May 23, 2017 / 10:56 AM / 7 months ago

Indigenous Indians to bury dead 18 months after bloody land rights clashes

MUMBAI, May 23 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Indigenous activists will bury the bodies of eight fellow protesters killed 18 months ago in clashes in northeastern India after the government agreed to consult the tribes on laws impacting their land rights.

Violent protests erupted in Manipur state on Aug. 31, 2015, after the state government introduced three bills - including a land revenue and reforms bill - that indigenous people said were “anti-tribal” and infringed on their ownership rights.

Officials said the laws would regularise the sale and transfer of land.

Nine young men were killed in Churachandpur town in ensuing clashes. The indigenous protesters refused to bury the dead until a resolution was reached on the issue.

The bodies have remained in a hospital morgue since then, with one man’s body claimed by his family and buried, according to local media reports.

India’s president rejected one of the bills last year, while the two others - including the land reform bill - were sent back to the state for revisions.

Officials this month agreed to consult tribal groups on the two bills.

“Any new bill which affects the interests of the indigenous tribal people, the state government will follow due procedure as laid down in the constitution,” said a government statement.

In response, the indigenous people agreed to reclaim the bodies by May 25.

“The family members will collect the bodies from the morgue ... and then decide on a date for a mass community burial after completing rituals,” said Soso Samte, a protest leader.

Indigenous people, who make up more than a third of Manipur’s population and live in the state’s hills, have traditionally been governed by customary law. Tribal councils control land and determine its sale and transfer within the community.

The 2015 bill would have given the state control of tribal land and allowed people from outside the indigenous community access to their land as well, protesters say.

“The wording of the bill was ambiguous and could have made tribal people more vulnerable, but clearly land is needed more and more for building highways and dams,” said Walter Fernandes, a senior fellow at the North Eastern Social Research Centre in Guwahati, the largest city in northeastern India.

“Customary laws have ensured protection of tribal land, but not its development. The opposing groups must understand land as being essential to identity and employment, without interfering with ownership,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Conflicts over land in India have increased as the economy expands and more land is sought for industrial use.

While several laws have been introduced to protect indigenous people’s rights, some laws have been diluted and not always helped the most vulnerable, activists say.

“We hope the understanding reached with the government will help resolve our demands. At least my brother who lost his life will rest in peace then,” said Chingneihhoij Munluah, sister of one of the nine victims.

Additional reporting by Zarir Hussain in Guwahati, editing by Alisa Tang. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.

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