Manipur’s dilemma (Hindu Editorial)

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The fear of every state with a predominant indigenous population was summed up thus by the Naga leader A.Z. Phizo: “Nagaland cannot accept the Indian excess population [as] our country is too small.” Many of the recent exclusivist outbursts in the northeastern States, including in Manipur, can be attributed to such a fear of losing ancestral land to “outsiders”. Manipur’s crisis intensified four months ago when its Congress-majority Legislative Assembly passed the Manipur Regulation of Visitors, Tenant and Migrant Workers’ Bill, 2015. It was opposed widely, including by women’s and students’ groups, and even by a section of the ruling party. Eventually the Opposition became more united in demanding the withdrawal of the Bill, which failed to address their key concern of protecting the land rights of the original inhabitants. On July 14, the Bill was withdrawn by the Manipur government in a nod to the protesters’ demands. The united Opposition rather underscored the long-standing demand for the imposition of an Inner Line Permit system, as in a few other northeastern States. The ILP regime, introduced by the British to protect tribal populations from encroachment into their areas, but later used to advance commercial interests, involves a system akin to the issue of visas to Indian citizens to enter a State of the Union.

The dilemma of the Indian state over the ILP is understandable. Can the Union afford to introduce a quasi-visa to its citizens to enter one State from another State? The question could be complex for a central party that advocates the removal of all speed-breakers when it comes to citizens’ access to travel and work in her own country. The dilemma of Manipur is perhaps even more severe. The 2001 Census indicated the size of the migrant community was nearly as much as that of the dominant ethnic Meiteis, thus bolstering the demand from Manipur’s erudite civil society to impose curbs on inward movement. But there has also been out-migration of the indigenous people. The demand is sought to be substantiated by citing many examples that indicate how Manipuris are losing land to “extractive” non-Manipuri industries. The leasing out of “one-sixth of the total area” of Manipur for oil exploration and drilling to international oil majors, unthinkable in the other States, is one of many such examples. In this backdrop, a half-baked Bill was passed, that exacerbated the insecurity. The demand, though, is more legitimately a consequence of the hill-valley divide in the State and the congestion in the valley rather than any huge influx of outsiders. The situation is thus complex but not out-of-control. But the State should ensure that alien-investor-driven development does not disrobe its people. After all, they are supposed to benefit from the growth generated out of its own domestic resources.

Keywords: Inner Line Permit, Visitors Tenant and Migrant Workers’ Bill 2015, Northeaster states

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