After having kept Manipur in suspense for more than two years, the movement for reintroduction of the Inner Line Permit system seems to have fizzled out.
It began in 2012 when then Ibobi government unanimously adopted a resolution seeking extension of the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation Act, 1873 to Manipur also.
That the Centre said no was very pertinent but Ibobi kept it under wraps. Around 1870, the British thought of a method to safeguard the interests of tribals in Assam — notably the Naga Hills, the Lushai Hills (now Nagaland and Mizoram) and the North Eastern Frontier Agency (now Arunachal Pradesh).
The Inner Line Permit system is still in vogue in these three states. Technically it means that any Indian citizen who wants to visit these states must obtain an ILP permit from the relevant state authorities for a specific period of time.
The orginal Act also stipulates that a person holding the permit is not allowed to kill elephants or tap rubber, et al. But behind the movement for the Inner Line Permit System there lies a morbid fear of losing one’s own identity in the place of his birth. As early as 1974, a political party called the Kanglei League, now defunct, raised the issue.
It cited the case of the BhutiaLepchas in Sikkim, the Kacharis in Assam and the Tripuris in Tripura where people of Nepalese and Bengali origin have swamped the area making them minorities in their own homeland. Thus the fear of the Meiteis also losing their identity cannot be said to be unfounded.
A few social activists started the movement. By 2015 it gained momentum when the Joint Committee for the Inner Line Permit System came into being under the leadership of Kh Ratan, a former student leader.
Then in July 2015, one student, Robinhood was killed in police firing and then the movement almost went haywire.
Finally the state government introduced three bills in the assembly to regulate the flow of outsiders into the state and the sale and purchase of land.
The JCILPS immediately rejected the bills calling it a hoax and demanded 1951 as the cut-off year to determine who is an outsider in Manipur. This immediately set off a chain reaction in Churachandpur district. Irate crowds burnt the houses of all ministers and MLAs, and nine persons were killed.
Two of them were charred to death while setting the house of former minister Phunzathang Tonsing on fire; six were killed while attempting to storm the Churachandpur police station and two were killed in a road accident.
But all nine were hailed as martyrs and their bodies were kept in a local morgue for more than 600 days, as a bargaining point. The fear of the people in Churachandpur was not unfounded.
The tribe called Paites in Manipur are known as the Chins in neighbouring Myanmar. And being migratory in nature, the inflow of Chins from across the border must have continued unabated post-1947 and is continuing.
For instance, one of the Zomi/Chin/Paite underground leaders, whose house was also set on fire, happened to be born in Chin in Myanmar. After coming to Mizoram he obtained an Indian Passport, set up his own armed outfit and settled in Churachandpur to direct his extortion and other such business from there.
And because their very existence came to be questioned, their leaders must have incited the Paite masses and termed the three bills that were passed as anti-tribal. The Nagas also jumped into the fray, apparently under directions from Hebron (Dimapur).
Soon posters denouncing the bills and calling for tribal unity began to appear in far away Senapati and Ukhrul districts too.
Suddenly the years of torture and slaughter meted out to the Kukis by the Nagas were forgotten almost overnight in following Chanakya’s dictum of the “enemy of my enemy is my friend”.
So what the Meities thought to be a shield for protection of their identities suddenly became a threat to the tribals — not only the 254,787 people of Churachandpur but to the entire 902,740 tribal population of Manipur (2011 Census).
The main reason cited was that the Manipur government did not refer the three bills to the Hill Areas Committee of the Manipur Legislative Assembly — mandatory for any bill that concerns the hill areas of the state, although all members of HAC voted in favour of the three bills.
Manipur had a total population of 2.57 million in 2011 out which 7,00,000 are Meiteis. Then tragedy struck the JCILPS when a photo was posted on social media. It showed Kh Ratan, the convenor of the JCILPS, being sworn in as a member of the banned United National Liberation Front of Manipur.
According to the police he was recruited by one Lieutenant Umakanta in 2006 and was sworn in as a member of the proscribed group in 2006 by the organising secretary of the UNLF, Nongyai. Top state home department officials later told me that the picture came from “within”.
It took a while for the JCILPS to reorganise itself. Then in May 2016 while addressing a meeting of the Scheduled Tribe Demand Committee of the Meitei people, I categorically stated there was little chance of the President giving his assent to the Manipuri version of the ILP.
This was simply because to the RSS, which forms the backbone of the BJP, the map of India spans from Kabul in the west to Rangoon in the east.
Therefore, the Centre would never say yes to a bill that would hinder, if not prohibit, the movement of outsiders to Manipur. Hence the only alternative for the Meiteis is to seek the status of a scheduled tribe under Schedule 5 of the Constitution.
Also pointed out was the fact that Mizoram, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh are all tribal states. My statement created quite a stir among the protagonists of the ILPS.
I was asked to come and explain the circumstances under which the Government of India was going to say no to the ILP from being promulgated in the state.
One gentleman by the name of Sapamcha Jadu, who initiated the ILP stir in the state, asked me to be present in his office of the Indigenous People’s Alliance of Kangleipak.
I did not go and shortly after, news broke that the President of India had declined to give assent to the bills. Then another post on social media showed how former JCILPS convenor had a bank balance exceeding Rs.50 lakh.
The post also mentioned that the sum was given by then chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh in the name of providing assistance to those who suffered injuries in the police action during the movement for the ILPS.
That it was not disbursed was also made very clear and in all likelihood, it appears to be an appeasement policy of Ibobi — he tried to bribe Ratan, failing which he had him arrested. The silence on the part of anyone who had anything to do with the movement was also deafening.
Now the new chief minister N Biren Singh had gone to Churachandpur and held parleys with the Joint Action Committee Against the Anti-Tribal Bills and after over 600 days of lying in the morgue, the nine bodies were given a decent burial. The government also announced compensation of Rs.10 lakh each and a government job to each of the next of kin of the nine deceased.
It was also made clear that before introducing any new bill to curb the inflow of outsiders, tribals — notably the Paites — would be consulted and the Hill Areas Committee of the Manipur Legislative Assembly would not be bypassed.
That will give a tough time for T Haokip, chairman of the HAC, who was elected from the Henglep assembly constituency of Churachandpur district.
All said and done the movement for the Inner Line Permit System appears to have fizzled out and perhaps the next movement would be the demand for the inclusion of the Meiteis in the list of the Scheduled Tribes of India.
The writer is the Imphal-based special representative of The Statesman.