed by some representatives from Assam who argued that it was an attempt to “perpetuate primitive conditions of life”. To this, Roy argued that the tribal life was free from gender inequality, casteism and communalism, ills which the modern Indian society was only beginning to wake up to. Chairman of the Constituent Assembly BR Ambedkar supported Roy.
What are Manipur’s hill councils?
Although Manipur went through the same phase of governance division when the British took over the region in 1891, somehow its hill areas were never covered under the Sixth Schedule. The Maharaja of Manipur had in 1939 agreed with the British to exclude the hill areas of the region from his direct control and governance. In fact, the demand for a separate administration for hill areas has been raised in the region since the early 1960s.
It was in this context that in December 1971, Parliament passed The Manipur (Hill Areas) District Council Act, paving the way for creation of ADCs in Manipur’s hill areas. These regions constituted 90% of its geographical area, inhabited by tribes such as Nagas, Kukis, Zomis, Hmars, etc. At that time, Manipur was a Union Territory.
Here too the stated aim of the legislation was to grant the hill people a chance at self-governance, protect their identity and culture, and to give them rights over the management of their resources.
The councils are to have not more than 18 members who are to be elected and enjoy powers of taxation, maintenance of properties, allotment of land, management of forests, regulation of cultivation, and legislative authority on matters of marriage, inheritance, social customs and appointment of chiefs.
How are Manipur ADCs different from Sixth Schedule ADCs?
Although the law behind Manipur ADCs was inspired by the Sixth Schedule, it lacks as much teeth. While other ADCs draw their power from the Constitution, the Manipur ADCs are dependent on the state Assembly due to the provisions of the Act.
ADCs under the Sixth Schedule have far wider legislative powers spanning several matters of governance, while those in Manipur are limited to personal matters of marriage, divorce and social customs. The former only need the assent of the Governor for their proposals to become laws. The latter have to route them through Hill Area Committees (comprising MLAs from the hills) and present it to the state Assembly.
While both have budgeting powers, the former gets central grants through the state, while the latter is dependent on the state government for financial devolution. Unlike Sixth Schedule ADCs, Manipur ADCs are subservient to the Deputy Commissioner, who is appointed by the state government. In almost all matters, the DC’s decision is final unless overruled by the Governor. The DC can even dissolve the ADCs with the assent of the Governor.
How have the ADCs evolved in Manipur?
The tribals in Manipur have LONG agitated for inclusion in the Sixth Schedule, and thus, the creation of ADCs through a special Act was protested. Disappointed with the provisions and the alleged non-cooperation of the state government, the hill people even boycotted the ADC elections for two decades between 1990 and 2010, and no ADCs functioned in this period.
Attempts to bring amendments either fizzled out, were stalled in the Assembly or were regarded as cosmetic. Some changes for greater autonomy brought in through an amendment Bill in 2000 in the state assembly were effectively revoked by another bill in 2006, said sources. Amendments brought in 2008 were found to be inadequate.
Since 2021, a Bill proposing amendments to grant more autonomy to the ADCs has not been introduced in the Assembly due to resistance from sections in the Valley.
Sources within Manipur administration said while the law itself was limp, even the many powers enshrined in it were not devolved to the ADCs after Manipur became a state in 1972. For example, powers devolved in departments such Agriculture, Horticulture, Veterinary & Animal Husbandry, Fisheries, Science and Technology, Commerce, Industry, Social Welfare, etc. have remained recommendatory in nature.
Sources in the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) said the ADCs in Manipur never functioned properly. “It has been so haphazard and the budgetary allocation by the state has been so poor at times that some ADCs have not even been able to pay salaries. For all practical purposes, ADCs in Manipur are non-functional,” an official said.
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