By Pradip Phanjoubam
The following article is a summary of three articles the author wrote on the current agitation for the introduction of the ILP. Two of these were for the new and critically acclaimed web journal, The Wire, started jointly by former editor The Hindu, Siddharth Varadarajan and former editor Daily News and Analysis, Sidharth Bhatia. The third written was written for another new web journal, Catch News, started by former editor Hindustan Times, Bharat Bhushan and former editor Tehelka editor Shoma Choudhury.
Under pressure from unrelenting violent street protests in the state, the Manipur government has withdrawn the Manipur Visitors, Tenants and Migrant Workers Bill, 2015 passed earlier by the State Assembly, but which was awaiting the assent of the state Governor Syed Ahmed. With this the Manipur government has bought itself some time and the street agitations have been suspended to give the government the room to come with another law to effectively regulate inflow of migrants into the state.
In a meeting with the media recently, the Chief Minister, Okram Ibobi said another Bill is currently under preparation, and for the purpose wide consultations with experts from various fields are being held. While the state breathes a sigh of relief, it would be pertinent to scan through the history of the demand for the introduction of the Inner Line System in Manipur, as well as the history of the ILPS itself.
A culture of violent agitations
Manipur land administration is as per the provisions of the Manipur Land Reform and Land Revenue Act, 1960, a legislation with a Union Government vintage as it was passed while Manipur was still a Union Territory. The state formally joined the Indian Union only on October 21, 1949 after the then king, Bodhchandra Singh, signed the Manipur Merger Agreement under controversial circumstances while he was under arrest in Shillong, the then capital of Assam, where he had gone for some work.
Manipur was one of the many princely states which resisted merger with India, and when finally it was absorbed into the Union, it was not as a full-fledged state but as a Part-C state, with a status even lower than a Union territory. The speculated reasons for this are many. These include making the state feel insignificant to knock out cold the rebelliousness in it. However, protests after protests with increasing tendencies towards violence, resulted in upgrades of its political status in bits and pieces, until in 1972, it was awarded full statehood. But the belief that only violent protests can make the Union take notice had already been conditioned among local citizens, as R. Constantine notes in his book `Manipur: Maid of the Mountains`. This is also one of contemporary Manipur`s many tragedies.
The MLR&LR Act 1960 covers only the 2000 sq km central Imphal valley. The hills, which form nearly 90 percent of the state`s territory, except in pockets, are left out of the purview of this Act to be administered under customary land laws of the communities inhabiting them.
This has also meant legal land ownership transfers can happen only in the fertile valley, which has led to continued shrinking of living space with each passing year. Moreover, though the valley is only 10 percent of land area of the state, more than 60 percent of the state`s population today is concentrated in it. The topography as well as the population distribution pattern has also skewed the development drives, with much of the developmental funds of the state remaining in the valley area, in particular the capital Imphal.
The consequence today is a sharp divide between the hills and the valley, but this is not all, for there is also a pronounced urban-rural divide. In old colloquial Manipuri, the word for `urban` had come to be `Imphal`, making this rural-urban divide to virtually be in a nuanced but antagonistic way, a binary between Imphal and the rural hinterlands.
Not just in the ongoing street agitations, but in many past unrest in the state, these fissures were visible, and often very pronouncedly. On the need for the introduction of a regulatory mechanism to prevent the ultimate marginalisation of the local population, there is a wide consensus cutting across the state`s geographical regions. But this need is felt most in Imphal and the other valley districts, for land ownership transfers to outsiders, as it is, are prohibited in the hills.
The Inner Line trouble
The ILPS demand in the valley areas of Manipur has as its driving force a xenophobic fear shared by practically the whole of Northeast India `“ and indeed the larger region encompassing neighbouring Myanmar and Tibet `“ that small indigenous populations are under threat of being pushed to the margins of their own lands by settlers.
The six-year-long `anti-foreigner` agitation in Assam in the late 1970s and early 1980s, which resulted in the cataclysmic Nellie Massacre in 1983; the current Bodo trouble in Assam marked by periodic murderous ethnic clashes; the recent lynching in Dimapur, Nagaland; the expulsion of Nepalis from Bhutan in the 1980s, are all different manifestations of this same xenophobia. Like Manipur, Meghalaya too is demanding the introduction of the ILPS. There have also been demands that the entire Northeast region be put under inner line protection.
The Rohingya tragedy in Myanmar`s Rakhine state, which neighbours Bangladesh, as much as the Tibetans` charge that they have already been reduced to a minority in their own country by the unending influx of Han Chinese, are also an articulation of similar existential angst. Myanmar has brazenly declared that it considers the Rohingyas to be Bangladeshi immigrants.
Agitators in Manipur cite the examples of Tripura and Sikkim to justify their fear of being swamped by outsiders. Tripura is a Bengali state today, and the original Tripuris are in a hopeless minority in their former kingdom. Sikkim, similarly, is a Nepali state and the original populations of Lepchas and Bhutias have been pushed to the margins, needing reservation to remain represented in the government.
In May this year, the Manipur government yielded somewhat to public pressure and introduced the Manipur Regulation of Visitors, Tenants and Migrant Workers Bill, 2015 in the Assembly. However, the joint committee of the ILPS demand called this a sell-out, claiming the draft does not provide the kind of protection that the ILPS guarantees. In any case, the Bill has been reserved by Manipur Governor Syed Ahmed, putting Okram Ibobi`s Congress government in a quandary.
