Manipur, which probably has more bandhs in a year than all Indian states put together, has been on the boil for the past few weeks over the contentious issue of the Inner Line Permit (ILP).
The ILP, which was introduced by the British government to protect their commercial interests in the Northeast, is a special pass that is required to enter Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Mizoram. This mechanism is now essentially used to limit the exposure of tribals and their cultures from onslaughts by outsiders.
Now Manipuris are demanding the introduction of a similar permit in the state and in the last few weeks protesters led by the Joint Committee on Inner Line Permit System (JCILPS), an umbrella organisation of 30 civil bodies and Meitei students’ organisations, have managed to push the state government on the back foot.
On July 15, they forced the Ibobi Singh government to withdraw the earlier Regulation of Visitors, Tenants and Migrant Workers Bill and promise that it would introduce the ILP Bill within three months. The former does not provide the same protection as the ILP. The most unfortunate collateral damage of these protests has been the death of Sapam Robinhood in police firing on July 8.
The protests are a result of the changing power dynamics in the Manipuri social structure: The Meiteis are the most powerful community in the plains of Manipur and it has a strong grip on the levers of power but the gradual improvement in the status of the tribal communities has changed the power equations. Moreover, no outsider can buy the land of the tribals.
All this has made the Meiteis uneasy and they do not want a challenger (outsiders) on the horizon. And the Meiteis are also angling for ST status.
By promising to introduce the ILP Bill, the Ibobi Singh government has taken an easy — but a dangerous — way out of the situation, and has also played into the hands of the Meitei community. This fear of being overrun by outsiders is not an irrational fear but must not be overplayed like this so that it looks like reverse discrimination of sorts.
Moreover, how will the NE become a commercial hub for India’s economic engagement with the East if there is so much of fear of the entry of non-domiciled persons into the state as well as frequent protests and bandhs?