Home / Opinion / Online Views /  Root Cause | Revisiting the inner line laws

I love North-East India though I abhor much of the politics that is preached and practised in that quite restive leading edge of the country—both by the agencies of the government of India and local administrations. I don’t care much either about colonial laws that persist, like the one that pertains to entering Nagaland. Outsiders, except those in government, those in transit to other states or those containing themselves to the slim plains of the state, say, the commercial capital of Dimapur, must undergo the ritual of the inner line permit (ILP).

Operative under the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation, 1873, the wording of the application is cringe-worthy. “Sir", it supplicates the nabobs of Nagaland, “I have the honour to state that I am in need of ILP for a short stay in" one district or another. “Therefore, I would like to request your authority to kindly issue me ILP", et cetera. One has to apply “faithfully".

The period revue has triggered isolationist demands in other parts of this region, notably Meghalaya. To be fair, in Meghalaya, the sentiment is rooted in recent Bodo-Muslim-Bengali mayhem in several parts of neighbouring lower Assam, and renewed fears, both real and imagined, of migrants swamping indigenous populations. But the root of the issue lies elsewhere, as I was reminded again by a recent article in The Shillong Times by Ravindra Narayan Ravi, a plain-speaking former special director of the Intelligence Bureau. More precisely, the root lies “elsewhen".

The British established an inner line in several hill areas of north-eastern India and Chittagong Hill Tracts—now in Bangladesh. The purpose, Ravi asserts like several other observers, was not so much to preserve the tribal way of life in a burst of ethnological responsibility, but preserve the strategic British stranglehold on such newly dominated areas to also enable commercial purpose, such as acquisition of land for plantations. Some critics of the policy also claim that, during India’s independence movement, the British used inner line laws to drive deeper the traditional, and paranoid, wedge between the plains and the hills. Meghalaya largely escaped this as Shillong became an administrative, education and vacation hub—the then gigantic territory of Assam was ruled from here. It also sat on a road link with East Bengal; and so, was too public and too important to be closed off. (Such history has led to entirely too much interaction and migration, claim present-day hardline practitioners of tribal identity in Meghalaya.)

Over time, with Partition and India’s Independence, inner line laws morphed differently for different areas, but similarity remained in control of access. Such control in Nagaland was used by the government of India to suppress news of its near-genocidal war against the Naga people in the 1950s and 1960s; and during the height of the Mizo rebellion in the late 1960s. Such cynical extension of colonial law is now more benign. It is absent in most of north-eastern India except Arunachal Pradesh—the need to preserve the ecology and tribal identities masking the equally real purpose of it being India’s strategic backyard confronting China—Nagaland and Mizoram.

I share Ravi’s disquiet over the raising of a demand by a core group of people in Meghalaya understandably troubled by recurring ethno-religious bloodshed in Assam and the prospect of increased migration from Bangladesh, with which Meghalaya shares its southern border. The disquiet is over isolationist calls at a time when greater—and politically and socio-economically mature—interaction between north-eastern India and mainland India will clearly be the contributor to a stable future in this geopolitical junction. (I’ve heard jokes in Nagaland that refer to the ILP as useful practice for eventual independence of Nagaland, but that’s another story.)

Perhaps the time has come to revisit the existing inner line restrictions that exist in North-East India. There are already several constitutionally mandated provisions that protect identities and land ownership in hill areas and provide great control to local administrations. In several cases, there exists the duality, especially in Arunachal Pradesh, where people and lands protected by law are usurped by the state in the name of greater public good, as with the riotously controversial policy of hydroelectric power generation in that state. Those mainlanders who need to travel and work in these states do so; and find ways with what the Chinese colourfully term fragrant grease to ride local laws to enable residency, employment and de facto co-ownership of property. The inner line is today reduced to innate farce, and the permit, a needless paper trail.

Sudeep Chakravarti is the author of Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column focuses on conflict situations in South Asia that directly affect business.

Respond to this column at rootcause@livemint.com

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