What could have been a remarkable holiday at one of the country’s most enchanting hill stations turned into nightmare for Toshi Zajua and her family. Zajua, 24, a fashion designer from Jammu working in Delhi, was visiting Meghalaya. It was her first time in India’s northeast.
“I was told that this is the best time of the year to visit this picturesque hill city, since the weather is at its best when most parts of the country are reeling in heat and humidity,” she says. “I saw a vehicle set ablaze right before my eyes in the heart of Shillong and it was mortifying. We had to rush back to the hotel, lock ourselves up and pack. Shillong seemed so peaceful, like the old Europe cities.”
Over the last fortnight, Meghalaya has sporadically simmered and burst into flames with arson, highway blockades, protest rallies, attacks on non-tribals and strikes. As many as 20 cases of arson have been reported from the state capital and its suburbs. Petrol bombs have been hurled injuring civilians and cops. The Meghalaya government sought 12 additional companies of central paramilitary forces to handle the crisis. Pressure groups are demanding that the CM quit office immediately.
The anger and violence has been triggered by a fierce demand to introduce the Inner Line Permit (ILP) – a regulation that makes it mandatory for non-state residents to seek a permit to enter that state for a limited time – in Meghalaya. The statewide protests demanding the ILP have been spearheaded by 10 pressure groups in Meghalaya, including organizations like the United Democratic Party (UDP), the Hill State People's Democratic Party (HSPDP), the National People's Party (NPP) and the powerful Khasi Students’ Union (KSU). While these groups want immediate implementation of this rule, the government and some of the intelligentsia feel that it is a xenophobic reaction stemming largely from Khasi chauvinists.
What is the ILP? Why the Fuss?
The ILP was first introduced by the British as a travel permit under the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulations Act of 1873. It is already applicable in Nagaland, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh. If the law is introduced in Meghalaya, anyone who is not a domicile of Meghalaya, including foreign tourists, will have to procure a permit to visit the state for a stipulated period of time. If they stay beyond the stipulated period, they could be arrested. In practice, this means that anyone who is not a tourist or casual visitor with such a permit would need to have a permanent resident certificate from the local deputy commissioner. Normally, to obtain domicile, one would need a proof of residence or of having been educated in the state.
Some of the pro-ILP groups believe that the regulation introduced by the British was meant for the protection of indigenous people from being outnumbered and exploited by ‘outsiders’, including other Indians. Others, including the former home minister RG Lyngdoh, have argued that the law was created to ‘control’ the northeasterners since the British thought of them as ‘near-savages’ who were potentially dangerous to visitors. The pro-ILP groups say this is a gross and scandalous misinterpretation of the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation Act.
All of this has a distinctly anachronistic air to it, but the demand for the ILP has been around in political circles for almost a decade in Meghalaya. (This is not to rule out the suspicion that a large section of people, including intellectuals, academicians and activists, nurture that the current protests are just to destabilize the government.)
But Meghalaya has also had its suspicion of outsiders fanned by more recent events in northeast India. The ILP lobbying seems to have strengthened since the 2012 ethnic riots in lower Assam. The conflicts between the Muslim settlers and the ethnic Bodo tribals lasted for nearly two months, killing over a hundred people and displacing over five lakh. One of the triggers for the riots was ‘encroachment’ of land by suspected illegal migrants from Bangladesh. By osmosis, indigenous rights groups in Meghalaya have also felt threatened, and renewed the movement to demand the ILP.
The whole of Meghalaya is already governed by the Sixth Schedule, a special provision in the Indian constitution that allows for more autonomy to tribal-dominated areas in the Northeast (and, by extension, elsewhere) through administration by autonomous councils. Thus, statutory provisions for the protection of the rights of indigenous groups already exist.
The spurt in the ILP movement also comes at a time when Meghalaya is witnessing a more insistent demand for a separate Garoland for the Garo tribe. A long-standing demand for a Khasi state to be carved out of Meghalaya has also periodically resulted in conflicts with non-tribals and, at times, even with the Jaintia and Garo communities.
In 2012, the state government constituted a high-level committee to look into the demand for the ILP. The committee (led by then deputy chief minister in the last cabinet, Bindo M Lanong) submitted its report to the state government recommending the implementation of the ILP in the state. The report is yet to be discussed in the new state Cabinet that was formed after the 2013 assembly polls in the state.
