With the Manipur assembly passing the resolution last week seeking reinstatement of the Permit system, the legacy of territorial framework bequeathed by the British has raised its head again.
Before 1947, an Inner Line delineated the limits of fully administered sovereignty of the British India. Beyond the Inner Line, the Raj drew an Outer Line that was a claimed boundary. Post-independence, India adopted the Outer Line as its formal border. In the largely tribal regions between the Inner and Outer lines, the British Raj did not exercise full sovereignty. It had loose arrangements with the tribes who were left free to look after their own affairs, but would contribute to the security of the frontiers.
The British Raj introduced the system of Inner Line Permit or ILP via the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation 1873, with the objective of controlling business in Bengal and Assam. Under the system, citizens from other parts of India were allowed to enter a state only with a valid pass called the ILP. Officially, the objective of the ILP system was to protect the distinct identity, culture, ethnicity and socio-economic rights of the indigenous people. The system still exists in Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Mizoram. But Manipur was never covered under the ILP system.
Manipur was a sovereign kingdom till 1891 when it became a princely state of British India. In 1901, Manipur started controlling the entry of foreigners (all non-Manipuris, which included Indians) by the use of a Permit system. This served two purposes: it regulated influx of non-Manipuris into the kingdom; and it formed an important source of revenue for the King. The Permit system also did not allow any ‘foreigner’ to acquire or purchase landed property in Manipur. Consequent to Maharaja Bodhchandra Singh signing Manipur’s Instrument of Accession with India on 11 August 1947, this Permit system was abolished by the Chief Commissioner in November 1950.
Many citizen groups and student unions in Manipur have been demanding the reinstatement of the Permit system to the state. They believe that the abolition of Permit system has led to uncontrolled influx of migrants, which has has reduced the indigenous tribal population to a minority. If this continues, they say, Manipur would soon be inhabited by a hybrid population and all the traditions and culture of the indigenous people will be lost.
Their fears are not without basis. A large number of foreigners from Bangladesh, Myanmar and Nepal have settled in the hill districts of Senapati, Ukhrul, Churachandpur and Chandel. Along with these foreigners, the influx of Bengali workers and Bihari labour has also reduced the economic opportunities available to the indigenous people. Having amassed significant political clout, these groups are now being cultivated as a vote-bank. The demand for reinstating the ILP is thus as much political and economic, as it is socio-cultural.
The All Manipur Students Union claims that the state government has ignored the agreements signed with the students body in 1980 and 1994 on reinstating the Permit system. Following a mass campaign that threatened peace, Manipur Chief Minister Ibobi Singh last week did not oppose an assembly resolution moved by three opposition members. The unanimous resolution sought to adopt Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation 1873 to Manipur with necessary changes. It also urged the Centre to comply with the resolution. This was done despite Centre’s intimation to the state government that the introduction of ILP is not a state subject, as it is included in the Union list.
While this move might take some pressure off the state government, the Centre is unlikely to accede to this resolution because it will lead to a plethora of similar demands across the country. Moreover, it will hinder the task of economic development and political integration of Northeastern states. The Centre had in fact last year relaxed rules so that foreigners no longer need special permits to visit Mizoram, Manipur and Nagaland. While there is a need to jettison outdated concepts like the ILP, genuine endeavours to preserve the culture, language and traditions of the people of Manipur must be made under Articles 29 and 30 of the constitution. Genuine concerns about foreigners settling in Manipur can be countered by the Centre by an early roll out of citizenship cards under the National Population Register scheme.
ILP is an idea whose time has long gone. Along with goods and services, today’s India needs a free movement of people. To which Manipur can be no exception.
Sushant K Singh is Fellow for National Security at the Takshashila Institution and editor of Pragati-The Indian National Interest Review