Inner Line Permit: Manipur’s War Within
The Inner Line Permit system in India’s northeast continues to instil fear among locals of an immigrant swamp.
Migrants vs Residents
- Recent spate of protests due to the controversial Manipur Regulation of Visitor, Tenant and Migration Bill, 2015
- Protestors demand the new bill should be scrapped and the Inner Line Permit be reinstated
- Inner Line Permit, remnant of colonial times helps track movements of non-residents
It’s a bad time to be a mayang – outsider – in Manipur.
Manipur clamped curfew on its capital Imphal a week ago, after a 16-year-old student, Sabam Robinhood Singh, died during an anti-immigrant protest, hit by a stray ‘rubber’ bullet in a confrontation between people and police.
A parallel statement was immediately issued by a group called Joint Committee on Inner Line Permit System (JCILPS), the protest organiser. And their curfew-like warning was severe: All mayangs stay indoors for five days.
This upheaval has to do with the controversial Manipur Regulation of Visitor, Tenant and Migrant Bill, 2015, currently in the state assembly, which, many think favours migrants’ interests.
‘Mayang’ is an ancient word in Meiteilon, the language of the Hindu majority Meitei population of Imphal Valley. It appears in Cheitharol Kumbaba – the rich chronicles of the erstwhile royal kingdom of Manipur that goes back to 33 AD – from the 16th century.
Nepram Bihari, who translated one such ancient text, refers to mayangs as the “West Cachar people”, a portion of Assam today, where also fleeing dissidents from the Manipuri kingdom once settled down. The first revival of the old Meitei Sanamahi religion took place in Cachar, in 1930 by a group called Apokpa Marup.
But on July 8, 2015, the word’s context changed drastically. It now signifies anyone who is “not local”.
Rubber tyres burn on the streets; tree branches block traffic.
Students in school uniform, doctors in white lab coats make up the crowd. So do the famous lungi-clad middle-aged women – Meiria Paibis – without whom a protest is never complete, raising placards: ‘We are eager to sacrifice for ILPS Bill.’
The protestors want the new bill scrapped, and in its place, the Inner Line Permit (ILP) installed to track movements of non-residents.
Colonial Era Law
The ILP is an ancient relic – the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation Act, 1873 – enacted by the colonial rulers to keep ‘the savage hill men’ out of Assam’s Brahmaputra Valley, rich in tea and oil.
It survives today. A sheet of paper any Indian has to fill up to visit Mizoram, Nagaland or Arunachal Pradesh. Details like reasons for visit are noted and there’s a limit on the visit days permitted.
Over 100 years ago, the rationale for the ILP was spelt out by British officer Alexander Mackenzie in his book ‘North East Frontier of India’. He wrote: “If the protecting force is to be anything more than a name, it must be dispersed over a line a thousand miles in length.”
As the ghost of ILP returns, however, the agitation cannot be seen through a xenophobic prism. There are genuine public grievances: poverty, lack of jobs and the number of “educated unemployed” that has swelled to 700,000, according to one estimate.
There is also the dread of “demographic invasion” and the fear of locals becoming minorities in their own state. Something similar happened to the indigenous Kok Boroks of Tripura after the massive Bengali influx following the Partitions of 1947 and 1971.
Meiteis live in the densely populated Imphal Valley, surrounded by sparse hills populated by tribals. Today, a tribal can buy a home in the valley, but a non-tribal, like a Meitei, cannot, unless a hill is declared a ‘town’, and there aren’t many. Unsurprisingly, today Meiteis want tribal status, to enjoy the same benefits as their hill neighbours.
Manipur is a low-investment, poorly-governed state. Militancy drives lakhs of young people to seek jobs and education elsewhere.
Northeasterners now populate offices, airlines, malls and restaurants across India. They are disciplined and efficient. No one prevents them from living or buying a home anywhere. In recent weeks, they received another sweet deal – a central order that will book a person for calling them ‘chinky’.
ILP Hasn’t Helped Much
Has the ILP helped states like Mizoram and Nagaland check immigration? Partially. That’s because ILP breeds corruption, as its own officials usher them in. Low paid construction workers, say, from the mainland, bribe officials to hang on to their jobs, which locals don’t want to do.
The so-called mayang shop owners around Imphal’s Thangal Bazaar buy peace from local student groups by sponsoring endless traditional festivals so common here, as they pay militant groups to get their stock across the highway. Highway dhabas pay a fixed rate every month, in the valley as in the hills.
But Manipur, like Nagaland and Mizoram, receive low-wage undocumented workers from Myanmar (not referred to as outsider-mayang). Many live with their better-off relatives and acquaintances in cities like Imphal, Churachandpur, Kohima and Aizawl – as domestic helps.
The protestors are in no mood to listen even after the government withdrew the disputed bill.
The grieving parents of Robinhood are yet to come to terms with his death. And protestors are adamant that his corpse will not be lifted from the morgue until the Inner Line system is in force.
Robinhood has been declared a ‘martyr’, like others who died for Meitei causes, memorialised in the central city landmark of Kekrupat.
When Imphal erupts, top protest leaders are never visible at the barricades. They lead from the rear, from back rooms, with mobile phones.
On the streets, young women face the stick. And young boys, who squat on streets, black scarves tied on faces, demanding martyrdom with placards: “Kill us like Robinhood”.
(Maitreyee Handique writes on India’s north-east and keeps a watch on labour, industrial safety and human rights issues)
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