Tackling the ILP question: Past imperfect, future tense

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By: Pradip Phanjoubam

Is history bunk as Henry Ford, founder of Ford Automobiles once famously said? Ford incidentally is the iconic entrepreneur credited with introducing the assembly line production system in the automobile industry for the first time in history, greatly increasing production efficiency. The system would come to be the defining standard of the automobile industry the world over in due course, and indeed perfected by the Japanese, a fact that men like Lee Iacocca, another American icon of the automobile industry, would unabashedly fuss about in later days (see his autobiography which has his name “Lee Iacocca” as the title). Quite obviously, Ford did not mean the academic study of the past when he made this statement, but was only reflecting his zeal for breaking free of tradition and investing everything in innovation, an attitude which so many Americans claim as their proprietary virtue at the time, at least until the rise of Japan Inc., which probably explains why men like Lee Iacocca openly reviled and belittled Japanese icons such as the founder of the Sony brand, and his contemporary Akio Morita (see again his autobiography).

But the study of history is not limited to attempts to understand traditions or their values. Among others, it is also about studying the past so as to learn from mistakes of the past. Perhaps this is a reflection of the modern deterministic approach to life, and with it a new existential realisation of its transient nature, all this in the face of an acknowledgment of many meta-phenomena of the universe, such as climate change, cosmic turbulences … against the scale of which the individual, and indeed life itself, become insignificant and vulnerable. In response, the tendency today is for convergence of academic disciplines, especially in the life sciences and liberal arts, not driven by the sole will to appreciate and admire the past in a dispassionate way, but to improve survival chances of peoples and civilisations, in their times ahead. History then is no longer just about knowing what happened in the past and when, but equally about how they happened, and what survival implications they have for the future.

Memory therefore is extremely important in this project, and in fact, the study of history is a method of edifying and preserving collective memory. This being the case, literacy (or the knowledge of writing) is important, for it makes memory more extensive and accurate. However, certain societies, though writing was known to them for a long time, were unable to learn from disastrous events from the past because of the priorities they gave to their knowledge. In a critical remark, Jared Diamond for instance notes that though the Maya people knew writing for a long time, their elite who were privy to this knowledge ended up recording the deeds of their kings and ominous astronomical sightings etc, but failed to take note of such things as the vagaries of the weather. They for instance took little or no notes of a devastating a 3rd Century draught leaving them unprepared for a recurrence of a similar draught in the 9th Century, flagging off the beginning of their civilisation’s downfall. The Greenland Norse similarly knew writing, but they failed to anticipate the 14th Century return of a cold cycle often referred to as the Little Ice Age, which froze all ship lanes in the sea, cutting them off totally from their mother country and lifeline, Norway and Europe, and as archaeological evidences now indicate, in one extended and severe winter, they perished of starvation to the last of them.

History therefore is not bunk. The study of the past is important so that our present and future are secure. Unfortunately, this lesson is far too often taken for granted, and we continue not to learn in any meaningful way from the past. This is true of even comparatively recent past. History, as indeed academics in general, continues to be treated as pursuits of knowledge for its own sake, independent of life’s needs, the most important purpose of which is solely to secure formal degrees that hold promises for jobs the system offers. Knowledge thus comes to exist in a Kafkaesque reality, making meaning only within the absurdly abstract and sterile reality it generates for itself. Such a trend is dangerous, and in the long run can become a threat to the survival of a society, and therefore the need for all to be cautious.

It is against such a context that we must assess all our public policies, be it top down initiatives which come from the government to the people, or a bottom up approach where policy initiatives travel from the grassroots to the government. Both approaches have their own pros and cons. An enlightened leadership can do wonders for a society but a self absorbed one can do it immense harm too. In equal measures, street politics can be redeeming as much as it can descend into a free for all “mobocracy”, the opposite of rule of law in Karl Popper’s words. Manipur needs no further explanations of these scenarios.

It is in this context that I want to place the Inner Line Permit issue and assess it. But before a discussion on the ILP, its history, the compulsions which made the British administration in 1873 think it was necessary etc, it would be extremely prudent to ask the fundamental question of what it is that a great section of the Manipur population wants to achieve by the introduction of this system. Did the British then have the same objective as those agitating for the ILP now think the ILP promises for them? And it is not just Manipur agitating for the ILP. Meghalaya too is in the throes of similar unrests at the moment.

The stated reason for the demand for the ILP is, in the face of the new political and economic order Manipur is in, if immigration into the state is left unchecked, numerically weak indigenous communities in the State could come to be outnumbered by outsiders, and in the current character of electoral democracy where numbers matter above all else, the levers of State power would pass away from their hands into those of immigrants. Judging from the fate of so many indigenous communities all over the world, this is undoubtedly a legitimate fear and it must be addressed.