In late August, Chief Minister Mukul Sangma (who came to power as part of the Congress-led Meghalaya United Alliance) rejected outright the demand for the implementation of the ILP in Meghalaya. He recently told reporters, “I am not supporting the ILP. The ILP system is a legacy of British rule and Meghalaya will not piggy ride on such outdated colonial acts. We will come up with more effective legislation. The ILP has not been effective in checking illegal influx into Arunachal, Mizoram and Nagaland, so why should we adopt a failed mechanism? I am very confident that the government, in consultation with the civil society, will find a better mechanism to check the menace of illegal influx. We need to boost up the existing tenancy and land holding acts. While I would not rule out that illegal migrants are present in Meghalaya, to check this we cannot use a law that makes it difficult for legal citizens to enter the state.”
This rejection from the chief minister made the pro-ILP lobby adamant. One of their main demands is to place last year’s report by the High Level Committee on Influx (HLCI) before the State Cabinet. “The chief minister cannot take decisions on his own, he cannot dictate terms on such a sensitive issue,” warns Adilbert Nongrum, president of the political party Khun Hynniewtrep National Awakening Movement (KHNAM). Sangma’s political opponents, both within and outside the government, have also taken political advantage of this impasse.
Most vehicles prefer not to enter Meghalaya during the night blockade hours to avoid problems. A truck driver who frequently uses the national highway says, “A driver wishing to travel though Meghalaya has to do this well before the night road blockade starts. Many people try to rush home by evening, creating a severe traffic jam in the town.”
The national highways through Meghalaya also serve as a lifeline for southern Assam, Mizoram and Tripura. If the blockades and bandhs are executed again, there will be severe scarcity of essential commodities in these landlocked areas and the Centre might need to intervene. But the mess doesn’t look like it’s going away soon.
Meghalaya has been the most politically unstable state in the Northeast since receiving statehood in 1972. In 41 years, it has seen as many as 23 governments. Except for the first government under the leadership of Captain William Sangma, Meghalaya has never seen a single-party government. A chief minister has completed a full five-year term in office only twice.
“In such a backdrop, the ILP movement might get hijacked by political parties to upstage the Mukul Sangma government. This has been a regular political ploy in this state,” says Purbasha Bhattacharjee, a young television journalist from Shillong.
This political opportunism has further complicated an already polarizing issue. The average resident is justifiably anxious that there may be a reiteration of the anarchy the state saw in 1979, when the first ethnic riots broke out.
Chandrasekhar Bhattacharjee, 68, is a retired schoolteacher in Shillong. He was born in Laban in the East Khasi Hills of Meghalaya and his family moved to the capital in the early 1950s. He remembers the 1979 riots vividly. “There was a large scale exodus of non-tribals, mainly Bengalis, Marwaris and Biharis. Today, non-tribals are a minority in Meghalaya. We don’t have any land-holding rights, except in few selected zones in Shillong. It is true that a few hundred illegal migrants from Bangladesh and even from Nepal have entered Meghalaya. But the very rhetoric of the ILP seekers has an anti-non-tribal overtone. That’s why we are scared.”
A 32-year-old IT professional, who was born and raised in Shillong before moving out to complete his engineering degree in Bangalore, says on condition of anonymity, “We are a young and small state. In this age of the Internet, we need to open up. There is no doubt that the ILP will drive us backward.”
The Other Side
The intelligentsia in Meghalaya is split over the ILP issue. Many believe that the ILP is a system contrary to the ideas embodied by the capital city of Shillong – a progressive, educated, westernized society that is eager to embrace modernity. “Now is the time to open up to the world,” says Padma Shri award-winning journalist and editor of Shillong Times, Patricia Mukhim. “In this era of globalization, it’s absolutely naïve to have a law in place that would directly affect the mixing of cultures and sharing of ideas. There is no validity for an anachronistic law like the ILP in today’s time. An ILP would further affect the mobility of resources and capital. This is the half-baked idea of some Khasi chauvinists.”
While the pro-ILP lobbies point to Meghalaya’s neighbours for a historical precedent, not everyone is convinced that Arunachal and Nagaland have got it right. Prasenjit Biswas, who teaches philosophy at the Northeastern Hill University (NEHU) and is a human rights activist, says, “In Arunachal Pradesh, too, the ILP has failed in many ways. Tourism hasn’t developed over the years since many tourists find it discouraging to go and fill forms and obtain special permits to visit a holiday spot. The irony is that the ILP in Arunachal has barred the poor and middle class from going out and exploring the other parts of the world. The rich have managed to advance themselves over the years. This has rather become a reverse prohibition for Arunachal Pradesh. The problem with Meghalaya is that, being a young state, people face a constant sense of deprivation. Their primary concern is that though they have political power in hand, they still do not possess enough economic power. They are worried about being robbed of their resources and being outnumbered by the non-tribals. The concerns about influx are also to a great extent psychological.”
