Meghalaya had in the past erupted in violence on account of the demand for the Inner Line Permit (ILP) to be implemented in the state. The demand has come from individuals and groups who take it upon themselves to speak on behalf of the entire tribal population of the state.
Such groups do not believe in the democratic process of discussion and debate before arriving at a decision. The ILP is considered the only mechanism to contain influx in the state. Influx is perceived as dangerous because it could upset the fragile demographic balance of the tribals of Meghalaya.
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The reasoning is inherently flawed because Meghalaya is home not just to the tribals. It includes a huge chunk of non-tribal population too. It’s also strange that in the globalised world of the 21st century, people of Meghalaya would want to adopt a regressive instrument first crafted by the British in 1873, called the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation Act. The British enacted this law at a time when the tribes inhabiting parts of the tribal-dominated parts of Assam were not yet ready to intermingle with outsiders. But the ILP continues to be enforced in the states of Nagaland, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh. The Act requires that visitors intending to visit the above three states should procure an entry permit – the ILP. The intent is to prevent outsiders from settling permanently in the respective states.
The pressure groups don’t consider it important to establish their claims on the basis of research. Every demand they place before the government, right from the 1980s has been on the basis of fear of paranoia about the “outsider”. Ironically, this fear resonates with the tribal mind that has refused to emerge out of the shadows and grapple with the present problems.
Influx happens because there is an employment vacuum that’s filled up by people from other states who have the required skills. Influx in Meghalaya means there are opportunities for work here which the local people either do not have the skills for or are unwilling to engage in. Often it is hard to find a local person who is an electrician or plumber. Experts at fixing bathroom tiles, etc, are not easily available. If our mobile phones or refrigerators need repair, we would need a technician who invariably is a non-tribal. The people who are adept at the above-mentioned trades are not necessarily domiciled in Meghalaya. They have come here because they are needed for certain trades. Without them, most firms that require the services of such professionals would have to close shop.
But what is more troubling is the fact that the demand for the ILP has not been accompanied by an enforcement mechanism. As stated above, while Meghalaya is home to three major tribes – Khasi, Jaintia and Garo – it also has a significant non-tribal population, many of whom have been here even before the British arrived in the region in 1826 and much before Meghalaya was carved out of Assam.
So, what is the mechanism to be adopted for identifying those non-tribals domiciled here whenever they travel out and return home? Should they be subjected to the same checks at the respective check gates? What we witness today is that those manning the check gates take a cursory look inside the vehicles carrying passengers and allow those with tribal looks to pass through.
But a non-tribal, irrespective of him/her being a permanent resident of Meghalaya, has to produce some form of document to prove his/her identity. This is not only violative of the Indian Constitution which guarantees freedom of movement of all Indian citizens within the country but also reduces the status of genuine non-tribal residents of Meghalaya to that of temporary visitors. Does a permanent resident of a state not have rights and privileges under the Indian Constitution?
Those who clamour for the ILP have obviously not thought through the process and the possibility that someone who feels aggrieved by the ILP might approach a court of law since his rights are violated. The non-tribals of Meghalaya have acceded to several demands for withdrawing from the political processes in the state. The non-tribals voluntarily gave up their right to fight elections to the District Council because they were told that councils are a creation of the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution and are essentially means to protect and promote tribal customs and practices. Later, the non-tribals were also not allowed to vote for the council elections. Now in 2019, the number of non-tribal MLAs in the Assembly is reduced to nil even though five seats are reserved for the non-tribal contestants. So, who actually represents their interests? Clearly, the non-tribal is a non-citizen in Meghalaya.
Coming back to the ILP, Meghalaya is not a land-locked, dead-end state like Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh or Nagaland. It is a transit state. People from Assam’s Barak Valley transit to and from the Brahmaputra valley through Meghalaya. So do the people of Mizoram and Tripura. How can the movement of transit passengers through Meghalaya be regulated and where is the fool-proof mechanism for checking their ILP? Is the ILP then a viable proposition?
