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Fear & loathing in Manipur: why the state may bring back a British permit system

Pradip Phanjoubam | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:49 IST

The stir

  • Manipur has been convulsed by violent protests for much of July
  • The agitators want introduction of the Inner Line Permit System
  • If not IPLS, they want a law modelled on it to regulate migrants

The fears

  • Manipuris fear migrants are changing the state\'s demographics
  • The Meiteis, who live in the valley, seem more concerned than the hill tribes
  • The valley has 10% of Manipur\'s area, but 60% of its population
  • The hill tribes of the Nagas and the Kukis fear the Meiteis may get ST status

The solutions

  • The assembly passed the Manipur Regulation of Visitors, Tenants and Migrant Workers Bill in March
  • The agitators claimed it was weak, won\'t regulate migration
  • The state called an emergency assembly session on 15 July to withdraw the bill
  • It\'s now looking at J&K and Himachal Pradesh laws that prohibit outsiders from buying land

The violent agitation for a system to regulate the inflow of migrants has subsided after over two weeks. But the prospect of Manipur slipping back into a spiral of clashes, curfews and death looms large.

Trouble receded after the state called an emergency session of the assembly on 15 July to withdraw the Manipur Regulation of Visitors, Tenants and Migrant Workers Bill, 2015, which was passed in March and is awaiting the governor's assent.

The agitators claimed the bill was a diluted version of the Inner Line Permit System, or ILPS, and would be ineffective.

The perceived demographic threat to small ethnic populations from unregulated migration has long worried not just Manipur but the entire Northeast. And, indeed, adjoining areas across the region's international borders.

Much of the unrest in the region over the past half a decade, in fact, is rooted in this fear - the Barak Valley language agitations of the 1960s, Assam stir against "foreigners" in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Bodo unrest, ejection of Nepalis from South Bhutan in the 1980s, Han Chinese influx into Tibet, the Rohingya's persecution in Myanmar.

Cracks within

In Manipur, this has been further complicated by the sharp divide, and mistrust, between the hills and the valley, where the capital Imphal is located.

The latest agitation was concentrated more or less in the four valley districts of Imphal East, Imphal West, Thoubal and Bishnupur, with the twin Imphal districts bearing the brunt. Reason?

manipur agitation curfew

The Joint Committee for the ILPS, which is leading the agitation, suspended the call for strike for Eid and Rath Yatra. Photo: PTI

Although concern over outsiders is shared across much of Manipur, the five hill districts of Tamenglong, Ukhrul, Chandel, Churachandpur and Senapati are already protected. The hills are reserved for the Schedule Tribes, so non-tribals cannot acquire land, unlike in the valley.

The valley districts, spread over 2,000 sq km, account for a tenth of Manipur's area but over 60% of its population. And nearly all migration, from outside as well as from the hills, ultimately ends up there, increasing congestion. This sense of a shrinking space has made the valley especially sensitive to the migration issue.

In the hills, a section of the population, broadly made up of the Nagas and the Kukis, is apprehensive that the agitation over ILPS would lead to the valley dwellers, the Meiteis, being accorded the Scheduled Tribe status, to the hill folk's detriment.

Some Meitei voices have been demanding ST status to get benefits of reservation incentives, they are far from universal. Many Meiteis, in fact, feel an ST status would make them government job seekers, inhibiting development of other livelihood skills in the community.

State of worry

Historically, the Meiteis have been better organised and aware than the hill tribes and, therefore, dominant. This is of a pattern described by Prof James C. Scott in his acclaimed book, Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia.

Scott's central argument is that in the entire Southeast Asian massif of mountainous territory punctuated by fertile river valleys - termed "Zomia" - it's the valleys where "Paddy States" evolve. The relationship between the Paddy States and the surrounding hill populations is seldom cordial because the hill people abhor the idea of the state and are, therefore, continuously in flight from the states' reach.

The valley districts have 10% of Manipur's area but 60% of its population. And all migration ends up there

Many scholars have pointed out problems in Scott's theory, but most agree that it nonetheless provides valuable clues to understanding ethnic relations in the Zomian theatres of conflict. Manipur would qualify as one.

The state's problem is that it has failed to adequately address the valley-hill disparity. And it isn't all Meiteis' fault, as is often presumed. Since it became a full-fledged state in 1972, Manipur has had one Muslim and two Naga chief ministers, one for three terms. None of them did much to bridge the ethnic divisions.

This then is a rough picture of the present trouble and its causes.

Fearing the outsider

As for the agitation itself, the Joint Committee for the ILPS, which is leading it, suspended the call for strike in view of the festivals of Eid and Rath Yatra, but appealed the public to keep up the pressure on the government.

The committee wants the state to bring a stronger bill to regulate migration or implement the ILPS as it is.

The ILPS was introduced by the British in 1873. They drew a line along the foot of the mountains of Assam, a kingdom annexed in 1826, crossing which required a special permit.

The intent was to protect British revenue districts in Assam - which had by then become tea-rich and held promise for rubber and timber cultivation - by not unnecessarily provoking the "wild" hill tribes to turn hostile.

The Government of India Act, 1919, classified the territories beyond the Inner Line as "Backward Tracts", leaving them unadministered. The Government of India Act 1935, however, split the territories into "Excluded Areas" and "Partially Excluded Areas".

The "Excluded Areas" weren't represented in the provincial Assam government, while representatives of the "Partially Excluded Areas" were nominated by the Governor.

The ILPS the protestors want was introduced by the British in 1873 to protect its revenue districts in Assam

The boundary of the erstwhile "Excluded Areas" is where the Inner Line still exists today - Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland. The Line's purpose, however, has changed dramatically: it's now basically a demarcation of protected tribal areas.

Manipur and Tripura were independent kingdoms, thus not subject to the ILPS devised by the British.

Now though, Manipur has a month to agree to the ILPS, or bring a bill modelled on it. The government had initially given itself three months to meet the demand but the Joint Committee JCILPS didn't agree.

The government has already begun consultations with experts from various fields, including the media and the law, and held all-party meetings.

And it has already received many suggestions to resolve the impasse, one of which is a law similar to the land reform and revenue laws of two non-ST states, Jammu & Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh. While J&K, thanks to its special Constitutional status, outright prohibits outsiders from buying land, Himachal makes it virtually impossible to acquire landed property.

As Home Minister Gaikhangam Gangmei said a few days ago, his government is making all efforts to draft a law that "kills the snake without breaking the stick".

Edited by Mehraj D Lone

First published: 21 July 2015, 9:41 IST