An Inner Line Permit or ILP is a document that is issued by the government of India for travel of an Indian citizen into a protected area for a limited period. This practice owes its origin to the British administration’s the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulations of 1873, which controlled the movement of British subjects into certain areas. In independent India, it has been seen both as a security measure as well as an effort to conserve the ethno-social demographics of certain societies. Presently, the ILP system is in place for entering Nagaland, Mizoram, and parts of Arunachal Pradesh.
It is with this background that the recent controversy regarding the imposition of the ILP in Manipur must be understood. Manipur, with the city of Imphal as its capital, is bounded by the Indian states of Nagaland to the north, Mizoram to the south and Assam to the west; it also borders Myanmar to the east. The state has a total population of 2,166,788 persons, according to the 2011 census. That total includes a number of ethnic groups, with the major groups being the Meiteis, the Meitei-Pangals (Muslims), Nagas, Zomis, and Kuki.
The Meiteis, who live primarily in the state’s valley region, form the primary ethnic group (60 percent of the total population) but occupy only 10 percent of the total land area. Their language, Meiteilon, (also known as Manipuri), is also the lingua franca in the state, and was recognized as one of the national languages of India in 1992. The Meitei-Pangal also live in the valley; the Kukis, Nagas, Zomis, and other smaller groups form about 40 percent of Manipur’s population but occupy the remaining 90 percent of the total land area of Manipur. Out of the total population of Manipur 46 percent are Hindu, 34 percent are Christian, and 9 percent are Muslim.
The debate over the ILP hinges on the edifice of ethno-centricity, driven by the narrative of territorial homelands with historical roots and identity. Today Manipur and indeed large parts of India’s northeast are actively engaged in an “us versus them” debate. While self-assertion movements ideologically seem all-encompassing in parts, eventually most of them fall prey to the low-hanging fruit of exclusion politics. Manipur seems no different.
The present struggle for the ILP is centered around the Imphal valley, which is dominated by the Meiteis. The Meiteis are a resilient people with a rich cultural heritage as well as a long association with history. The Imphal valley is surrounded by hills, which are inhabited by the Naga tribes mostly of Rongmei and Tanghkul stock. Historically, while the Meiteis and the surrounding hill tribes enjoyed a cordial relationship, the question of Greater Nagalim, or unification of all Naga-inhabited areas, in recent times has become a perpetual thorn in this cordial relationship. Because of this burgeoning conflict, the hill tribes have mostly been immune to the issue of ILP. The other major ethnic group in Manipur, the Kukis, also refuse to be drawn into this struggle, with their sights on their own battle for an independent Kuki homeland.
In such an environment, the Meiteis of the Imphal valley fear being eventually outnumbered in their own lands. The overwhelming voice of the movement has been that ILP will ensure that outsiders will not be able to buy land in Manipur. A large part of the social narrative of Imphal valley today is that “foreigners” from Bangladesh, Burma and Nepal are taking over the Meiteis’ traditional land and livelihoods. Thus, ILP is seen as a last resort against this “onslaught” from outsiders. At this point it would be worthwhile to note that Manipur already has a law that forbids non-tribal people from within, as well as outside the state, from buying and owning land in the tribal or hill areas in Manipur.
Yet the debate does not limit itself to the question of entry rights alone. The demands for ILP also are supplemented by calls for granting Scheduled Tribes (ST) status to the Meiteis, which would in effect turn Manipur into a complete tribal state. Such demands are rising more frequently in the northeast now; even sections in Assam are demanding tribal state status. This is seen as a guarantee against “invaders” from outside.
However in the case of Manipur, the granting of ST status to Meiteis would have far-reaching consequences. An equality of status among the hill tribes and the plains people will have ramifications on the socio-political narrative of Manipur. In the region today, the trans-border unification of imagined communities is not limited to the Nagas alone. A unified community cutting across territorial boundaries also seems to be taking shape among the Kukis as well. At this juncture, if the Meiteis are given ST status, these identity assertions would indeed take new dimensions, which are very hard to predict. And given the trust deficit between the Kukis and the Meiteis, any move to grant ST status would bring its own faultlines.
At the root of these demands is the question of identity; of a homeland which is squarely dependent on territory. Northeast India is composed of hundreds of tribes of varying stock and often their idea of a “historical homeland” overlaps with the idea of historical homelands for someone else. Hence the question of ILP in Manipur is merely not a question of administration alone, but requires a deeper engagement with all stakeholders. And it is the Meitei society that has to play the larger part.
Today a large part of ethnic problems, including insurgency, stems from the question of ethnicity. And such questions cannot be solved by administrative measures and laws alone. Manipur, once called the “crown jewel” of India, is today vexed by insurgency and low economic growth. But most of all, Manipur has become a victim of its own history and bogged down by its geography. Despite the Meiteis consistently punching above their weight in academics and sports, the twin goals of peace and development seem a distant dream.
ILP cannot hope to solve any of these issues — neither development nor the question of historic ethnic homelands. While it may or may not be a successful tool for “protecting” Meitei interests, the long-term goal has to be creative engagement with all stakeholders within society in order to bring about a developed, successful Manipur of the future.
Ibu Sanjeeb Garg is an avid follower of ethnic contentions and their multiferous dimensions in the Northeast. The views expressed here are his own.