There is a deep anachronism at the heart of India’s Northeast policy: the continuing reliance on archaic colonial-era institutions. The disconnect between the original rationale for those institutions and modern realities grows wider each day. The controversy over inner-line permits for passengers travelling on the proposed Rajdhani Express between Arunachal Pradesh and New Delhi brings home this contradiction. The decision to let the train reservations do the work of inner-line permits may make eminent practical sense. But the issue raises a deeper question: can the ideas that the Rajdhani symbolises — national connectivity, mobility, speed and economic dynamism — be reconciled with an archaic institution like the inner line?
First introduced in 1873, the inner line can only be understood in the context of what Curzon described as the “frontier system” of the empire, which had a “threefold” frontier: an administrative border, a frontier of active protection and an outer or advanced strategic frontier. Only in the areas inside its “administrative” border did the British establish direct rule.
Most of present-day Assam was the area within the administrative border of colonial Assam, where a promising new economy of tea, oil and coal production was taking shape in the latter half of the 19th century. Establishing modern property rights and a legal and administrative system in this enclave of global capitalism was a priority.
Beyond the inner line were “tribal areas”, which Curzon described as a zone of “active protection”. The British had given away huge tracts of land to European tea planters using the fiction of Assam’s vast “wastelands”. But the process involved the subversion of old economic and social networks and property regimes. Thus in the early years, the tea plantations were frequently attacked by marauding “barbarians”. The inner line was a way of fencing in the tea plantations.
The colonial government had little interest in extending modern institutions beyond the administrative border. Launching occasional military expeditions to teach the “primitive tribesmen” a lesson was considered enough.
There was also a set of racial assumptions at work: the colonial habit of fixing peoples to their supposed natural habitats. Certain peoples beyond the inner line were described as “very primitive peoples”. Sometimes ,members of an ethnic group living in one location would be described as “a degraded, backward type”, contrasting them to members of the same group living in their “abode proper”, which supposedly had superior qualities. Thus it became necessary to distinguish between so-called pure and impure types, which in turn required fences to keep people in their assigned physical spaces.
What explains the contemporary appeal of the inner line? Its appeal is not restricted to Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland, where the inner line has continued since colonial times. There have been campaigns demanding the inner line in Meghalaya and Manipur as well. Even ethnic activists in Assam have flirted with the idea. And successive generations of Indian policymakers have found the inner line to be a necessary condition for political stability.
The economic heartland of colonial Assam, not surprisingly, comprised the plains districts located within the administrative border. By contrast, most of the sparsely populated hill areas — especially those beyond the inner line — became the economic backwaters.
It is a curious stroke of fate that the inner line is now viewed so positively. It is seen primarily as a legal instrument for excluding outsiders — an unintended consequence of incremental policymaking that has created a number of de facto ethnic homelands in the Northeast. There is growing appeal for the idea among those who don’t yet have such exclusionary homelands. However, contemporary ethnic activists are not entirely unaware of the ambiguous legacy of the inner line. It is a factor in the border disputes between some Northeastern states and Assam. Ethnic activists in states beyond the inner line covet certain plains and foothill areas — located outside the inner line — partly because of the relative economic dynamism they exude.
The inner line produces a major structural dilemma for the 21st century practice of citizenship. To borrow the words of Mahmood Mamdani, they penalise those that the commodity economy dynamises. Those that are mobile and find their way into areas beyond the inner line are defined as outsiders. Further, mobility on the part of those considered native to that zone is discouraged because preferences that go with native status are made specific to habitats to which particular groups are fixed.
How long can such an institution be the basis for defining rights and entitlements in the Northeast? The task of breaking away from the ideas of race, ethnicity and territoriality on which colonial rule was founded cannot be postponed forever. A politics of the future must be based on understanding the ways in which people actually live their lives — transcending those colonial zones and enclaves — and a vision of a common tomorrow for all those who live in the region today.
The writer is professor of political studies, Bard College, New York