As Union Home Minister Amit Shah declared in the Lok Sabha on Monday that the Inner Line Permit system would be extended to Manipur, firecrackers went off in state capital Imphal. The state government announced a holiday to celebrate the “historic occasion”.

But as the dust settled over the next couple of hours, the initial euphoria seemed to wear off. “Yes, it is at least one step forward, but we have experienced empty promises by the Indian state before,” said Lancha Ningthouja, co-convener of the Manipur People Against Citizenship Bill, an umbrella group of 88 organisations that was formed to resist the legislation. “We will regroup tomorrow and analyse whether the announcement will pass legal scrutiny.”

Ningthouja affirmed that the protests against the bill would continue in the meantime. “We started this journey with our brothers and sisters from Assam,” he said. “We will not leave them behind.”

The Inner Line barter

Prior to Shah’s announcement, Manipur was the only state in the North East where the bill, which seeks to make undocumented non-Muslim migrants from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan eligible for citizenship, would have applied in entirety.

The bill, which was tabled in the Lok Sabha on Monday, was redrafted by the Centre following widespread objection by groups in the North East that fear that once the Bill is passed, local populations defined as indigenous to the region will be culturally and physically swamped by migrants.

After a series of consultations with these groups, Shah’s ministry tweaked the bill: in the revised draft, the changes to India’s citizenship law will not be applicable to regions in the North East protected by the Inner Line Permit and Sixth Schedule provisions. Both regimes aim to protect the way of life of tribal communities.

During the consultations with the North East groups, Shah is supposed to have offered to extend the Inner Line Permit regime to Manipur. The Manipur People Against Citizenship Bill claimed to have rejected the proposal then.

‘Thankful to the home minister’

But now, Shah’s formal announcement appears to have convinced some protesters.

“Two good things have happened to Manipur: one, we have been left out of the Citizenship Amendment bill’s purview,” said Khuraijam Athouba of the influential Meitei civil society group, United Committee Manipur, which is part of the Manipur People Against Citizenship Bill.

“Secondly, the Centre has finally, after so many years, accepted our demand for Inner Line Permit in Manipur. We are very thankful to the home minister.”

An emotive subject

The Inner Line Permit is a document that Indian citizens from other states require to enter Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and most of Nagaland. It is essentially a protective regime to keep small local populations shielded from the onslaught of large-scale migration.

In Manipur, which does not have an Inner Line Permit system, there are major divisions on the question. In 2015, when the state Assembly passed three Bills that would have set in place a system akin to an Inner Line Permit, the hill population rose in protests. These tribal communities, who already enjoy constitutional protections that cordon them off from the Imphal Valley, claimed an Inner Line Permit would serve only the interests of the Meiteis in Imphal valley, and enable them to encroach on the hills and on tribal land. Violent protests ensued, leading to the death of several tribal protesters. The Bills were ultimately shelved.

In 2018, though, one of the bills, the Manipur People’s Protection Bill, was reintroduced – and subsequently passed – in a revised form.

The bill, which is awaiting the President’s approval, would also introduce a system similar to the Inner Line Permit regime. Once enacted, the bill would put in place a mechanism that would regulate the entry of everyone who settled in the state after 1951 – much like the Inner Line Permit regime.

“The two sides [representing the valley and hills] reached an agreement on the matter subsequently,” said J Suresh Babu, Manipur’s chief secretary, explaining the tribal groups’ decision to accept the revised bill. “So I don’t expect any problems this time on this count.”

A change in stance

Indeed, the fear of the Citizenship Amendment Bill means many of those who opposed the three bills in 2015 are now welcoming Amit Shah’s announcement of an Inner Line Permit system for the state.

“It is agreeable to us if it does not affect the rights of the tribal people,” said HM Mangchinkhup, convenor of the Joint Action Committee Against Anti-Tribal Bills, which led the agitation against the three bills.

Vareiyo Shatsang, the president of the All Tribal Students’ Union Manipur, was indifferent to the development. “It is mainly a Meitei issue,” he said. “But in the name of ILP [Inner Line Permit], they should not set their sights on our land in the hills.”