Entering the ILP territory

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By Pradip Phanjoubam

The Inner Line introduced by the British colonial administration under the Bengal Inner Line Regulation 1873, in its territory of Assam, relatively newly acquired in 1826 with the signing of the Treaty of Yandaboo, concluding the First Anglo-Burmese war, in which the Burmese were conclusively defeated, is a notional line demarcating roughly the fertile agricultural and thereby administered plains of Assam from its “wild” hills. The coordinates of this line have had to see several scores of alterations with the British bringing more and more of the foothills into its administered area to meet the growing demands for land by a rapidly expanding tea industry at the time. All these alterations were done with simple gazette notifications without the trouble of putting this piece of `law` through the tedious process of law amendment through legislative debates.

This was possible because the ILP is not an Act of the legislature, but a `Regulation` introduced by the executive. The number of times the ILP has been shifted in this manner, tabulated from the files available in the British archives is indicated in an essay “When was the postcolonial?” by Assamese scholar, Bodhisattva Kar, in a collection of essays titled “Beyond Counter-insurgency” edited by another Assamese intellectual, Sanjib Baruah. In fact, the tea garden lobby had always wanted the ILP either abolished so that all the hill regions of Assam would come under direct British administration, or else for the British to open police posts beyond the Inner Line, so that they can expand their tea gardens into the hills and have the administration`s protection (Amalendu Guha). The British, being the supreme revenue managers they were, never were convinced such a move would bring profit to them (after all, they were still the East India Company, and as a company the primary motive of their administration was to augment profit). Therefore this demand of land-speculators amongst its subjects, were never complied fully, and they were instead simply told to keep within the Inner Line and keep out of trouble with the hill tribes.

It is interesting that today, this archaic regulation is coming back into the discursive forums of almost the entire Northeast long after the British have left, and equally interestingly for reasons not quite similar to the one the British colonial administration meant the regulation to serve. Yes the ILP is coming to be an issue not just in places where this Regulation is not in force currently, such as Meghalaya and Manipur, but also where it had always been in place, such as Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland. It is also curious that there are talks of Assam joining in the demand for its implementation in Assam. Some even say, the ULFA talks is likely to come to conclude in an accord much sooner than the Naga talks as the demands being negotiated are much more tangible, and if this does happen, the implementation of the ILP or a similar regulation in Assam, to address the fear of the Assamese of being demographically marginalized in their ancestral land, would be one of the agreements.

In Arunachal Pradesh, the ILP discussion is manifesting differently, nonetheless in its own ways, with profound implications and portents for the future. No, I am not referring here to anything remotely to do with more drama sparked by China`™s claim to this Northeast hill state. Instead it is precisely about the ILP. The state capital has now been newly brought into the railway map of the country, with a train chugging into the Naharlagun station at the outskirt of the state capital Itanagar earlier this year on April 12, but it is quite likely this momentous development may not see too happy a transition. The next move of the NDA government`™s commendable initiative is to reach the elite passenger carrier, the Rajdhani Express, to the state, but signs are this decision is not going to be accepted readily by the state. Students and other civil organisations are already restive about the rail line itself, fearing uncontrolled influx of outsiders into the state, but the idea of the Rajdhani Express may actually be opposed if the modes of issue of ILP to non-Arunachalee passengers is not first sorted out. At the moment, prospective visitors to the state by the Rajdhani Express are being promised ILP on arrival and not pre-acquired ones from designated government counters in different cities which have an Arunachal Bhavan, a proposition civil bodies in the state are not too happy about. Many even fear if the matter is not resolved amicably in advance, the Rajdhani Express and indeed the entire railway project in Arunachal Pradesh may end up as another damp squib.

As in all such civil society debates, there are indeed moderating voices here too which try to think through the issue and seek a reconciliation of radically divergent opinions by carefully assessing and calibrating the points raised by all sides of the argument. The dominant refrain in this circle is in summary, the baby must not end up thrown away with the bathwater. Nobody denies the ILP is necessary to ensure the major power handles in the state remains in the hands of the numerically and economically weak indigenous communities. But they are also quick to note that a major public misconception of the purpose of the ILP is that it is meant to keep out illegal migrants. They point out that although Arunachal Pradesh today has the ILP, the state is continually witnessing the influx of illegal migrants, and in this way the ILP is being rendered toothless. The conclusion is, ILP or no ILP, the illegal migrants will find a way to be where they can make a living, but what the ILP will end up damaging is the confidence of perfectly legitimate visitors. This is exactly what is seemingly unfolding in the Rajdhani Express offer for Arunachal Pradesh.

