Nitin Sethi explains what has stirred up the land of the jewels
1) What led to the protests?
A few groups in Imphal, the capital of Manipur, have for long been demanding an imposition of ‘Inner Line Permit’ in the state. They have also been demanding the withdrawal of the Manipur Visitors, Tenants and Migrant Workers Bill, 2015. Recently, protests and rallies escalated on the streets of Imphal and spread to all four districts in the plains.
The police tackled the protests with a rough hand. A 16-year-old schoolboy, Sapam Robinhood, dies after being hit by tear gas shells on July 8. The Congress government in the state immediately imposed an indefinite curfew in the Greater Imphal area, comprising two districts of Imphal West and Imphal East.
In reaction, the protesting groups imposed a general strike. Since then, violence has escalated as people continue to protest on the streets, fighting pitched battles with the police. Due to this, more citizens have been injured, some critically. Several policemen have been injured too.
2) Was the violence avoidable?
Some observers suggest it was possible if the state government had reacted better, and more urgently. There is also a history of armed state forces using violent tactics with greater impunity than they would in, say, Delhi. There is no proof that the Centre intervened in time to control the protests. The crisis in Imphal also fell on the blind spot of the mainstream Delhi-based media for days and then found a footnote mention in some outlets.
3) What is the Inner Line Permit?
The Inner Line Permit regulates the entry of non-domicile citizens into a restricted region. The British used this to safeguard their revenue-generating regions in the Northeast against raiding tribal communities from the hills. Today, ILP is seen as a way to protect the demographic, cultural, political and social integrity of the small tribal populations in the hill states. At present, it is imposed in Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland. Arunachal Pradesh recently tightened its ILP system. Of about 2.7 million people in Manipur, about 700,000 are of non-Manipur origins.
4) What is the Manipur Visitors, Tenants and Migrant Workers Bill, 2015?
The Manipur state assembly passed the Bill claiming it addressed issues that the demand for ILP had raised. But the governor has not given ascent to the Bill and the Joint Action Committee (JAC) of groups demanding ILP has deemed it ineffective. The state government has now promised to withdraw it through a special session of the state Assembly.
5) Will this bring the protests and curfew to an end?
The JAC has said it will continue protests till the Assembly session to withdraw the Bill is held and a proper timeline for ILP is decided. The curfew imposed on July 8 continues to be in place, though it has now been lifted for some parts of the day. The JAC has called for a general strike in Manipur on Tuesday.
6) Is the demand for restricting free movement of Indian citizens in Manipur xenophobic?
There is a palpable fear of small communities being inundated by outsiders. This has previously happened in Sikkim and Tripura. In the latter, tribal people now account for a small minority and have politically lost control of the state. There also are streaks of xenophobia that play in to the demand, but there are progressive voices in the state that look at ILP and such demands as symptoms of real issues surrounding possible tribal marginalisation.
7) Many photographs show women in similar traditional dresses protesting along with students and youth. Who are they?
In the Meitei community that dominates the valley region of the state, they are called the Meira Peibi — literally, women with torches. It is a traditional network comprising almost the entire adult woman population in the Meitei community, known for being leaders as human rights defenders in the valleys of Manipur. Their clanging of electric poles in a locality is taken as a warning of trouble and call to all. They can always be trusted to be at the forefront of any protest against state-sponsored violation of rights.