A line originally drawn to protect British revenue from “wild” frontier people is today seen by North-East communities as a way of preventing their own demographic marginalisation

Policemen clash with protestors in Imphal on Saturday. Photo Imphal Free Press

Imphal: Manipur has been in the grip of another spell of violent street confrontations between agitators and the police over the demand for the introduction of the Inner Line Permit System (ILPS) which makes it mandatory for non-domiciles to acquire a permit to enter territories lying beyond this imaginary line.

In the North-East, only Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland have this system in place.

Timed to coincide with the ongoing session of the Manipur Legislative Assembly, a joint committee formed to coordinate the demand has been organising public rallies to pressure the legislators across the four valley districts. On July 8, the police effort to block a rally at Khurai resulted in the tragic death of a 16-year-old school boy, Sapam Robinhood who was hit on the face by a tear gas shell (some reports say rubber bullet) fired from close range.

Anticipating public outrage, the administration clamped indefinite curfew in the greater Imphal area. Ever since, for the past three days, there has been no respite in street confrontations, with a large number of people coming out to defy the curfew, burning tyres and setting up road blocks. Many more have been injured since; another 17-year-old boy was seriously hurt on Saturday, hit directly by a “mock bomb” in a clash between stone pelting agitators and the police.

A map of Manipur's districts. Credit: IMD

The greater Imphal area, comprising the two districts of Imphal West and Imphal East, is where the agitation has been the strongest. The other two valley districts of Bishnupur and Thoubal are also affected but not as intensely. The five hill districts of Tamenglong, Senapati, Tamenglong, Chandel and Ukhrul share the concern of the agitators, but street demonstrations have been sparse. This is so because the hill districts, which are reserved for tribals, are already protected – though not by the ILPS – from encroachment by non-tribals. Hence, the ILPS is not seen as an urgent necessity there.

Xenophobic fear

The ILPS demand in the valley areas of Manipur has as its driving force a xenophobic fear shared by practically the whole of Northeast India – and indeed the larger region encompassing neighbouring Myanmar and Tibet – that small indigenous populations are under threat of being pushed to the margins of their own lands by settlers.

The six-year-long “anti-foreigner” agitation in Assam in the late 1970s and early 1980s, which resulted in the cataclysmic Nellie Massacre in 1983; the current Bodo trouble in Assam marked by periodic murderous ethnic clashes; the recent lynching in Dimpaur, Nagaland, are all different manifestations of this same xenophobia. Like Manipur, Meghalaya too is demanding the introduction of the ILPS. There have also been demands that the entire Northeast region be put under inner line protection.

The Rohingya tragedy in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, which neighbours Bangladesh, as much as the Tibetans’ charge that they have already been reduced to a minority in their own country by the unending influx of Han Chinese, are also an articulation of similar existential angst. Myanmar has brazenly declared that it considers the Rohingyas to be Bangladeshi immigrants.

Agitators in Manipur cite the examples of Tripura and Sikkim to justify their fear of being swamped by outsiders. Tripura is a Bengali state today, and the original Tripuris are in a hopeless minority in their former kingdom. Sikkim, similarly, is a Nepali state and the original populations of Lepchas and Bhutias have been pushed to the margins, needing reservation to remain represented in the government.

In May this year, the Manipur government yielded somewhat to public pressure and introduced the Manipur Regulation of Visitors, Tenants and Migrant Workers Bill, 2015 in the Assembly. However, the joint committee of the ILPS demand called this a sell-out, claiming the draft does not provide the kind of protection that the ILPS guarantees. In any case, the Bill has been reserved by Manipur Governor Syed Ahmed, putting Okram Ibobi’s Congress government in a quandary.

The history of a line

The ILPS has a curious history. It was introduced in 1873 by the British colonial administration as the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation in the then undivided province of Assam, which included practically all the states of the present day Northeast, except Manipur and Tripura, which were then independent kingdoms. The use of the word ‘regulation’ was not accidental and says something about the line’s original purpose.

As colonial historian E.A. Gait notes in A History of Assam, a Regulation is a summary legislation for ‘backward tracts’ as distinct from an Act which are laws passed after discussion in the legislature. By this Regulation, then, an Inner Line was created along the base of the hills surrounding the plains of Assam, and British subjects had to get special permission from the administration to go beyond the line. In essence, the ILPS was meant to protect the British revenue districts of the Assam plains from the “wild” hillmen.

1891 map of Bengal and Assam

Not long after the British annexed Assam in 1826 after the First Anglo-Burmese War, this new territory, still administered from Fort William as a part of Bengal, began showing revenue potential especially after the Bruce brothers’ discovered tea in the 1830s. Along with tea were also lucrative prospects in rubber, timber etc.

As the tea gardens expanded, planters began encroaching into the hills, bringing them into friction with the hill tribes, making it essential for the British to take out expensive punitive expeditions. The British, however, did not want to extend their administration into these hills as they believed it would not have been cost effective. Therefore, they thought it prudent to draw a line and restrict planters and other speculators from going beyond. As pressure from the planters lobby mounted, the British did push the Inner Line further into the hills on numerous occasions with simple gazette notifications, as historian Bodhisattva Kar notes in a recent essay.

In modern times

The ILPS remained after Independence and even after Assam was bifurcated into more states. Today Mizoram, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh have it. Curiously, the ILPS is today seen as, and indeed has become, a line meant to protect minority tribal populations from being overwhelmed by settlers. Manipur and Meghalaya are also agitating for it.

Manipur’s population today is around 2.7 million, of which persons from outside the state make up around 7 lakhs. The ILPS agitation and the siege mentality driving it are more the product of the increasingly congested and shrinking space of the valley rather than of any recent large-scale influx, for which there is, in fact, no evidence. There may be other factors operating at the subconscious level: the fact that the state’s hill population is free to descend to the valley but reverse movement is prohibited. The agitation may also reflect insecurities caused by the Naga demand for Greater ‘Nagalim’, and by Mizos for Greater Mizoram.

A civil servant of the mid-20th Century, Nari Rustomji, whose love for the Northeast, and Sikkim in particular, is well known, has this rueful commentary to sum up his advocacy for a more sympathetic approach to the question:

“There will be many who will react to this approach as old-fashioned and anachronistic in the world of today, where respect for traditional values is at a discount and held as tantamount to a brake on progress. There are communities, however, that have suffered tragically, and beyond redemption, from well-intentioned attempts to reform them overnight. While, therefore, no community can remain static and while change is an imperative for a community’s healthy growth and development, it has to be ensured that the pace of change is adjusted to the community’s capacity to absorb such change without detriment to its inherent organism and essential values.”

The writer is editor of the Imphal Free Press