The demand for Inner Line Permit (ILP) system has exposed deep fault lines in Manipur. The conflict there has been as much between outsiders and indigenous people, as between Meitei plainsmen and tribesmen living in the hills. The state continues to simmer with rumours flying thick and fast, while riot-hit Churachandpur district remains under curfew. Violence erupted on Monday after passage of three bills in the Manipur Assembly — Protection of Manipur People Bill 2015, Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms (7th amendment) Bill 2015, and Manipur Shops and Establishment (2nd amendment) Bill 2015. Unruly mobs torched the houses of the state family welfare minister, the Outer Manipur Lok Sabha MP, five other MLAs, apart from a police station in Churachandpur. Seven people lost their lives while more than thirty were injured. The Congress government has been at pains to convince people that the three bills will not adversely affect any indigenous community. But the government’s promises have failed to reassure the Zomi-Kuki-Chin tribes inhabiting Churachandpur and ga tribes domint in Ukhrul, Sepati, Tamenglong and Chandel districts. Tribal groups in the five hill districts accuse the Okram Ibobi Singh government of kowtowing to the dictates of the domint Meiteis. These groups suspect that in the guise of demanding ILP system, the Meiteis are actually angling for Scheduled Tribe (ST) status and thereby usurp their rights.
As if this is not enough, since the Land Revenue & Reforms Amendment Bill is supposed to do away with the present restriction on buying land in the hills by ‘non-tribal, indigenous people of the state’ — tribal groups allege that the predomintly Hindu, non-tribal Meiteis are girding loins to move up from the plains and grab land in the hills. Tribal civil society groups like All Tribal Students Union Manipur (ATSUM), Kuki Students Organisation (KSO) and All ga Students Association Manipur (ANSAM) have strongly opposed the introduction of the bills, saying these overlap with Article 371C of the Constitution and some provisions guaranteed under the Manipur Hill People Administration Regulation Act, 1947, meant to safeguard tribal interests in hill areas. Under Article 371C, there is a special provision for a Hill Areas Committee in Manipur, which will be made up of 19 members elected to the Assembly from tribal areas – and will safeguard tribal interests. This provision has long been identified as the root of the hill-plain divide in Manipur, since the power of the Meitei domited Manipur Assembly has been curtailed by making it mandatory to consult the Hill Areas Committee. Tribal groups are now furious with their MLAs for not speaking up in the Assembly against the passage of the bills which threaten to ‘stch away their rights’. The United ga Council has begun a 48-hour total shutdown from Thursday midnight in the hill districts to protest passage of the three bills. It is clear that ethnic battle-lines are hardening fast over the issue.
Manipur has been under siege for more than two months over the demand for Inner Line Permit system, which is in force in Aruchal Pradesh, Mizoram and galand. Before merging with India, erstwhile princely state Manipur nearly had the ILP system, but suffered a cruel setback in 1951. In that year, the then chief commissioner lifted the ILP rule, opening the door to unregulated entry of outsiders into the state. Meiteis now point to alarming figures in the 2011 census, showing Manipur’s population at a little over 27 lakh — of which as much as 10 lakh are ‘outsiders of non-Manipuri origin’. Most Meitei groups have organised themselves under the umbrella of the Joint Committee on ILPS (JCILPS). They are also angry at the continuing influx from Myanmar and Nepal, as well as from Bangladesh through Barak valley. The Meiteis are proud Hindus — but as isolated, indigenous people, they have long been deprived of development. In this respect, their sorry fate is not unlike indigenous people in other NE states like Assam and galand. Now being forced to compete for jobs and resources with outsiders, the feeling has grown among a large section of Meiteis that they must have the ILP system and ST status to safeguard their very existence. They were not mollified even after the Ibobi Singh government introduced the ‘Manipur Regulation of Visitors, Tents and Migrant Workers Bill 2015’ in March this year to list all visitors, tents and migrant workers and impose regulations upon them. Thus the JCILPS agitation has grown in intensity, with Manipur BJP supporting their demand. The Congress claims to oppose the ILP demand in principle, but its actions speak otherwise. With politics coming into play over the outsider vs indigenous and plainsmen vs tribesmen divides in Manipur, the situation threatens to spiral out of control unless the Centre takes a principled stand and devises a comprehensive formula to balance and do justice to all groups in the hill state. The renewed activity of several extremist groups in Manipur is an ominous portent if the situation there is allowed to drift beyond repair.