Silchar/Jiribam: Over the past few years, Assam’s borders with various states have been at the centre of various controversies and in the case of Mizoram, also led to the death of six Assam Police personnel in July 2021. Last year too, the death of six Meghalaya residents at the hands of Assam Police personnel in the Meghalaya village of Mukroh heightened tensions between the two states and civilian lives were put in danger. So, when EastMojo reported about simmering tensions at the Assam-Manipur border, it was only natural that the story was shared and circulated.
Unlike Assam’s borders with Mizoram, Meghalaya, Nagaland and even Arunachal, its border with Manipur has been relatively calm. So, it came as a shock to many when on February 6, two women travelling to Manipur were allegedly made to disembark the boat and left at an “unsafe” place along the river Barak by the village defence force (VDF) of Jirimukh.
The two women were travelling from Sonbari in Assam’s Cachar district by boat to attend a religious programme in Manipur.
But why were the women left in such a vulnerable position? Because they did not have the inner line permit (ILP) to enter Manipur. They were later brought back to the village by the people of Sonbari.
Following this, the residents of Sonbari in the Lakhipur assembly constituency of Cachar started patrolling the area along the river to prevent public transport or private boats of Manipur from entering Assam’s territory via the waterway.
Following intervention by the police authorities of both states, the patrol was withdrawn.
‘Regularly bothered by Manipur authorities, village defence forces’
The incident on February 6, Assam locals say, is only one example of the harassment episode they face in Manipur on a regular basis.
Sonbari, with a population of about 1,100 people, falls under the Fulertal gaon panchayat, about 45km from Silchar and about 20km from the Assam-Manipur interstate border (Jirighat-Jiribam) point. Fishermen from the Bengali community constitute eighty per cent of the village population.
Pintu Das, a 40-year-old resident of Sonbari, said the fishermen faced regular harassment at Jirimukh at the hands of VDF members for not having ILP papers.
“The VDF members ask for ILP even when the fishermen catch fish on Assam’s side and collect the catch from them,” Pintu alleged.
The farmer added that the matter was taken up with Lakhipur MLA Kaushik Rai through a memorandum submitted on February 8, but no steps had been taken so far.
Anjan Das, a 26-year-old boatman who has to row to Manipur for work, alleged that the VDF members particularly target the Bengalis and harass them. “They harass us and demand money from us,” Anjan alleged.
Sanat Das, a 43-year-old fisherman, said many people of Sonbari have their relatives in Manipur, but they cannot visit the border state “because of the ILP problem”.
“A few months ago, a man could not go to meet his ailing daughter, who is married in that state. The man ran from pillar to post to obtain ILP but failed to do so. Later, he got the news that his daughter passed away. He could not even see his daughter for one last time,” he said.
Other residents Bablu Das, Joy Das, Abhijit Das and Rantu Das raised similar allegations and appealed to the authorities for necessary action.
‘Will look into any allegations’
However, Jiribam SP Ksh. Ravikumar Singh refuted claims of regular harassment. Talking about the February 6 incident, Singh said around 12 persons were travelling to Manipur on a boat to attend a religious ceremony and all except the two women possessed ILP passes.
The Inner Line Permit (ILP) is an official travel document issued by the state government to allow inward travel of an Indian citizen visiting Manipur for a specific time period.
“Perhaps the two women were not aware of ILP or they could not get the same from the ILP office due to some reason. Our officers told them that they could go to Manipur without ILP papers, as the event venue was on the borderline, but will have to come back on the same day. They were warned that police would arrest or fine them if they were found staying in that state for 2-3 days without ILP passes. Officers requested them to go back, get the ILP papers and return if they wanted to stay in Manipur for a few days. We do not have any launch (motorboat) to deport people. The women returned themselves,” the SP told EastMojo.
When EastMojo visited Jiribam district, around 50 km from Silchar town, the officer in charge of the Jiribam police station and other security officials near the Assam-Manipur (Jirighat-Jiribam) border checkpoint refused to comment on the February 6 incident.
Another official at Jiribam police station, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said people, except permanent residents of Manipur and foreigners, are eligible for obtaining the ILP. “We have not received any complaints from anyone about ILP to date,” the official said when asked about allegations by people (of Sonbari) about not providing ILP.
Jiribam SP Ravikumar Singh said VDF members or police would never ask for money (illegally) from people.
“Police can ask for money for the ILP fee or its renewal and receipts are provided for the same. At the ILP counter, there is a proper ILP pass generation system. People can also book ILP online and collect the passes after showing details of the ILP online registration at the counter,” he said, responding to complaints by people of Sonbari about regular demand for money by VDF members and non-issuance of ILP passes even after visiting the ILP office in Jiribam.
The SP urged the general public to get in touch with him directly if any VDF member or police official demanded or took money forcibly. “We will conduct a proper inquiry. The name of the complainant will not be disclosed,” he said.
Singh dismissed the allegation against VDF members and police of targeting Bengalis as “totally incorrect”. He added that the ILP system, introduced in 2022, is being implemented and a lot of awareness needs to be created among the general public for their proper understanding.
At present, there are two ILP counters in Jiribam – at the Jiribam-Jirighat highway point and at the Jiribam rail station.
“I have requested the Jiribam deputy commissioner to set up an ILP counter at Jirimukh waterway. Some people come to Manipur via highway, some by railway and some via waterway. The setting up of the ILP counter at Jirimukh will help people get ILP passes while travelling via the waterway. So, in case they forget to collect ILP passes, people will not have to go back to collect those from the highway or railway station with a new counter at Jirimukh,” the SP said.
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He said the deputy commissioner has written to the authorities concerned about the matter. He hoped the ILP counter would be set up at Jirimukh very soon.
For now, the situation on both sides of the border has returned to normal, but Sonabari residents believe it is a matter of when, not if, they are targeted again.
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