Understanding the history of the Inner Line Permit in the Northeast - Hindustan Times
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Understanding the history of the Inner Line Permit in the Northeast

ByAshish Kundra
Dec 22, 2019 07:50 PM IST

The CAA exemption shows that protection granted to indigenous people nearly 150 years ago still holds good

The promulgation of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act has invited much attention. The insertion of Section 6B in the principal Act limits its applicability to areas covered under the “Inner Line” notified under the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulations (BEFR), 1873. It would be interesting to study the genesis of this relic of British cartographic wizardry, which divides India’s Northeast in order to understand its contemporary relevance.

Women take part in a protest demonstration against the Citizenship Amendement Act (CAA), Sivasagar, Assam, December 18, 2019.(PTI)
Women take part in a protest demonstration against the Citizenship Amendement Act (CAA), Sivasagar, Assam, December 18, 2019.(PTI)

The historical roots of Inner Line lie in the Anglo-Burmese wars of the early 19th century, which exposed British ignorance of a strategic area, abutting Burma and China. After several difficult expeditions, the hill tracts were mapped out. British influence gradually spread beyond Assam and Manipur to other hills states. The BEFR empowered the Lieutenant Governor to define an inner line, beyond which no British subject of certain classes or foreign residents could pass without a licence, giving the government untrammelled control. These regulations, which are still in force, cover Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland. Manipur has also now been subsumed into the purview of the Inner Line.

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The ostensible explanation proffered by the British was their desire to protect tribal interests. However, the line effectively demarcated the boundary of British commercial interests in the plains of Assam, protecting them from the incursions of warrior hill tribes. Ingress and egress of people from either side of the dividing line came under the radar of the imperial government. The terms of engagement between people of the hills and the valley was redefined. The Government of India Act, 1935, went a step further, prescribing “excluded areas” and “partially excluded areas” to be under the direct control of the provincial governor, to the exclusion of the Indian legislature. Winston Churchill asserted in a 1935 debate in the House of Commons: “I take as much interest in the fortunes of the white people in India as I would in these backward tribes. I feel just as disturbed about their police and security being handed over to a Government which I do not trust as the anthropological party represented here ... about the handing over of the backward areas to a Government they do not trust.”

The logic of the Inner Line found resonance with the political leadership even in independent India, both at the national and provincial levels. Section 7 of the BEFR is at the heart of its enduring relevance. It stipulates that, “It shall not be lawful for any person, not being a native of the districts comprised in the preamble of this Regulation, to acquire any interest in land or the product of land beyond the said ‘Inner Line’ without the sanction of the State Government.” By implication, tribal interests in land, mostly based on customary law, have an umbrella protection. The sale of tribal land in these states is limited only to other tribals of the state, unless the state government expressly allows such exceptions. In most cases, this has been done for the construction of dams, national highways, airports, institutions and other public goods, where land is acquired under the land acquisition law after payment of the assessed compensation. Some state governments have also allowed limited land leasing arrangements to attract private investments.

The nature of restrictions in the Northeast defined by the Inner Line, go well beyond the acquisition of property. Even Indian citizens seeking to travel to these states are required to seek an Inner Line Permit (ILP) for a defined period. The permit, though easy to obtain, poses a regulatory barrier to tourism. An instrument for the protection of tribals has willy-nilly become a device for their isolation. Of course, some states like Arunachal Pradesh have found imaginative solutions such as granting an e-ILP, which simplifies the process.

The insertion of Inner Line exemptions in the Citizenship Amendment Act is an important political signal for the hill states — protection granted to indigenous people by the British nearly 150 years ago, for completely different reasons, holds good even in modern times. The unique linguistic and cultural identity of this region is sought to be protected by law. It could well be argued that the residents of these states are no longer tribal in the anthropological sense. Mainland India, divorced from the reality of rural Northeast, must understand that it presents a sharp contrast to the urbanised capitals. The simplicity of tribal life remains intact in the villages, revolving around traditional mores. The hills of the Northeast could have been swamped by people from the plains, driven by mercantile greed, had they not been protected by the Inner Line.

The Northeast is a potpourri of cultures and ethnicities alien to the rest of India. As a nation, it is our collective duty to allow the people of this region to flourish according to their own norms, without imposing the rules of a flawed civilisation.

Ashish Kundra is commissioner GAD, Government of Mizoram
The views expressed are personal

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