Kynpham Singh Nongkynrih, poet and professor at NEHU, disagrees. He says, “The insecurity of being taken over economically and demographically has led Khasis to strike agitations. I don't think that the fear of influx is merely a psychological fear, although a proper study with statistics figuring out the degree of influx still needs to be done.”
Though the constitution grants everyone the freedom to work anywhere in India, the ILP is not technically illegal or anti-constitutional because of the overriding provisions of the Sixth Schedule. However, many feel that it is a slippery slope for civil liberties. “The ILP is against the idea of India as one nation. To young people, it might appear to be a way of legalizing the divide between tribals and non-tribals. Within Meghalaya there is a strong opposition to it, but people are terrified of the kind of violence the pro-ILP groups can unleash,” says a lawyer at the Meghalaya High Court who did not want to be named.
The biggest argument against the demand is the actual number of non-tribals in Meghalaya. As per the 2011 Census, the population of non-tribals in Meghalaya declined from 20 percent in 1971 to just about 13 per cent 2011, indicating that, unlike in Assam and Manipur, indigenous communities are not facing ‘demographic threats’ from outsider influx.
However, the pro-ILP lobbies argue that the numbers cannot be relied upon. They feel that the Meghalaya government has no true estimate of illegal migration in the state, given that most are employed in the flourishing coalmines in the remotest areas of the state.
Some groups also reject the argument that the ILP is a colonial relic and hence irrelevant. They ask caustically if perhaps it’s time for the government to do away with the European Ward as well or convert it into a scheduled area. The European Ward law, also from the early 1900s, allows non-tribals to buy land in areas in and around Shillong that were designated as European wards. This adds up to an area roughly 10 kilometers in radius. Why should the provisions of the Sixth Schedule not apply to the European wards, ask these pressure groups.
In the Long Term
Beyond the rhetoric, the implementation of the ILP is bound to change Meghalaya in significant ways. Civil rights activist Toki Blah says, “The immediate effect would be on the education sector and tourism industry. Students from all the northeastern states come to Shillong for education. And tourism is currently the only sustainable industry in Meghalaya. If ILP comes in, Meghalaya will be cut off from the rest of the world. The educated young people will leave for studies and jobs. Forty years from now, Meghalaya will be left with an old and illiterate population cocooned in their own shells. Is Meghalaya prepared for such a long-term crisis?”
The tourism industry is also worried. A senior member of the Meghalaya Tourism Development Forum says, “In a state where more than 50 percent of the population is below the age of 25, it is very important that various sectors of the economy are developed in order to create opportunities of employment.”
Kynpham Singh Nongkynrih adds, “The Chief minister has straightway rejected the demand for the ILP in his own capacity. Instead, he could have shown more concern by taking it up in the cabinet. The ultimate solution would be to aim at drawing a middle path that would take care of the indigenous peoples' concerns while avoiding an anti-Indian approach.”
Perhaps the buck stops with the High Level Committee formed to solve the ILP issue. So far, the government has dealt with the issue on an ad-hoc basis as a law and order issue. It has not tried to resolve it at the level from where the fears spring.
“The government has three options,” says Prasenjit Biswas. “Either revive the [larger] Bengal Frontier Regulation Act 1873, or put [only] the ILP in place, or choose to have a separate unique identity card system for the indigenous inhabitants of Meghalaya. The ILP is in no way a protective mechanism. The politics of boundary maintenance are a serious issue – already there are major border disputes in northeast India among the states. There cannot be a solution unless a proper political debate is taken up on the floor of the state legislative assembly.”
Chief Minister Mukul Sangma may well need to call a special session of the legislative assembly and encourage representatives of different interest groups to come to a consensus.
For the time being, though, the only music coming out of Shillong are the jarring notes of unrest.
Urmi Bhattacharjee is journalist who writes on the environment and developmental issues, pertaining mostly to India's northeastern region. She has been writing on conflicts between dams and development in India as a consultant to the California-based non-profit International Rivers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.