For the past two weeks, the Imphal valley has been wracked by protests demanding the introduction, immediately, of a Bill in the Assembly to implement the Inner Line Permit (ILP). On July 15, the House withdrew the earlier Regulation of Visitors, Tenants and Migrant Workers Bill as demanded by the protesters, and Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh promised to introduce the ILP Bill within three months. That, however, was too far away for the hardliners, who called a 12-hour bandh in the state on July 16 to press their demands.
The Inner Line Permit
The ILP is a special pass or permit that is required to enter the Northeastern states of Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Mizoram. The system was introduced by the British to protect their commercial interests, particularly in oil and tea, and continues now essentially as a mechanism to firewall the tribal peoples and their cultures from onslaughts by outsiders.
Before the Anglo-Manipur war of 1891, non-Manipuris needed permission from the cabinet of the independent kingdom of Manipur to enter and exit the territories of the King. The British introduced the ILP, which remained in force until 1950, when the Commissioner of Assam, in whose jurisdiction Manipur fell, revoked it in the areas that went on to become, in 1972, the state of Manipur.
The first demand for restoration of the ILP in Manipur was made in Parliament in 1980, and on several ocassions subsequently. In 2006, an organisation called FRIENDS took up the demand in earnest. In 2012, the demands turned violent, with repeated general strikes and continued agitation.
The current protests
The current phase of protests is being spearheaded by the Joint Committee on Inner Line Permit System (JCILPS), an umbrella organisation of 30 civil bodies in Manipur, including all valley (that is, Meitei) student organisations. The JCILPS has no political affiliation, and its volunteers are mostly students and student leaders. It is primarily Meitei driven; Manipuri tribals have largely kept away from the agitation, which has been concentrated in the Imphal valley.
The protests escalated last week as the JCILPS demanded the withdrawal of the Regulation of Visitors, Tenants and Migrant Workers’ Bill passed by the Assembly in March, and its replacement by an ILP Bill. On July 8, 17-year-old student Sapam Robinhood was killed as police used teargas to scatter the protesters — the body had not been claimed either by his family or comrades even after a week, PTI reported on Thursday.
The earlier Bill
The Regulation of Visitors, Tenants and Migrant Workers’ Bill made it mandatory for non-Manipuris to register themselves with the government for reasons of “their safety and security and for the maintenance of public order” upon entering the state. The Bill fulfilled a longstanding demand from powerful groups in the state, but failed to satisfy the hardliners.
The Bill proposed to set up visitor registration centres in the state. Owners of “transit units” — hotels, motels, inns, lodges, guesthouses, private stay lodges and individual accommodations let out to visitors — were to register with a Director for Registration of Visitors and Tenants, and submit details of visitors along with identity documents to the government. Contractors hiring labour from outside Manipur were to follow similar rules, and the government was to issue permits to migrant workers.
The Bill proposed to punish non-compliance with fines, the largest of which was Rs 50,000.
JCILPS not satisfied
For the hardliners, though, nothing short of the ILP would do. Chief Minister Singh told the Assembly that it had “become expedient to enact a law to maintain tranquility and public order in the interest of the general public and visitors by registering visitors, tenants and migrant workers”, all but conceding that the visitors’ registration Bill had been brought to appease belligerent protesters who had taken to increasingly carrying out “verification drives” to identify outsiders, and imposing “curfews” on them.
According to Sapamcha Jadumani, chief of the Federation of Regional Indigenous Societies which spearheaded the movement before the JCILPS took over, Manipur’s population grew at 12.80% during 1941-51, but jumped to 35.04% and 37.56% during 1951-61 and 1961-71 respectively after the permit system was abolished.
According to Sapamcha, “there is a serious danger of the indigenous Manipuri population being wiped out along with their culture, history and landguages”. The protesters claim that foreigners from Bangladesh, Nepal and Burma have been entering the state freely, settling in both hill and valley areas, and buying property in the Imphal valley.
The JCILPS’s main grouse against the visitors’ registration Bill — now withdrawn by the government — was that it had neglected to take steps to protect land in the valley. The JCILPS had recommended that the Manipur Land Revenue and Reforms Act, 1960, should be amended to restrict the transfer or sale of land to non-residents — on the lines of the Himachal Pradesh Tenancy and Land Reforms Act, 1972. But this recommendation was not incorporated in the Bill.