Stir over anti-influx law cripples border state

Shillong, Oct 19 (IANS) For over a month now picturesque Meghalaya has been under severe stress after a disagreement surfaced between the state government and more than a dozen pressure groups over a mechanism to prevent the influx of "outsiders" - euphemism for illegal Bangladeshi immigrants as well from the rest of the country - into the tiny border state of barely three million people.

Over a dozen pressure groups have been insisting that the Inner Line Permit (ILP), a British-era law, be introduced to contain the migration of outsiders to the state. The ruling Congress-led Meghalaya United Alliance is however firm in opposing such an "archaic" step that it feels will hinder the state's economic development by blocking investment from business.

Even Indians from the rest of the country currrently require an ILP to enter northeastern states like Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Mizoram and now it is being demanded by Meghalaya.

The agitations, in the form of shutdowns, picketing of government offices and night road blockades have had a major impact on the state's serenity, which has been unblemished for the last few years.

Meghalaya, particularly the Khasi-Jaintia Hills region, had witnessed several cases of arson since Sep 2 after talks between Chief Minister Mukul Manda Sangma and the pro-ILP pressure groups reached a dead end as the two sides viewed the issue differently.

It is another matter that in some of the arson cases, vested interests were found to be involved and not members of the pressure groups.

Everyone agrees with the pressure groups that illegal migration into Meghalaya is a reality, which, if not promptly tackled, might change the state's demography and the three indigenous tribes - the Khasi, Jaintia and Garo - might soon find themselves in a minority, as has happened in Tripura.

Meghalaya shares a 443-km border with Bangladesh, part of which is porous, hilly and unfenced and from where several Bangladeshis are believed to be entering into the state's coal belt - the Jaintia and Garo hills districts - to work in the mines. The state also shares a 696-km boundary with Assam.

Government statistics reveal that in the last five years (2008 to Sep 2013), 18,951 illegal Bangladeshi immigrants were detected in Meghalaya, of whom 978 were prosecuted and 17,973 were pushed back.

Sangma could not have agreed more to the "threat perception" to Meghalaya's three indigenous tribes as he had in 2012 constituted a committee on the issue headed by Bindo Mathew Lanong, the then deputy chief minister and president of alliance partner United Democratic Party (UDP).

The committee had recommended the possibility of implementing the ILP besides other mechanisms.

Ironically, when the pressure groups walked out of the meeting with Sangma on Aug 29, it was not so much on the issue of influx and illegal migration but on the mechanism to be introduced to prevent this.

While the pressure groups want the ILP, Sangma wants the Tenancy Act to be implemented as a deterrent.

According to the chief minister, the ILP is an archaic law imposed by the erstwhile British rulers and, if implemented, might adversely affect the tourism industry and the state's economic development.

The ILP issue had figured prominently during the recent autumn session of the Meghalaya assembly. However, a resolution tabled by opposition Hill State People's Democratic Party legislator Ardent Miller Basaiawmoit to introduce the ILP was overwhelmingly defeated as the government was completely averse to the idea.

Once the ILP is imposed, every individual, whether Indian or otherwise, will have to obtain a permit to enter Meghalaya.

(Raymond Kharmujai can be contacted at rrkharmujai@gmail.com)