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NO COUNTRY FOR ‘OUTSIDERS’

Ramji was barely 14 when he landed in Imphal looking for employment. Originally from Bihar’s Sitamarhi district, Ramji, now 44, initially worked as a daily wage earner before starting his own cement shop in 1997. But he may have to wind up his business and go back to his village.

That’s because the Manipur government wants to introduce the Inner Line Permit System (ILPS), a mechanism which allows people from other states to stay in Manipur for a limited period of time and that too with a permit. In July this year, the Manipur Assembly passed a resolution to that effect unanimously.

The ILPS comes under the purview of a central law — the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation (BEFR), 1873, legislation introduced by the British to control business in what was then called the Bengal Eastern Frontier. An Inner Line Permit (ILP) is also required by people from other states when they go to Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland (except Dimapur). The permit allows them to stay in the state for a period of 15 days to six months. The measure was introduced in a bid to protect the interests of the tribal communities in the region.

But the Union home ministry has rejected Manipur’s proposal to extend the ILPS to the state. In September, home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde said, “Our Constitution will not allow such things.” A senior home ministry official adds, “There is no rationale for the state to seek restrictions on the entry of Indians under an outdated law.”

But locals allege that “outsiders” are marginalising the natives. “People are being robbed of land and employment by the settlers. We cannot let this continue any longer,” says Mutum Churamani Meetei, co-convener of the Joint Action Committee (JAC), a collective of 20 non-political groups advocating the ILPS.

There are about 9 lakh Mayangs or “outsiders” in Manipur out of a total population of roughly 27 lakh. Mostly from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, they work as construction workers, carpenters and porters. There are also other communities such as Punjabis, Gujaratis and Marwaris, who have been settled in Manipur since the early 20th century and run businesses in hardware, cement, marble and so on.

The introduction of the ILPS would spell doom for people like Ramji. “Last year, around 25 Bihari labourers left in fear. But we will continue to stay,” says Ramji, who lives in Imphal with his wife and three children and earns about Rs 5,000 a month.

Although the Manipur government is in favour of slapping on the ILPS, constitutional experts say that according to Article 19(1)(d) and (e) of the Constitution, every Indian citizen has the right to move freely throughout the territory of India and also to reside and settle in any part of the territory of India.

A senior state government official also points out it’s the Centre that has to give the go-ahead for the ILPS. “We cannot implement the ILPS unless the Centre gives its nod.”

Not so, says advocate Khaidem Mani, stressing that the state is legally empowered to make its own laws without seeking the permission of the Centre. “Article 19(5) of the Constitution states that nothing shall prevent the State from making any law with reasonable restrictions in the interests of the general public,” he says.

But constitutional expert Subhash Kashyap says that “State” should be read as Union of India, and not as a state legislature. Mani has a counter-argument. He says, “Under Article 12 in the Constitution, ‘State’ also means the government and the legislature of each of the states.”

While the debate rages, Kashyap warns that President’s rule can be imposed on Manipur if it doesn’t comply with the directions of the Centre. “Under Article 365 and 356 of the Constitution, if the President is satisfied that the state has failed to comply with the directions of the Union and a situation has arisen where the government of the state cannot be carried on in accordance with the provisions of this Constitution, he can impose President’s rule,” he cautions.

But clearly, the Manipur government has dug in its heels and is refusing to budge. The ILPS issue is likely to be raised again in the winter session of the state Assembly. And Manipur government sources say that chief minister Ibobi Singh will try and persuade the Centre to reconsider its proposal.

This is not the first time that migrants are being targeted in Manipur. In 2008, 14 migrant labourers were gunned down by militants. Government sources say that it’s the militant groups that have been pushing political parties to implement the ILPS in Manipur. In fact, this time too militants have set a December 31 deadline for the “outsiders” to leave.

Though the BEFR was never in place in Manipur, a different permit system for outsiders was, and it was abolished only on November 18, 1950. “That’s the reason we want to keep this as the cut-off date to decide the domicile status of the people. All those who entered the state after this date would require an ILP. They would have no right to purchase land or property in the state,” says Meetei. What’s more, land and property owned by people who came in after the proposed cut-off date would have to be handed over to the state.

However, some say this is an illogical demand. “Unfortunately, this anti-outsider sentiment is politically motivated. This is harming the image of Manipuris outside the state,” says Amar Yumnam, who teaches at Manipur University.

Social scientists too argue that the ILPS is out of place in a globalised world. “Many Manipuris are moving out of the state in search of work. It is infantile to close Manipur’s door to residents of other states,” says Bhagat Oinam, associate professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Oinam, however, believes that there should be some restrictions on people from other states wanting to buy land there.

Ironically, Manipur’s move comes at a time when states where the ILPS is in force are having second thoughts about continuing with it. “We don’t have the mechanism to keep a check on every migrant. Even though outsiders enter the state with an ILP, it is not always possible to know if they are overstaying,” says Nagaland chief secretary Lalthara. Another senior Nagaland government official admits that many benami (illegal) properties have also been bought by “outsiders”, which proves that the ILPS has not had much effect.

But in Manipur there is now a groundswell of sentiment in favour of the ILPS and few are willing to listen to the other side of the argument. “Only the ILPS can ensure that we are not swamped by outsiders,” asserts Manipur People’s Party leader Okram Joy Singh.

No wonder settlers like Ramji are afraid.