Since the ILP issue is hot in Manipur too at this moment, viewpoints from these vantages must also be factored into the exploration by the committee now studying the suitability of the ILP or an equivalent Act in the state. Migrants, illegal or otherwise, come to the state for there are vacuums in the service markets they can fill. The best way they can be dissuaded from heading to the state is to have locals fill up these vacuums. Simply shutting the gates will not help, for the demands for these services within the state, as its economy invariably and unavoidably grow more complex, will not only always be there but increase exponentially with the passage of time. The most effective way to meet this challenge is for a change in the work culture of the place. Under normal circumstances, in a state with unemployment rates closing in on the 30 percent mark, all available jobs should have been absorbed by the locals leaving little for immigrants from outside. But the culture promoted directly or indirectly in the new age economy of the state is for job seekers to consider themselves employed only if they have a government white collar job. Few do move out of this trap, but seldom in those sectors of the job market which bring in immigrants. The shameful fact is, a lot of the youth who call themselves unemployed and hang around doing nothing in the leikais would rather remain unemployed and hang around doing nothing in the leikais than to be in the jobs the immigrants take up. Therein lies the crux of the state`™s problem.

But if this is what is on one extreme of the problem, the other extreme must also not be ignored. Just as many often cite the examples of Tripura and Sikkim as lost for their indigenous populations, in the other Northeast states, Shillong and Imphal are often cited as lost for the locals, and therefore predicaments to be feared by them. It perhaps is no coincidence that Meghalaya and Manipur are two states which does not have the ILP but are now demanding its implementation. The moderated approach to the problem then, as I have said in these columns before, it quite exemplarily shown by none other than a bureaucrat of unquestionable integrity and dedication to the region during the mid 20th Century, Nari Rushtomji, author of two important books on the Northeast. In short, he prescribes empathy for the apprehension of small and weak communities of the Northeast of being marginalised by influx of populations from outside, but also suggests Northeast locals to be open to the forces of change though at a pace that they can absorb without detriment to their general health as social organisms.

ILP`™s other legacies

Among the many motive attributed to the British by modern day scholars for drawing the ILP, apart from the officially stated purpose of the British administration of the time, is that the regulation was introduced to separate the revenue from the non-revenue regions, law and no-law territories, taxpaying from the non-taxpaying subjects, sedentary from the nomadic, modern from the primitive peoples, agricultural plains from difficult hill terrains etc (Kar).

The British are now long gone and the colonial economy too has long been dismantled and replaced by democracy. Though not perfect, as indeed nothing ever can be, at least the genuineness of the effort to modernise and democratise the region is unmistakable. It is the practice of democracy which is allowing even this discussion on the ILP to continue in earnest. The ILP still exists where the British drew it but its spirit is no longer the same. The line does not any more divide the law from the no-law regions of the former undivided Assam, and instead has become roughly the boundaries between the present state of Assam and other states bifurcated from it (in particular Nagaland, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh) decades after India became independent. But anybody who has travelled across the ILP by road would not have missed the remnant of the original spirit behind line, still haunting.

There is law on both sides of the ILP today, yet nuanced manifestations of respect of the rule of law, the internalisation of the traits of valuing `enlightened self interest` as a survival instinct, are markedly different. The modern economy has been absorbed with far less detriment to the social organism (in the words of Rushtomji) in Assam than in its former territories beyond the ILP. Nobody will argue Assam is free from corruption. But in the execution of public work, such as laying of roads, the respect for the `enlightened self interest` shows up prominently. Despite its rural poverty, unemployment, official corruption, Assam`™s contractors, engineers and ministers, it seems have not compromised its `enlightened self interest` altogether and still make their roads much more to specifications. Its society too, in very many ways has succeeded in keeping intact a much higher degree of egalitarianism. As you move across the ILP, the public infrastructures begin to visibly sink in standards, roads are broken and unrepaired, the coterie who are in positions of powers in the new economy have become vulgarly rich, while the general populations have been left practically where they were when the British were around, thereby the two classes have come to live in entirely different worlds.

Manipur was never part of the British ILP divide, not only in physical terms but in the spiritual sense as well. It always belonged to the side of the law and civilisation, therefore once had an internalised universal respect for the `greater common good`. The `enlightened self interest` in which the individual is ready to give up some in the belief that this will add ultimately to everybody`™s welfare, including his own, was once very prominent. Even just one or two generations ago, rather than think of plundering public properties in mindless shows of despicable narcissism, there were elders who took it upon themselves to come out voluntarily each morning and sweep the streets adjacent to their homes. Nobody had to tell them dusty streets next door inconvenience the commuters but inconvenience them more. Yet, it is sad to note, the state is rushing to the zone of what the British saw as no-law territories. The unrestrained plunders of public funds by those in positions of power at severe costs of the state`™s public infrastructures is just the most visible testimony.

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