Manipur is once again on the boil over the demand for Inner Line Permit (ILP) system, with the President having refused assent to three contentious bills passed by the Assembly in an emergency session last year. After an all-party delegation led by Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh met Union Home minister Rajth Singh in New Delhi recently, the tussle has shifted to the country’s capital. The delegation was told that legal and constitutiol experts will ‘re-examine’ the bills to arrive at ‘reasoble conclusion’ or ‘new legislation’. The three bills — the Manipur Protection of Peoples Bill, the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms (7th amendment) Bill, and the Manipur Shops and Establishments (2nd Amendment) Bill — were supposed to implement a permit system and regulate ownership of land and establishments in the state. The Assembly had passed these legislations on August 31 last to meet the demand for ILP system by majority Meiteis, with the Centre having rejected such a demand back in 2012 by the Manipur government. The 2011 census report had stoked fears of the plains-dwelling Meiteis that they are on the verge of being swamped by ‘outsiders’, as happened earlier to majority indigenous communities in Tripura and Sikkim. The figures showed that of the 27 lakh Manipur population, migrants constituted as around 10 lakh. Migrants from Bangladesh and Myanmar are settling in Imphal valley while areas like Bishnupur are domited by people from North India. Around 30 civil society groups based in Imphal valley organized themselves under the Joint Committee on Inner Line Permit System (JCILPS) to demand constitutiol protection under an ILP system. The ILP has long been in force in galand, Mizoram and Aruchal, requiring Indians from other parts to have permits to travel to these states.
However, the Manipur Tribals Forum (MTF), representing various hill tribe groups, particularly gas and Kukis, has for months been staging protests in New Delhi against the three bills. The ga People’s Front (NPF) and various civil society and tribal groups from galand too have sided with MTF, pressing upon the Centre not to allow presidential assent to the bills for being ‘anti-tribal’. In the streets of Manipur, JCILPS activists are now enforcing shutdowns to press for the Centre’s early assent to the three bills. The problem is that the ILP demand by the majority Meiteis has sharpened the ‘hills versus valley’ divide in Manipur, with hill tribes suspecting that the Meiteis are actually out to corner scheduled tribe (ST) benefits and cut into their turf. The land in Manipur’s hill districts is protected by the third schedule of the Constitution. These districts being tribal, land there cannot be owned by non-tribals; anyone, whether a Meitei from Imphal valley or an outsider from another state, will need permission from the Hill Area Committee (HAC) to buy land in the hills. The tribal groups have been alleging that the Manipur assembly bypassed the HAC while pushing through the three bills. Tribal activists burnt down the houses of several MLAs and an MP after the bills were passed unimously, alleging betrayal of their interests in the Assembly. The upshot is that both ga and Kuki groups are now suspected to be negotiating with the Centre for separate administrations for themselves. Meanwhile, with Manipur slated to go for assembly elections next year, the Congress-BJP political tug-of-war is exacerbating these outsiders vs indigenous and hills vs plains faultlines in the sensitive state. The BJP is already known to be eyeing Manipur as ripe for picking, with the Congress perceived to be facing serious anti-incumbency after 15 years of rule. In the 27-member Imphal municipal corporation elections early this month, the BJP bagged 10 seats compared to 12 seats by the Congress. The competition will surely grow intense as these parties get into campaign mode for the 60-member Assembly. With 40 seats from the valley and 20 seats from the hills, both the Congress as well as the BJP-NPF alliance have a lot of tightrope walking to do. But the two major tiol parties cannot afford to let rrow partisan politics further aggravate the divisions in Manipur. Such political short-sightedness will be detrimental to the country’s broader interests in this frontier state facing a resurgence of insurgent groups.