On Wednesday, the Supreme Court declined to stay the operation of a Presidential order which petitioners claimed deprived Assam of the powers to implement the Inner Line system in its districts and limit the applicability of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act.
A concept drawn by colonial rulers, the Inner Line separated the tribal-populated hill areas in the Northeast from the plains. To enter and stay for any period in these areas, Indian citizens from other areas need an Inner Line Permit (ILP). Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Mizoram are protected by the Inner Line, and lately Manipur was added. The concept originates from the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation Act (BEFR), 1873.
“The policy of exclusion first came about as a response to the reckless expansion of British entrepreneurs into new lands which threatened British political relations with the hill tribes,” wrote the political scientist Sanjib Baruah in his book India Against Itself: Assam and the Politics of Nationality. The BEFR prohibits an outsider’s — “British subject or foreign citizen” — entry into the are beyond the Inner Line without a pass and his purchase of land there. On the other hand, the Inner Line also protects the commercial interests of the British from the tribal communities.
After Independence, the Indian government replaced “British subjects” with “Citizen of India”. In 2013, the Home Ministry told Rajya Saha, “The main aim of ILP system is to prevent settlement of other Indian nationals in the States where ILP regime is prevalent, in order to protect the indigenous/tribal population.”
The CAA, which relaxes eligibility criteria for certain categories of migrants from three countries seeking Indian citizenship, exempts certain categories of areas, including those protected by the Inner Line system. Amid protests against the Act, the Adaptation of Laws (Amendment) Order, 2019, issued by the President, amended the BEFR, 1873, extending it to Manipur and parts of Nagaland that were not earlier protected by ILP.
The influential Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chatra Parishad (AJYCP) and All Tai Ahom Students’ Union (ATASU) petitioned the Supreme Court against the Presidential order. Noting that the original BEFR included the then Assam districts of Kamrup, Darrang, Nowgong (now Nagaon), Sibsagar, Lakhimpur, and Cachar, the petition said the order took away the Assam government’s permissive power to implement the ILP. This could have made the CAA inapplicable in these areas, the petition said. Groups such as the AJYCP have long been campaigning for long for implementation of the ILP in Assam. The CAA has given fresh legs to the demand. Lurinjyoti Gogoi, general secretary of the All Assam Students’ Union, says protests against the CAA in Assam will continue.
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The petition had sought a stay on the Presidential order, which the Supreme Court did not grant. The court said it will have to hear what the other side (government) has to say on the matter. It will hear the matter again in two weeks.