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Walking a political tightrope

Yambem Laba |

Manipur is today out of bounds for almost all mainland Indians who wish to visit it overland without identification papers. They are routinely halted at the Mao Check Post on the Manipur-Nagaland border by Manipur Police and made to return. These people are not normal tourists but consist mainly of semi-skilled workers and labourers hailing from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. And the act is akin to turning back illegal immigrants at international borders.

Not only at border check posts but also in Imphal city where the police as well as local vigilante groups carry out regular combing operations and unearth non-locals without valid identification papers. Even a few who had married local Manipuri women and adopted their wives’ surnames have not been spared.

The provisions of the Inner Line Permit, under the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation, 1873, enacted by the British to check the inflow of non-locals have not been invoked in the state. Earlier, the President of India had returned the Manipuri version of the BEFR, locally known as the ILP Bill, passed by then Okram Ibobi Singh-led Congress Government.

The proper ILP under the BEFR is today applicable only in Nagaland, Mizoram (formerly Naga Hills and Lushai Hills of erstwhile Assam) and Arunachal Pradesh (earlier the North East Frontier Agency). The Centre had categorically ruled out the implementation of the BEFR in Manipur, perhaps fearing cries for similar application elsewhere in the country. But former chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh had to give in to the immense pressure mounted on him by the various wings of the Joint Committee of the Inner Line Permit System.

The movement had gained momentum when a student was killed in a police firing in July 2015.It received a jolt when a photo started appearing on social media, which showed then convenor of the JCILPS, Khomdram Rattan, taking oath as a member of the banned United National Liberation Front.

He was soon arrested and it was revealed that his bank account showed a balance of Rs 50 lakhs. It also came to light that the amount was received personally from Okram Ibobi Singh and was meant to meet the treatment expenses of people who had received injuries during the ILP agitations. Top officials of the state’s home department told this writer that the photograph in question was sent from the “inside”.

The present move for the ILP owes its origins to a curious turn of events originating from an otherwise non-descript pre-Hindu place of worship of the indigenous Meiteis called Ahongpung in Khurai Telepati. Ahongpung is a shrine, which finds mention in ancient Manipuri texts and scriptures. The same place had also been declared a protected monument by the state government some years back. But Ahongpung is located in an area where there is a large presence of people of Bihari origin who dealt in edible oil — known as “Telis” — and the area came to be known as Telepati.

Those who settled around the place over 80 years ago started encroaching on the miniscule shrine area and things began to take a turn for the worse when the settlers assaulted a priest and another person who had gone to perform some rituals there. The matter almost went out of hand and a curfew had to be put in the area.

Then the settlers posted a video clip on social media showing a masked man and four other unmasked ones threatening to kill Manipuris passing through Bihar on trains. They initially spoke in Hindi but also added curse words in Manipuri thereby almost giving away their identities.

Then the Harvard-educated Erendro Leichombam, who heads the People’s Resurgent and Justice Alliance, put another post on social media. The Praja is a political party on whose ticket Irom Sharmila and Leichombam had contested, without success, the last state assembly elections in 2017. He questioned the efficiency of the cyber crime unit of Manipur Police who had earlier arrested a person within 24 hours for posting a threat to chief minister N Biren Singh’s son.

Leichombam questioned how those threatening to kill en-masse were yet to be arrested. In the meantime the police had posted a warning prohibiting the public from sharing the original hate post.

Leichombam refused to take down his post insisting that the culprits be booked first. Subsequently he was taken into custody along with five others. He refused to take bail stating that his conditions were yet to be met and was further remanded to 15 days of judicial custody while the four others were released on bail.

The police have admitted that the main culprit, the masked man, is yet to be arrested as he had left the state and absconded to Bihar. It is, however, not known whether Manipur Police have got in touch with their counterparts in Bihar to catch the absconder.

That issue apart, alarm bells were sounded when over 10 Rohingya immigrants, armed with identity cards issued by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in New Delhi, were nabbed at the Indo-Myanmar border in Moreh en route from Myanmar and also at Mao Gate en route from the mainland. In the meantime, members of the JCILPS had rounded up another 56 “illegal migrants” in the Thangmeiband area of the capital without proper identification papers.

The police have become over active ever since chief minister N Biren Singh made it clear that he would hold individual police stations accountable in case any unauthorised immigrants are found in their jurisdiction and his wish soon became their command. The fate of the “illegal Indian migrants” detected without proper identification papers is still unknown but the Rohingyas have since been sent to jail under the Foreigners Act.

Moreover, in order to meet the deadline served to his administration by the JCILPS, N Biren Singh has announced the formation of a high powered committee to examine the problem of illegal migrants in Manipur and come out with a draft bill to introduce the Manipur variety of the BEFR to become an Act. It is headed by works minister Thaonaojam Bishwajeet and has among its ranks, ministers and legislators belonging to the Meitei, Naga and Kuki-Paite groups of people.

Last time when the ILP Bill was passed, the Paite-dominated Churachandpur district met it with stiff opposition. The official reason cited was that the Bill had bypassed the Hill Areas Committee of the state legislative assembly as it was also applicable in the Hill areas of Manipur. The unofficial reason was that they feared a large number of their kith and kin, who had crossed over from the neighbouring Chin Hills of Myanmar and settled down in Manipur, might get uprooted.

The question that remains is that will the Sangh Parivar permit Manipur to enact such an Act, which seeks to restrict the movements of non-Manipuri mainlanders since it runs counter to the concept of an “Akhand Bharat”. It might lead the Shiv Sena, who loath Biharis no less than Manipuris, to ask for a similar enactment in Maharashtra.

While it is certain that the Manipur legislative assembly will clear the Bill, question remains whether President Kovind will give his assent to it. It is surely going to be a political tightrope for N Biren Singh as he cannot displease the Sangh Parivar and at the same, appear to not listen to the demands of the JCILPS.


The writer is the Imphal-based special representative of The Statesman