|Meghalaya chief minister Mukul Sangma at the inner-line permit meeting at the secretariat in Shillong. File picture
The ILP challenge in Meghalaya
The demand for the inner-line permit (ILP) in Meghalaya has brought in a climate of uncertainty in the state. Life for the common man is thrown completely out of gear. Pro-ILP activists have lined up a series of agitation programmes ranging from bandhs, office-picketing, night road blockade and even short bursts of hunger strike. Rumours are afloat that the protesters will call a 100-hour bandh.
The government, on the other hand, is adamant that the ILP is an anachronism.
Chief minister Mukul Sangma is into his sixth month in office. This is his second tenure and he is facing the biggest challenge yet as pressure groups drive a hard bargain of “their way (ILP) or the highway”.
Sangma has stoically defended his government’s stance against the ILP, calling it a retrograde that will yield no dividends.
His contention is that while the Congress is concerned about influx it never promised the ILP in its election manifesto.
What is of greater concern for Sangma is that his own party appears to be distancing itself from the government. So far the Meghalaya Congress has not taken a stand against the ILP.
Discordance and the Congress are two sides of the same coin. Some Congressmen apparently resent Sangma’s style of functioning. While his ministerial colleagues admit that he has a handle on every department and can wax eloquent on every subject matter related to his government, they feel that he does not engage them enough. The fact of the matter is that in Meghalaya there are very few who can be called state leaders with a large enough vision to accommodate the aspirations of a cross-section of citizenry. Every MLA thinks only about his constituency. That is the breadth of their vision.
The latest thorn in the flesh of Sangma is the intransigent stance of the pressure groups for implementing the ILP, a colonial instrument enacted in 1873 to fence out the unruly tribes from the comfort zones of the British, namely their well-manicured tea gardens.
It would have been a waste of their time and resources to deal with rebellious, hot-headed brigands who they termed “native savages”.
The British felt that the ILP was a bulwark against this nuisance. It is ironic that this Act is now getting the respectability that is ill-deserved only because it is a pre-existing instrument and because people are too intellectually lethargic to think of more innovative measures to curb influx (it is not even clear whether those demanding ILP want to curb influx from outside the country or internal migration). If the idea is to deal with illegal immigration from Bangladesh then the ILP is not the right instrument.
There are other mechanisms that require to be adopted such as are listed in the Foreigners’ Act. An illegal immigrant is one who has no valid documents. An inter-state migrant has documents and these can be produced upon being asked by any employment agency.
Mukul Sangma while talking to some journalists recently, remarked that it is rather curious that we do not have a National Population Register (NPR) and that the task of registering all citizens in the NPR is a very recent exercise. Incidentally, the NGOs in Meghalaya have opposed this as well.
Their contention is that even non-citizens (ambiguous) too could get registered in the NPR and once that is done they are home and dry. The pressure groups now referred to as the pro-ILP groups have had a couple of sittings with the government but could not resolve their differences.
Chief minister Mukul Sangma has consistently maintained that the ILP is antiquated and will set back the state and its tourism prospects. He argued at length that the fear of influx in Meghalaya is ill-placed because statistics speak otherwise.
According to the 2011 census the tribal population stood at 86.15 per cent while the non-tribal population made up only 13.85 per cent. The non-tribal population had decreased by .21 per cent from the 2001 census.
Sangma pointed out that in the states with ILP, the tribal population has dwindled because of the migration of large number of young people to other states of India to look for employment opportunities. He pointed out that the tribal population in Nagaland, which was 89.15 per cent in 2001, has now declined to 86.48 per cent while their non-tribal population has increased from 10.85 in 2001 to 13.52 per cent in 2011.
In Arunachal Pradesh, where the ILP is in force, the population of tribals is only 68 per cent while the rest are non-tribals.
When the 2011 census was made public, pressure groups in Meghalaya were stunned by the high decadal growth. Without as much as a preliminary research to find out the reasons, they blamed the non-tribals for the hike in population. National Family Health Survey (NFHS) which had conducted a survey in Meghalaya in 2010, had already found that high fertility rate and low condom use would lead to population growth. And indeed a study conducted by the Martin Luther Christian University in collaboration with the Royal Tropical Institute, Amsterdam, in rural Meghalaya found that both men and women were averse to adopting any birth control methods though there was poverty and malnutrition galore in the villages.
Hence the argument that the population growth in Meghalaya is due to influx is a flawed one based on assumption. Yet the political situation in Meghalaya has always been so fragile that a few pressure groups can put the government on the mat even over non-issues.
This is not to undermine the threat posed by influx from across the border. Most of the labourers in the coal mines of Meghalaya are from Bangladesh or Nepal. They come because they see opportunities. No indigenous tribal would want to step inside those dark dungeons called the coal mines.
Rat-hole mining, which the coal mine owners feel is the most economically viable method, requires huge numbers of such desperate souls to go down under at great risk to their lives. No one challenges the coal miners because these are mercenaries who will buy off everyone and shut every mouth that spouts rhetoric. It is the government which is always the soft target.
Hence the pressure groups have been holding Meghalaya under siege on the ILP issue. They have given an ultimatum to the government to either implement the ILP or face a series of agitation programmes ranging from bandhs to office picketing to night road blockade.
This has led to the cancellation of hotel bookings. Footfall to some of the tourist sites has dropped by 70 per cent and this at a time when autumn has arrived and all the main festivals that attract tourists are about to be laid out. Clearly those who are holding the government and the citizenry captive have no idea what the loss to the state exchequer is and they do not care. But young entrepreneurs are making their voices heard. Incidentally the Congress, which should be standing by its chief minister, seems distantly removed from this issue. Sangma appears to have alienated his colleagues as well.
Meghalaya looks like it has regressed into the familiar era of fear and insecurity. History does repeat itself for we refuse to learn lessons from it.
(The writer can be contacted at email@example.com)