With the passing of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and the Centre’s determination to implement it, the demand for Inner Line Permit (ILP) — that allows an Indian citizen to visit or stay in a State that is protected under the ILP system — gained momentum in the Northeast.
Union Home Minister Amit Shah had asserted that the States where the ILP is applicable, the tribal areas of Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram that are notified under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, would be kept out of the purview of the CAA. Shah said so to address local concerns about protecting the interests of the indigenous people from outsiders belonging to other Indian States.
In Assam, groups like the Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chatra Parishad, a youth organisation, has been organising protest demonstrations seeking ILP throughout the State though Sixth Schedule areas are limited in Assam.
Four NE States
The ILP system is in force in four Northeastern States – Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Mizoram and the recently added State to the system — Manipur. The system was formally introduced in Manipur on January 1, 2020. The North East Students’ Organisation, an umbrella body of all powerful students’ bodies of the regions, said it “reiterates its demand for overall implementation of the Inner Line Permit (ILP) in all NE States”.
The pressure groups of Meghalaya like the Khasi Students’ Union (KSU), Federation of Khasi, Jaintia and Garo People (FKJGP), Hynniewtrep National Youth Federation (FKJGP), Hynniewtrep Youth Council (HYC), Garo Students’ Union (GSU), Jaintia Students’ Union (JSU) besides others have been vociferously demanding for ILP implementation since the then Congress-led government rejected the demand in 2013 and instead passed the Meghalaya Residents Safety and Security Act (MRSSA) in 2016. The MRSSA is considered to be part of a “comprehensive mechanism” to check illegal immigration – with its focal point on tenants.
The entire Northeast was burning during the anti-CAA stir as people of this region felt that the enactment of the new citizenship Act would further complicate the problem of illegal foreigners and would change the demography of the region. To pacify the agitators, the Centre has now played the ILP and Sixth Schedule cards. The Centre has assured the people that the refugees can neither reside or settle in the 10 autonomous districts, nor enjoy benefits extended to the tribal people even if they are provided with Indian citizenship. This is true to any other general citizen of India too.
There are 10 areas in the Northeast that are registered as autonomous districts – three each in Assam, Meghalaya and Mizoram and one in Tripura. No Indian citizen can visit any of these ILP-regulated States unless s/he belongs to that State, nor can s/he overstay beyond the period specified in the ILP. The opponents of the ILP system argue that restriction of movement of people of other States to select a few States looks absurd in a country where free movement of citizen throughout the country is guaranteed under the Fundamental Rights.
The ILP is the post-independent avatar of colonial regulation — the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation Act, 1873 (BEFRA), which restricted the entry and regulated the stay of outsiders in designated areas. The intention of this regulation was to protect the British’s commercial interests by preventing “British subjects” (Indians) from trading within these regions. After independence, the Indian government replaced “British subjects” with “Citizen of India”.
The British redefined the terms of engagement between people of the hills and the valley. The movement of people from either side of the dividing line came under the radar of the colonial government. Bringing those tribal areas under the direct control of the provincial governor, ‘The Government of India Act, 1935’, made provision for “excluded areas” and “partially excluded areas” to the exclusion of the Indian legislature. Then British Prime Minister Winston Churchill asserted in a 1935 debate in the House of Commons: “I feel just as disturbed about their police and security being handed over to a Government which I do not trust as the anthropological party represented here … about the handing over of the backward areas to a Government they do not trust.”
The Sixth Schedule consists of provisions for the administration of tribal areas in undivided Assam and later on in Tripura by amendment under Article 244 of the Indian Constitution. It was passed by the Constituent Assembly in 1949, and seeks to safeguard the rights of the tribal population through the formation of Autonomous District Councils (ADC). The Sixth Schedule is often referred to as a charter for the autonomy of a wide magnitude, but it has failed to decrease the tension between different stakeholders at the ground level due to conflict between State governments and the ADC.
Politics of power-sharing and corruption are other reasons for the failure of the system. Entire Meghalaya is a Sixth Schedule State and Arunachal Pradesh is also demanding the entire State to be declared as Sixth Schedule. The aims and objects of the Sixth Schedule were to safeguard the interests of the certain minority tribes living in undivided territory of Assam and the other NE States. The spirit of the Sixth Schedule is meaningless when tribes are a majority and the entire State is a Sixth Schedule State.
Assam is the gateway of the Northeast and except Sikkim, all the States have to depend on Assam for transportation, communication, business, etc. However, the people of Assam have to go through the arduous process of ILP to visit these ILP-regulated States and are not allowed to buy lands and other immovable properties there while the citizens of these States not only enjoy free entry, they can buy land and other immovable properties in Assam. This is true of all other States of India. One may question why should I allow you in my house if you deny my entry into your house. Frustrated by the ILP system, it was suggested that all the States should impose a restriction on citizens of those States only which restrict the entry of citizens of other States in their own States.
We have to support the special status and political arrangements for the development of the tribal and other ethnic groups of the country by considering their backwardness with historical perspective. However, restriction of movement of people from other parts of the country in some of the tribal-dominated States holds no logic in a democracy. The British legacy of dividing people by restricting movement of people to certain areas in the name of preservation of the interests of the tribal people is the antithesis of democracy.
(The author is a senior journalist from Assam)
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