Manipur has been on the boil for nearly a week over the Manipur Regulation of Visitors, Tenant and Migrant Workers’ Bill, 2015. The Joint Committee on Inner Line Permit System (JCILPS), that is leading the protests has demanded that the government introduce the inner line permit (ILP) instead. The protests had turned violent after a 16-year-old school student was killed when police teargassed a gathering last Wednesday. Late Sunday, Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh agreed to withdraw the bill and curfew has been relaxed in Imphal. The government and the JCILPS must now build on the fragile peace.
At the core of the JCILPS’s demand for the ILP is the fear and spectre of migrants outnumbering local residents in Manipur. The 2001 Census revealed that nearly a third of Manipur’s population was made up of migrant workers, nearly the same as Meiteis, the state’s dominant community. Local groups have argued that in the absence of legal measures, Manipur could go the Tripura way, where the indigenous tribes have been reduced to a minority. These concerns are understandable, but does the solution lie in the ILP, a colonial-era permit system introduced to protect the empire’s interests? Instruments like the ILP are intended to keep people, commodities and even capital outside the inner line limit. These have stunted the growth and diversification of the local economy. The land-locked northeast was once seen as the frontier, but could now be seen as India’s gateway to Southeast Asia. As a trading hub, Manipur could benefit immensely from integration with the better developed markets in its west and east. At this historical juncture, Manipur should not seek closed borders but insist on open boundaries, better connectivity and a clear policy on resource-sharing and deployment. This could surely be done without compromising the rights and entitlements of the local population.
The Centre, too, needs to recalibrate its approach to the region. So far, it has preferred piecemeal policymaking to a long-term, composite agenda for the region. For instance, New Delhi opposed the ILP for Manipur when the state assembly passed a resolution in 2012, but has let the law continue in Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Mizoram. The region’s political paradigm must change, but the onus also lies with the Centre.