By Pradip Phanjoubam
The periodic revival of the agitation to demand the reintroduction of the Inner Line Permit system in Manipur needs a much more serious debate than has been accorded to it so far. On the one hand are the agitators, so totally presumptuous that their xenophobic views are shared by one and all, and what they demand is unconditionally for the good of state and its people, an authoritarian hysteria of street politicians so prevalent in today’s Manipur. On the other hand are those whose opinion are dictated by what they think may please or annoy their Big Brother in New Delhi, therefore rejecting the proposal outright, a situation which can only heighten the tension and add fuel and complications to the already raging, tragic conflicts in the land.
A relook at the history of the Inner Line system, would inform any serious observers of the many unexpected consequences it has had on the Northeast, some desirable and some with extremely dangerous implications not just in domestic affairs but in international relations as well. But before I touch on these issues, let me first remind IFP readers that there are other states where, although the Inner Line system is not in vogue, special and less anachronistic laws still manage to address many of the deep seated issues of identity and demographic balances that those demanding the introduction of the Inner Line system in Manipur have brought to the fore yet again. One of these states is Himachal Pradesh where I am currently based and where I have been for the last one year. No non-Himachali can acquire landed property in this state but all are welcome to come and work here at will. I cannot think of a better way of protecting the identity concerns of the small and economically weak communities as in this hill state, without missing out on the varieties of skills and entrepreneurial spirits fresh minds and experiences from the outside can bring into any closeted society, introducing them and preparing them for the competitive global world of today. Indeed, most of the advanced countries and progressive communities in the world have all been a product of variants of this approach.
Take Singapore for instance, which half a century ago would probably have been worse off than Northeast India in general, but now stands at a par, indeed ranks within the top circle of even the advanced countries of the West, in terms of per capita income and living standards of its citizens. Its foreign exchange reserve of nearly 260 billion USD is also 11th in the world, just behind gigantic India. When it became independent from Malaysia in 1965, this tiny island country did not even have enough drinking water and had to import this essential commodity. Singapore welcomes talent and skill from anywhere in the world, and if you have a unique skill and have a unique entrepreneurial idea how to make business of it, you will be welcomed to establish an enterprise in the country. However should you want to acquire landed assets or become its citizen, you cannot be seriously hopeful your dream would ever fructifying. The other South East Asian countries are now emulating this model and one after the other all of them are beginning to qualify to be called the new Asian Tigers. Predictions are, Myanmar may become the latest entrant into this exclusive club of Asian Tigers, and if the country, long in the shadow of the military and xenophobic self exile, opens up enough and wisely, it is predicted that by 2030 its economy could more than quadruple from its current 45 billion USD to about 300 billion USD. The combined economy of the ASEAN today is worth 2 trillion USD in GDP, and who can say this is not a miracle, considering these countries were almost all in abject impoverishment at about the time of what may now be called the end of the colonisation era, at about the conclusion of the Second World War. This has not resulted out of any xenophobic approach to political economy. Let this be a lesson for Manipur and the Northeast as a whole too. Let it also be remembered, this openness to inflow of skills and enterprise from outside was also what made the 20th Century, what is often acknowledged as the “American Century”.
By the same logic, it is also often predicted the 21st Century is set to be the “Asian Century”.
This said, it would not be prudent to dismiss the concerns of small communities of the danger of being marginalised into total insignificance because of influx of alien populations and cultures into their lands at a rate and magnitude their societies cannot organically absorb. Population fluxes are a fact of the living world, not just of the humans, but what is noteworthy here is, when these demographic changes happen in manners that threaten the survival of host communities, social frictions and conflicts are only to be expected. Alibis to give credence to this concern of a demographic genocide are plenty. The cases of the Kok Borok in Tripura, the Lepcha in Sikkim, Chakma in the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh, the Uighur in Xinjiang in China, the Tibetan in TAR China, the Native American in North America, the Saami in Europe, the list can go on. Many self-ordained high priests of democracy have been attempting to paint this grim picture of silent genocide as a natural and just dispensation of democratic ways, and therefore justice. Democracy by this definition becomes a tool of the privileged and powerful sections of the world population to obliterate concerns of survival of the marginalised. What is often ignored, sometimes out of intellectual short-sightedness, but more often than not with deliberate, unfeeling and mala fide policy intents, is that democracy, not purely as a mechanical system but as a value to ensure universal justice based on equity, is also about protecting the interests of the weak, and magnifying the voices of the unheard. The brief and arrogant answer of the late Sheik Mujibur Rehman, the then President of Bangladesh, sometime not long after Bangladesh was liberated, to a plea by tribal peoples of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, (collectively known as the Jhuma in Bangladesh) is often quoted in the literature of indigenous people’s struggle as a grim reminder of this silent aggression. When a delegation of the political wing of the Shanti Bahini, who incidentally fought with the freed
om fighters of Bangladesh in the liberation struggle of the country in 1971, approached him for a policy for protecting the Jhumas, they were told, on record, that the only viable solution is for them all to become Bengalis (quoted in Subir Bhaumik’s “Troubled Peripheries”). When the rebellion in these hills was not quelled, the Bangladesh government even had a stated policy of opening up settlements of Bengali farmers in these hill tracts to outnumber the Jhumas, a policy which was executed without much of a whimper of protest from the world human rights workers’ fraternity, but one which should have been condemned as genocide.