The history of a line
The ILPS has a curious history. It was introduced in 1873 by the British colonial administration as the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation in the then undivided province of Assam, which included practically all the states of the present day Northeast, except Manipur and Tripura, which were then independent kingdoms. The use of the word `regulation` was not accidental and says something about the line`s original purpose.
As colonial historian E.A. Gait notes in A History of Assam, a Regulation is a summary legislation for `backward tracts` as distinct from an Act which are laws passed after discussion in the legislature. By this Regulation, then, an Inner Line was created along the base of the hills surrounding the plains of Assam, and British subjects had to get special permission from the administration to go beyond the line. In essence, the ILPS was meant to protect the British revenue districts of the Assam plains from the `wild` hillmen.
Not long after the British annexed Assam in 1826 after the First Anglo-Burmese War, this new territory, still administered from Fort William as a part of Bengal, began showing revenue potential especially after the Bruce brothers`™ discovered tea in the 1830s. Along with tea were also lucrative prospects in rubber, timber etc.
As the tea gardens expanded, planters began encroaching into the hills, bringing them into friction with the hill tribes, making it essential for the British to take out expensive punitive expeditions. The British, however, did not want to extend their administration into these hills as they believed it would not have been cost effective. Therefore, they thought it prudent to draw a line and restrict planters and other speculators from going beyond. As pressure from the planters lobby mounted, the British did push the Inner Line further into the hills on numerous occasions with simple gazette notifications, as historian Bodhisattva Kar notes in a recent essay.
Hill valley divide
In Manipur, this has been further complicated by the sharp divide, and mistrust, between the hills and the valley, where the capital Imphal is located.
The latest agitation was concentrated more or less in the four valley districts of Imphal East, Imphal West, Thoubal and Bishnupur, with the twin Imphal districts bearing the brunt. Reason?
Although concern over outsiders is shared across much of Manipur, the five hill districts of Tamenglong, Ukhrul, Chandel, Churachandpur and Senapati are already protected. The hills are reserved for the Schedule Tribes, so non-tribals cannot acquire land, unlike in the valley.
The valley districts, spread over 2,000 sq km, account for a tenth of Manipur`s area but over 60% of its population. And nearly all migration, from outside as well as from the hills, ultimately ends up there, increasing congestion. This sense of a shrinking space has made the valley especially sensitive to the migration issue.
In the hills, a section of the population, broadly made up of the Nagas and the Kukis, is apprehensive that the agitation over ILPS would lead to the valley dwellers, the Meiteis, being accorded the Scheduled Tribe status, to the hill folk`s detriment.
Some Meitei voices have been demanding ST status to get benefits of reservation incentives, they are far from unanimous. Many Meiteis, in fact, feel an ST status would make them government job seekers, inhibiting development of other livelihood skills in the community.
Historically, the Meiteis have been better organised and aware than the hill tribes and, therefore, dominant. This is of a pattern described by Prof James C. Scott in his acclaimed book, Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia.
Scott`s central argument is that in the entire Southeast Asian massif of mountainous territory punctuated by fertile river valleys – termed “Zomia” – it`s the valleys where “Paddy States” evolve. The relationship between the Paddy States and the surrounding hill populations is seldom cordial because the hill people abhor the idea of the state and are, therefore, continuously in flight from the states` reach.
Many scholars have pointed out problems in Scott`s theory, but most agree that it nonetheless provides valuable clues to understanding ethnic relations in the Zomian theatres of conflict. Manipur would qualify as one.
The state`s problem is that it has failed to adequately address the valley-hill disparity. And it isn`t all Meiteis` fault, as is often presumed. Since it became a full-fledged state in 1972, Manipur has had one Muslim and two Naga chief ministers, one for three terms. None of them did much to bridge the ethnic divisions.
This then is a rough picture of the present trouble and its causes.
In modern times
The Government of India Act, 1919, classified the territories beyond the Inner Line as “Backward Tracts”, leaving them unadministered. The Government of India Act 1935, however, split the territories into “Excluded Areas” and “Partially Excluded Areas”.
The “Excluded Areas” weren`t represented in the provincial Assam government, while representatives of the “Partially Excluded Areas” were nominated by the Governor.
The boundary of the erstwhile “Excluded Areas” is where the Inner Line still exists today – Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland. The Line`s purpose, however, has changed dramatically: it`s now basically a demarcation of protected tribal areas.
Manipur and Tripura were independent kingdoms, thus not subject to the ILPS devised by the British.
Now though, Manipur has a month to agree to the ILPS, or bring a bill modelled on it. The government had initially given itself three months to meet the demand but the Joint Committee JCILPS didn`t agree.
The government has already begun consultations with experts from various fields, including the media and the law, and held all-party meetings.
And it has already received many suggestions to resolve the impasse, one of which is a law similar to the land reform and revenue laws of two non-ST states, Jammu & Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh. While J&K, thanks to its special Constitutional status, outright prohibits outsiders from buying land, Himachal makes it virtually impossible to acquire landed property.
As Home Minister Gaikhangam Gangmei said a few days ago, his government is making all efforts to draft a law that “kills the snake without breaking the stick”.