However, the important consideration which not many seem to be paying heed to is whether the ILP is the only answer to this question. Or put another way, whether the ILP is at all the best answer? Again, if the ILP does answer this question, would there also be adverse fallouts?

As I see it, what the demand for the ILP represents is above all a fear for loss of land and with it identity of the indigenous communities. This is especially true of the Imphal Valley, suffering as it does from a siege mentality. The hills, in this sense are already shielded by other laws though there is no ILP there as well, which probably is the reason why the demand for ILP is largely concentrated in the valley areas.

The fact of the difference in land ownership pattern between the hills and the valley, and how this has made the valley insecure and not the hills, should already be a valuable cue to the answer to our original question. Since the common fear driving the ILP agitation is loss of land, introducing a legislation that would prevent the possibility of such losses, should mitigate the fear considerably if not totally.

My suggestion is for the government to think of a similar legislation which would ensure land in the valley is prohibited from permanent transfers to immigrants. There are other states in India where this objective is achieved without the ILP. Himachal Pradesh, where I spent the last two years, is one of these. There are no restrictions to outsiders entering the State, be they job seekers or tourists, but even the most ardent lover of Himachal who is not originally from the State cannot buy land there. Himachal was formerly a part of the undivided Punjab, but even Panjabis today cannot acquire permanent properties in the State. This takes care of the local Himachalis insecurity about loss of identity, but it also ensures it thriving tourism industry is unhurt. The economy and livelihood infrastructure of Kullu, Manali, Dharamsala and so many other towns and districts which are major destinations not just of domestic tourists, but of international ones as well, are therefore not compromised by Himachal’s need to protect its land from immigrants. The ILP on the other hand probably would be a major obstacle to the nascent tourism industry in Manipur, just as the Protected Area Permit, PAP, in vogue till only a few years ago, was.

The government could immediately set up a committee to probe alternatives which can allay what is certainly a legitimate fear behind the current spate of agitations, without instilling insecurity to non domicile residents of the State. Such a committee could study cases of success stories such as in Himachal Pradesh etc, and evolve a legislation which suits the State and its peculiarities. The point must be to separate and then secure the grains but not the chaffs of the ILP system.

Space constraint will prevent me from going into a more detailed history of the ILP, which incidentally I had written of earlier in these columns, but a few salient points will be of interest. First, it must be remembered that when the British took over rein of Assam in 1826 after the Treaty of Yandaboo, they were represented by a multinational company called the East India Company. As all merchants, the East India Company’s primary outlook here was maximisation of company profits, and not by any means the welfare of any section of the population. It would therefore be wrong to presume that the British were looking to protect the indigenous populations by drawing the Inner Line, as is often stated by observers here. On the other hand, it was a line that divided their profitable revenue districts from the “wild” non-revenue districts.

When the Bengal Inner Line Regulation was promulgated in 1873, the administration in India had come under the British crown following the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, but the mercantile ethos of the East India Company was far from abandoned. By then the tea gardens, as well as rubber, timber and ivory speculators were expanding in Assam, and these merchants, especially the tea garden lobby was pressuring the government to extend the Inner Line into the non-revenue districts so that they could expand their gardens there and come under government protection. At the least, they were lobbying the government to place police posts behind the Inner Line.

The British administration did respond to these pressures, and on numerous occasions altered the boundaries of the Inner Line, arbitrarily at the district administration level (a regulation, unlike an Act, is an administrative norm introduced by the executive without going through the tedious process of law making through the legislature, as E.A. Gait explains in “A History of Assam”). When once there was a demand for abolishing the Inner Line at the Naga Hills sector, the British did a revenue survey and came up with the conclusion that tax revenue from these hills will be about Rs. 3,000 annually but the cost of extending its administration into these hills would be over Rs. 15,000 annually, so it declined the tea planters lobby’s request, saying it was best for the planters to keep away from the hills and risk coming into conflicts with the tribes there. It was only much later, when the hill tribes began raiding British subjects in their revenue districts that the British decided to establish their administrative presence in these hills. The subject of these raids from hill tribes had also been mentioned in these columns while discussing a conflict resolution mechanism the Ahoms had evolved in the pre-British days, called Posa.

Among the other fallouts of the Inner Line which even the British did not foresee, is the claim now by China that Arunachal Pradesh never belonged to India. The Inner Line which divided the British administered from the un-administered regions, China now claims was in actuality the international border, and that the British were acknowledging this even though without intending to, by the very fact of their drawing this Line.

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