Influx definitely is a matter of concern but it requires better solutions than the ILP, not instant solutions demanded by pressure groups. Indeed, how can such a far-reaching policy be decided by one or two groups?
The major stakeholders who need to be consulted about the ILP are tour operators and all those running the hundreds of guest houses and eateries in our villages. In tourism, the money generated is shared in a horizontal manner; there are many beneficiaries. Some earn more than others but everyone earns something. Contrast this to the coal or limestone mining businesses where only a few gain from the environmentally destructive activity.
Coal mining requires maximum labourers from outside the state since few locals would want to venture into a death trap called a rat hole. It’s quite surprising that the pressure groups too are very selective about who they target. None of the leading pressure groups in Meghalaya have said a word against illegal mining and transportation of coal. Now they are up in arms wanting to implement the ILP in an era where trade and commerce requires easy transit and no unnecessary check gates.
Meghalaya today has some institutions of national importance such as the IIM, NIT, NEHU, NEIGRIHMS, NIFT, etc. Imagine one of the universities inviting a professor from outside for a lecture and then having to tell him/her that they have to get permission to enter the state. To this, there will be counter arguments that the same professors wanting to enter Nagaland, Mizoram or Arunachal Pradesh have to take permission to enter the states.
This is where research helps. How many such visitors actually travel to the above three states and how many national centres of excellence do they have and how well are they thriving? Will it be possible for Nagaland, Mizoram or Arunachal Pradesh to have an IIM or IIT with all the constraints that are put on visitors? Ironically, despite the ILP, Nagaland complains of IBIs (Illegal Bangladeshi Immigrants).
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If dialogue and debate were the essence of Khasi democracy, why has it now been replaced by singular, strident viewpoints that are being pushed as an agenda of the entire state? Have the traditional institutions been consulted about the ILP? What are their considered views? What are the pros and cons of implementing the ILP? Do the negatives outweigh the positives? And should those who have a different viewpoints be considered anti-tribal and be asked to shut up? In an enlightened society no decision is taken without consultation.
The Khasi people have been admired for their ability to hold a ‘dorbar’ (consultation) for days until a consensus is arrived at. One would like to believe that such consensus takes into account the views of even the poor and disempowered, irrespective of gender, because they too are members of the great tribal confederacy.
Every true-blue Meghalayan is concerned at the influx that is visible especially in Shillong city. Even the genuine non-tribal citizens are as worried as the tribes are about the consequences of influx on our fragile economy. Should they then be kept out of the consultations and should the tribes just impose their views on them as if their voices don’t matter?
Let’s admit some facts. The Khasis are not the centre of the world and their culture is not the linchpin of human history. Nor are their concerns exclusive. The tribes have to learn to trust that those who have made Meghalaya their home are not outliers who are out to back-stab them. It’s true that non-tribals have more acuity for business but the tribes have imbibed much of the business acumen through a healthy social interface. The problem with Meghalaya is that its indigenous population inhabit a mental space in which the Earth is conceived as being flat with a monster waiting at the other end to gobble up whoever falls off. This collective social paranoia is bad for their mental health.
The ILP, if implemented in Meghalaya, will have consequences for everyone. Ironically, the posterity will judge this to be a lazy, copycat agenda accepted by an acquiescing, non-questioning citizenry. In this progressive environment, governments should have the capacity to come up with a more intelligently designed mechanisms for checking influx. Many concerned citizens too have questions about the ILP but are afraid of the consequences of speaking their minds.
In the past, people have had to pay the price for resisting mainstream views. At this point, to contest that the ILP is not the best mechanism for checking influx is swimming against the tide of public (read pressure group) opinion. But it has to be done for the simple reason that freedom of expression is a fundamental right.
(Patricia Mukhim is a social activist, writer, journalist and the editor of The Shillong Times. Recipient of various honours of national and international repute, she was also bestowed with the Padma Shri in 2000 by the government of India. She tweets at @meipat. Views expressed above are her own)