On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with Meghalaya wanting to make work permits mandatory for “outsiders” employed in the state. It is easy to understand a small north-eastern state’s anxiety to protect its population from being swamped by outsiders. This anxiety has been at the root of ethnic tensions that periodically erupt in the state. The state has had to face a challenge to its demography, as the chief minister, Mr D.D. Lapang, recently sought to impress on the prime minister, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, also from an influx from Bangladesh with which the state shares a 425-kilometre-long border. The fact that over 10,000 Bangladeshis were deported from the state over the past three years speaks of the enormity of the challenge. As most states in the region face a similar challenge, there is much justification for Mr Lapang’s suggestion that the Centre expedite work on putting up the fence along the border with Bangladesh. An insecure border becomes a conduit, not only for illegal immigration, but also for arms smuggling. For a region where ethnic insurgencies abound, stopping the arms trade is as crucial as preventing demographic distortions.
But Mr Lapang needs to be cautious about handling the “outsiders” issue. His government has as much responsibility as the Centre to stop the influx from across the border. The work permits, which he wants for Indians from other states employed in Meghalaya, could also be a weapon to harass people. Some ethnic groups in the North-east have routinely tried to arouse xenophobic passions among their people and provoked “anti-outsider” sentiments with disastrous consequences. The most recent — and brutal — episode was the killing of Biharis in Assam over jobs in the railways. It is one thing to try and protect the demographic pattern of a state and quite another to shut it into forced isolation. Xenophobia stems from a lack of development and also contributes to it. Meghalaya, like other north-eastern states, needs more, and not less, integration with the rest of the country for its own good. For far too long, these states have remained in self-imposed isolation and thereby economically backward.