Socio-political movements are invariably embedded in the power structures of the state. The ongoing Inner Line Permit (ILP) movement and the counter agitations in Manipur have also been erected on the shifting power configurations of the state. ILP protagonists led by a section of the Meiteis, the politically dominant community assert that due to the increase in migrants’ population the interests of indigenous ‘Manipuri’ are no longer safe. So according to the ILP protagonists a law to regulate illegal migrants into Manipur has become necessary. Subsequently, the government passed 3 bills to implement ILP in 2015. On the other hand, the ‘tribal’ communities in the hills see the bills as harming their interests – citizenship, traditional land rights among others. Eventually, the ‘tribal’ communities emerged as the major antagonists of the 3 bills. Predictably, none of the migrant communities raised their voices on the ILP movement. Among others, the 1951 dateline as the criteria to determine who is an indigenous ‘Manipuri’ is the central flaw of the controversial ILP bill. It has generated a hill-valley divide, inter-community tussles and finally its demise through a gubernatorial veto.
In order to understand the ILP imbroglio a brief recapitulation of the history of the state and its society becomes necessary. Inter-ethnic relations in Manipur have broadly seen three phases of change – ancient, feudal and post-colonial state. According to local narratives, ancient Manipur had been egalitarian, peaceful and mutually beneficial wherein ethnic groups cohabited on equal terms. The social fabric of this society however was ruptured under the highly stratified and Sankskritised feudal state. This stratified feudal state promoted conscriptions of the non-Sanskritised ethnic groups as a part of the Lallup, service providers and settled them in the periphery of the feudal state. Most importantly, it was in the feudal state that the ‘non-indigenous’ communities started to migrate to Manipur as priests, teachers and traders. Gradually, Brahmins and Muslims Pangals including the Gorkhas migrated into Manipur. The colonial and post-colonial state did not discourage this social stratification and the migratory trend into Manipur.
In the post-colonial paternal state, the ILP protagonists observed that these unmitigated migration and social stratification have become counter-productive. The advocates of ILP argue that the indigenous people cannot face the onslaught of cheap labour and exploitative capitalists from the mainland. Left-leaning activists within the community see the process as a part of ‘internal colonialism’. Further, the elites of the dominant community reasoned that under the paternal state, their imagination as a higher caste in the social hierarchy hold little meaning unless they can also secure reservation benefits like the hill ‘tribes’ who are recognized as Schedule Tribes. This demand is in addition to the reservation for the dominant community as Scheduled Caste (SC) and Other Backward Castes (OBC) besides the General Category (GC). So in this attempt to initiate a de-stratification process and an affirmative social system, demands for Inner Line Permit (ILP) and the inclusion of Meitei as a Scheduled Tribe are being articulated. In short, the ILP and ST demands are outcome of the relative deprivation felt by the dominant Meitei community vis-à-vis the migrants and the hill ‘tribes’.
On the other hand, the tribals groups in the hills see the ILP and the ST demands as attempts to intrude into their traditional land holding system and their constitutional rights. Reactions to these controversial bills differed across the hill districts. Chandel, Ukhrul, Senapati and Tamenglong remained relatively calm and adopted calculative responses to the bills reassured by the 2015 Naga Framework Agreement and an impending political settlement. Meanwhile, the most vocal and violent reaction to the 3 bills erupted in Churachandpur from people who felt most vulnerable due to the absence of an alternative political avenue. Churachandpur had also witnessed collateral damages during the counterinsurgency crossfire between the security forces and the valley-based insurgents.
Amidst these conflicting views the state found itself completely inept in handling the social unrests. It unleashed brutal repression on protesters thereby fomenting more public protests from which it could not disentangle.
(to be contd)
(The writer taught India’s Foreign Policy at Zakir Husain Delhi College, Delhi University. He can be reached at email@example.com)