I would therefore say a system of demographic protection is needed for Manipur, for there is legitimacy in the apprehension of local communities here becoming marginalised in the future. This is especially so because democracy is in its practice, even if not in spirit, is a ruthless number game. In the struggle for state power, ultimately, when it comes to the crux, it will be numbers which will decide the issue, unless there are legislations which will ensure this transfer of power out of the hands of local communities by default, is not easy. Such a legislation should not only seek to ensure there are no such easy usurpations of state power in the name of unrestrained democracy, but also that no internationally accepted rights of other communities are hurt unjustly. As for instance, such a legislation could have provisions by which members of any non-indigenous community who have resided in the state for a generation, or may be two, would be entitled to be treated as locals. It would be heartless and unjust to insist somebody born in Manipur cannot be a bona fide citizen or domicile, just as it would also be unjust to say somebody married into a local woman or man, would still not to be accepted as legitimate domicile. Perhaps it would be wise on the part of the government to set up a committee to research the issue and how it is handled in other not strictly ‘mainland’ states of India, such as Himachal Pradesh and Uttaranchal, to see what best can be recommended and applied to the Manipur situation.
Even if it is conceded that demographic protection is needed for Manipur, this protection does not have to be by the antiquated Inner Line System, originally conceived as a means of administration by the colonial government of the then British India. A similar system of protection already exist in the hill districts of Manipur, what is being sought now is for such a provision to be extended into the valley districts as well. The question is, should it be a one-size-fit all approach to such a law, or whether it should be modelled, calibrated and designed contextually, accepting variations to suit the purpose and time in the best and just way possible. I would argue there is no option to the latter approach.
A brief history of the Inner Line system should illuminate. This system of segregated administration was introduced by the British India administration in 1873 by The Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation which was promulgated in that year. This regulation created an ‘Inner Line’ beyond which no British subject could cross without a pass. In the words of Alastair Lamb, who has done a two volume work on the McMohan Line among others, it was a device to create a buffer zone, as it were, between the international boundary and the regularly administered territory, a tract which marked the transition between the tribal hills and the Assamese plains. By limiting access from the south to this area it was hoped to minimise the risk of trouble with the tribes, Lamb notes.
Another authoritative historian of the period, Edward Gait, echoes the same argument saying the unrestricted intercourse which formerly existed between British subjects in Assam and the wild tribes living across the frontier frequently led to quarrels and, sometimes, to serious disturbances. In a nutshell, this line was meant to keep apart two other administrative categories the British administration came up with — the “administered” and the “un-administered” areas. The inner line was indeed roughly the dividing line between the two categories of British territories. In a later year, 1936 to be precise, another category of administrative segregation was also to be introduced – that of the “excluded” and “partially excluded” territory. This had essentially to do with representations given to local governance mechanisms to natives, but also echoed the same approach to colonial administration as the Inner Line system.
But it should be noted, all these writers and observers were prescient of trouble potential this line system could bring in the future, and indeed their apprehensions are becoming quite real now. They had predicted future misinterpretation of the Inner Line, deliberate or otherwise, and this is exactly what China is doing now. China now claims Arunachal Pradesh, and one of its arguments is that the Inner Line in actuality is the international boundary. British India administered its territories to a certain limit and beyond this limit, left the territory “un-administered” so claiming sovereignty over the “un-administered” region is unjust is the charge. This argument of course is double-edged, and it can equally be said China did not “administered” this and adjoining areas now within its own territory, and just as the British had done, left such territories as no-man lands.
Without digressing too much into the issue to the border dispute between India and China, one other point needs to be said on the Inner Line. The Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation, 1873, was a law made by another ingenuous British colonial administration’s innovation that skirted the usual democratic law making process of putting a proposal for a new law (Bill) through the rigours of a legislative debate. In 1873, Assam was still a part of the Bengal province of British India and it was only in 1874 that Assam was separated from Bengal and made a chief commissioner’s province. Gait mentions the making of this law that brought the Inner Line system into existence as such: ‘The Inner Line Regulation was the first law promulgated in Assam under the authority conferred by the Statute 33 Vict., Chapter 3, which gives to the executive government of India a power of summary legislation for backward tracts. Such laws are called Regulations to distinguish them from Acts, or laws passed after discussion in a legislature.’
The arbitrary and colonial nature of the law that brought the Inner Line system into existence is clear from this. It also did not originally have the purpose of protecting the indigenous hill tribes of Assam, but it is happy serendipity that in recent times this too has become a fringe benefit. But just as we should not throw away the baby with the bathwater as the adage goes, we should also be careful not to retain or reintroduce the dirty bathwater with the baby.
There is also often the tendency of commentators to confuse between the Protected Area Permit, PAP, and the Inner Line system, as if the two can be justifiably measured by the same yardstick. This can easily amount to a subterfuge to dilute the issue and deprive it of its genuine gravity. Let it not be forgotten, the Inner Line issue is akin to a debate on citizenship acquisition and the PAP is like visa matters for tourists. Surely one cannot cancel out the other under any sane logic.
I am reminded a memorable line by David Bohm, a physicist of renown, in his book “On Creativity”. He used the analogy of a horseman to illustrate what creativity entails. For the horseman, he said creativity is about thinking faster than the horse and therefore deciding and controlling where the horse should take him. If this creativity is absent, it would be the horse which decides where the horseman is taken. Manipur seems to be caught in such a bind with the horseman unable to think ahead of the horse. This being the case, it is either the horse taking the horseman along wherever it wants to take him, or else the horseman and the horse becoming locked in a bitter and paralysing conflicts. Seriously, the Manipur government must exercise its thinking faculty to see and predict issues that are in the making, or are likely to come up in the future, so that it is always ahead of the horse and thus ensure peace and justice. Such administrative and political visions, alas, have become such rare commodities in Manipur in the present times.