As fresh violence erupted between two groups over the issue of Inner Line Permit (ILP) on 18th August, in Chandel district of Manipur and protests mounted across the state, life has come to a standstill except in the old secretariat road in Imphal where the ‘more important‘ government offices are located.
For past few months Manipur has been wrangling with popular protests for implementing the Inner Line Permit system which is presently operative in three north-eastern states: Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram. Earlier this week, on 17 August five students on indefinite hunger strike demanding ILP in the state were arrested, and admitted into the Regional Institute of Medical Sciences in Imphal. On July 8, a similar mass protest—which was a materialization of the dormant anxieties of the native populace regarding the unabated influx of ‘outsiders’ to the state—witnessed the death of a XI standard student Sapam Robinhood which subsequently triggered civil unrest across the state.
In sum, much vitriol has been spilled in recent times over this issue; the atmosphere is complex and vitiated, and indications suggest that there is still more to come, rendering civil life into an impasse.
The 2011 Census stated that there were 7.5 lakh Meiteis, 6.7 lakh Tribals, and 7.4 lakh non-Manipuris in the state. When Scheduled Castes were excluded, it was found that there are 13,000 more non-Manipuris than Meiteis. Therefore, it is quite natural that the public discourse in Manipur has been dominated by this sole issue despite a devastating flood in the recent memory, and the indigenous communities’ fear of becoming a ‘minority‘ both demographically and culturally is all-pervasive, of course with valid reasons. As public pressure mounted, the Congress-led Manipur government promised to draft an Inner Line Permit Bill within one month though Congress is officially opposed to it. Native communities in the state, irrespective of whether in the valley or in the hills, are anxiously awaiting the result with the hope that the bill will serve its interests.
The Manipur Assembly had introduced the Manipur Regulation of Visitors, Tenants and Migrant Workers Bill earlier this year aiming to regulate the entry of visitors and migrant workers but it was withdrawn on July 15 because the Joint Committee on Inner Line Permit System (JCILPS), which is spearheading the movement demanding implementation of the ILP, accused that it protected immigrants more than native Manipuris.
The foremost argument against the ILPS within the state is that it is an attempt by the state’s dominant community, the Meiteis, to retain their pre-eminence in the power hierarchy. However this is not convincing. The idea of the Meiteis themselves being threatened and marginalised is very real as exhibited by the census data.
What is at stake?
There seems to be a sense of suspicion among the hill tribes that the government of Manipur is trying to avert the implementation of the Sixth Schedule by prioritising the demand for ILPS. It is notable that the valley populace has been largely silent on, if not opposed to, the issue of implementing Sixth Schedule in the hills, and this has created an atmosphere of distrust. Any constructive dialogue between the hills leaders and valley leaders was not visible in recent past. What has worsened the situation is that some members of the intelligentsia are suspicious that the demand for ILPS has the twin objective of lending more strength and legitimacy to the Meiteis’ demand for Scheduled Tribe status. Another unresolved question that has created confusion is whether the Kukis are natives of Manipur.
Hence trust is presently at stake among the Manipuris. Moreover, while the aim of the mass movement spearheaded by JCILPS is to ensure an effective law for regulating or controlling migration to the state, the shibboleth accompanying it is Inner Line Permit (ILP). This shows a somewhat lack of clarity about the objective of the movement. It must not be forgotten that what has come to be known as ILP owes its origin to a colonial law, the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation Act, 1873, and ILP cannot easily dissociate itself of the colonial spatial and cultural imageries, and the savagery/civilization distinction that was at play in its history. Lack of clarity in terms of objective in the movement on a sensitive issue like migration could under-gird a xenophobic attitude among the natives.
Who are the sufferers?
“I am the sole bread-earner of my family. This is for the third day I haven’t been able to do business. No one is in the street“, S Maibam, a vegetable vendor in Imphal says bleakly on Thursday, alluding to the woes suffered by the commoners like him as the new trend of ‘flash-bandhs‘ is setting in, across the valley.
The recent flood and subsequent landslides have still kept parts of Chandel and Thoubal districts inaccessible from the valley. A youth from Laimatol hills area, of Chandel district, informs this scribe over phone that they are still trying to cope with the damages done by the flood. Now the protests and strikes in valley have added to their woes by cutting access to medical facilities and access to livelihoods, since most of the community members work as daily wage labourers in the valley.
With recent reports of 17 more volunteers from Thangmei-band United Club coming forward to carry on the stir, it seems lives of civilians, most of who are already ravished by flood and deprived of basic amenities, will be caught in a quagmire of ‘street politics’ for an indefinite period.
Ironically, denial of the right to livelihoods is itself a stain on democracy. All stakeholders to the ILPS issue, including the governments must understand this, and settle scores only after ensuring this.