In the first week of June, volunteers of the Manipur based Joint Committee on the Inner Line Permit System (JCILPS) stopped all “outsiders” from entering the state and even prevented them from working or doing business there. And their agitation is far from over.
‘Assimilation’, ‘integration’ and ‘opening up’ — these catchphrases have become central to the discourse on the Northeast. Nestled between Myanmar, China, Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh, this remote and conflict-ridden region, with secessionist movements dating back to 1947, is connected to the rest of India by a tether — a narrow 23-km stretch of land known as the Chicken’s Neck in Siliguri, West Bengal. Though the physical connect is undeniable, the Seven Sisters (Assam, Tripura, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh) have existed outside the mindspace of the aver-age Indian since Independence and the ‘connect’ has remained merely geographical.
So much so, that in an age of globalisation, where international borders are losing relevance and India is hoping to look towards Southeast Asia through the Northeast, thousands of Manipuris are hitting the streets demanding one thing: isolation.
“The indigenous people of Manipur are small in number and the population of outsiders is increasing much faster than theirs,” says Joy Chingakham, co-convenor of JCILPS, the group at the forefront of the demand for an Inner Line Permit (ILP) system in Manipur.
The ILP is a legacy of the British Raj. A temporary permit system enacted under the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulations, 1873, it was meant to restrict entry of outsiders into certain tribal areas that the British faced trouble administrating. While an ILP is quite easy to obtain today, its original aim was not to protect the tribals. It was rather a system to isolate ‘hostile’ tribals in their territory.
Nonetheless, the ILP does create a barrier to unhindered movement of people across state borders. Manipur lost that barrier in 1950, a year after the then King of Manipur agreed to accede his princely state to the Union of India.
According to Chingakham, of Manipur’s population of 25.7 lakh, close to 9 lakh are “outsiders”, including immigrants from Myanmar, Nepal and Bangladesh as well as other Indian states. The ILP is still in operation in Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram. “We also want that protection,” says Chingakham.
On 13 July last year, the Manipur Assembly passed a resolution for the extension of the ILP system to the state, but it was rejected by the Centre. In the face of mounting public pressure, the Manipur Assembly passed the same resolution on 13 June this year, but the ILP is yet to be introduced.
As for the ILP creating a further divide between the people of the region and the rest of the country, Chingakham argues, “We are not stopping genuine Indians from coming into Manipur. They can study or work here, but we want to protect our land and culture from outsiders who come and settle on our lands clandestinely. We don’t want to end up like Tripura.”
Indeed, there are many in the northeastern states who fear the ‘Tripura phenomenon’. Tripura, protruding into Bangladesh, is home to the Manikya dynasty, the second longest unbroken chain of direct lineage after Japan’s royal family, and was known for the indigenous Kok-Borok culture. A slow trickle of immigrants from East Pakistan in 1947 multiplied when it became Bangladesh in 1971 and the immigration rate shot up to 10,000 refugees a month.
As a result, the percentage of tribals in the state shrunk from 50.09 percent in 1941 to just 28.44 percent in 1981. This led to the loss of the tribals’ dominant position in Tripura’s social landscape and political power moved from tribal to non-tribal hands. Added to that was the erosion of the Kok-Borok culture. So much so, that today most of the billboards in the state capital Agartala are in Bangla, the language of the immigrants.
Besides Manipur, demands for the ILP have gained prominence in Meghalaya as well. Sharing an unfenced border with Bangladesh, people in Meghalaya have since the 1980s been demanding an ILP system for those who entered the state after 1971. “We have been demanding the introduction of a permit system as we have seen how the local populations in Tripura and Assam have slowly been outnumbered in their own land and ended up losing political power,” says Daniel Khyriem, president of the Khasi Students Union.
But ILP is not the only option doing the rounds in Meghalaya. Toki Bla, president of the Shillong-based civil society group Informed Conscious and Responsible Existence (ICARE), which works to promote good governance and transparency through information dissemination, proposes an alternative to the ILP system — a three-tier colour-coded identification card system. All tribals and non-tribals who have been permanent residents of the state since 1972 or earlier would be given green cards. ‘Semi-permanent’ residents — those who have come to the state for education or employment — would be given yellow cards, while tourists and migrant labourers would be given red cards. All cards would be registered and tracked online, making it easier to check illegal settlers.
The ‘outsider problem’ has been a key factor driving militancy in Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura since the 1970s and ’80s. If illegal migration is not addressed, it could snowball into more violent insurgencies. The riots in the Bodoland areas of Assam last year and the recent violence in the Garo Hills of Meghalaya are reminders of the simmering tensions. Though the problem is often used to divert attention from other local issues, the demographic change is real as is the anger.
“Five hundred people crossed the border into Kargil and we went to war, but when 10 lakh Bangladeshis came into the Northeast, the government of India called it assimilation,” says Pradyot Bikram Manikya Debbarma, a Congress leader from Tripura. The fact that sections of the Northeast want to be cut off from the rest of the country should set alarm bells ringing.