On June 28, the Manipur government presented the draft of a new Inner Line Permit Bill at a “joint consultative meeting” with representatives from the state’s valley and hill districts.

“We placed the bill before members of the civil society,” said the minister Thongam Biswajit Singh, convenor of the bill’s drafting committee. “The stakeholders said they want to take some time to go through it, so there will be another meeting on July 6 where they will present their feedback.”

The bill seeks to introduce an Inner Line Permit system, akin to that in some other states in the North East. The system requires outsiders to obtain a permit from the government to enter the designated territory. Originally introduced by the British, it is aimed at protecting the region’s “indigenous cultures”.

In Manipur, the demand for the system comes primarily from the dominant Meitei community in the Imphal Valley. The Joint Action Committee on Inner Line Permit System, an umbrella organisation claiming to represent the community’s interests, has been running a campaign for introducing the permit system for several years now.

In August 2015, after months of protests led by the Joint Action Committee, the Manipur Assembly, then controlled by the Congress, passed three bills “to protect the rights of the indigenous people”. The Protection of Manipur Peoples Bill, the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms (Seventh Amendment) Bill, and Manipur Shops and Establishments (Second Amendment) Bill defined the “Manipuri” people. Taken together, the bills put in place restrictions akin to the Inner Line Permit System, covering the entire state.

They, however, led to violent protests in the state’s tribal-majority hill areas, which already enjoy constitutional protections that cordon them off from the Imphal Valley. The tribal protestors claimed an Inner Line Permit would serve only the interests of the Meiteis, and enable them to encroach on the hills and on tribal land.

The bills were then referred to the central government. In May 2016, President Pranab Mukherjee rejected the Protection of Manipur Peoples Bill, finding fault with its definition of who could be called “Manipuri”. The other two bills were sent back for reconsideration.

While the three bills seem to be shelved for now, the demand for an Inner Liner Permit system persists, with the Meitei groups periodically declaring they would intensify their agitation.

In March 2017, the Bharatiya Janata Party cobbled together a coalition government in Manipur and set up a committee to draft a new bill to pave the way for the Inner Line Permit.

‘Good draft’

Arjun Telheiba, convener of the Joint Action Committee, said it is a “good draft” but certain points need more deliberation. One is the contentious definition of “who is Manipuri”, Telheiba added. According to the current draft, he said, anybody who was in the state before January 21, 1972 – the day Manipur attained statehood – qualifies as a Manipuri. “That is not agreeable to us,” he said. “It is not as per the Constitution of India.”

Telheiba said his group will study the bill in detail before taking a final position.

‘Unkept promises’

The Joint Action Committee Against Anti-Tribal Bills, which led the agitation against the three bills in 2015, offered a word of warning. In May 2017, the state government signed a memorandum of understanding with the group to help end the agitation against the bills. Introducing a new bill without fulfilling all the promises made in that agreement, the committee said, would amount to “disrespecting the sentiments of the hill people”.

“The memorandum acknowledges the demand for the creation of a new district but it hasn’t been done,” said HM Mangchinkhup, the committee’s chief convener. “Also, the construction of a martyrs’ park is pending.” Nine people were killed in the protests against the bills, and the BJP government, in the memorandum of understanding, agreed to build a park in their memory.

Mangchinkhup said the new bill ought not to undermine the autonomy of the tribal population. He added that the hill population was wary that the government would revisit the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms (Seventh Amendment) Bill and the Manipur Shops and Establishments (Second Amendment) Bill, and reintroduce them along with the Inner Line Permit Bill.

Telheiba, for his part, said he supports the “sentiments of the tribal people” and the other two bills should be withdrawn. “But they should also understand why we are demanding the Inner Line Permit,” he added.