The Inner Line Permit debate

By HH Mohrmen

Of late the inner line permit (ILP) debate has taken much space in the media. The pro ILP group seems to have been able to convince the working group of the need to immediately introduce the mechanism in the state of Meghalaya. I second the opinion of the Governor of Meghalaya when he stated that the demand for ILP has gained momentum because there is a sense of insecurity among the people of the state. The fear of an being overwhelmed by outsiders and that the natives of the land will vanish forever, abounds in our society. This write-up is an attempt to understand if this threat is real and if it is so, how can we tackle this problem? Is ILP the only solution to the problem? What the demerits are if ILP is introduced in the state? It is not the intention of this writer to dwell into the history of the ILP. That is best left to the historians but the attempt is to examine the impact it will have on the people if the mechanism is implemented.

I am not going to sugar-coat the issue. There is indeed an unabated influx of foreign nationals particularly in the coal and limestone mining areas of the state. One only has to visit the makeshift markets like the Soo kilo market, Ladrymbai, Latyrke, and Chkentalang markets and even the old weekly markets like Sutnga and Lumchnong to see the change in demographic profile of people doing their chores in the market. It reminds me of my childhood days when during the winter break I used to accompany my parents to sell clothes in Sutnga and Lumchnong market. People who came to the market then, were the Pnar and the Hadem (Biates). Today, in both Sutnga and Lumchnong market, the local population is overwhelmed by the outsiders. Let us take the bull by the horns and call a spade a spade. The real issue here is that the indigenous people feel threatened by the large scale influx of non-tribals from other states to Meghalaya and not necessarily just foreign nationals. So the issue is not only against foreigners per se. In fact the foreign national issue is just a veil that covers the antagonism that we have against the non-tribal, ‘ki dkhar’.

It is not for the first time that this issue was raked up. There was a time when the migrant labourers were deported to Guwahati only to be taken back on an empty coal truck back to the coal mine areas. Non locals come to Meghalaya because there is work. Generally they are employed in construction work and coal and limestone mining areas and as long as there are jobs for the people be it construction, coal and limestone mining the influx cannot be stopped. As long as contractors, limestone and coal mine owners need people to work in their projects and mines, we will see no solution to this issue. It is only natural that people will go where there is work for them and very few people overstay. Take for example Wapung a village where mining was first started in Jaintia hills in the early seventies. Now that mining is not as active, the only non locals that remain in the areas are those who are married to local women and have a family of their own. I think the same thing happened in the Sohra areas too. Miners left lock stock and barrel once the coal is exhausted in the area. It reminds me of the former CM of Meghalaya B.B. Lyngdoh’s famous saying, “There are no foreigners in Meghalaya. There are only permanent tourists! How apt. Who will come to Meghalaya if there is no work for them? Similarly young people from the state go outside the state to work in different parts of the country. If we want to stop influx we should start doing these menial jobs ourselves, or, better still stop all the mining activities in the state and save our environment. I am all for it.

Influx will remain as long as there is work for labourers from outside, but one cannot deny the fact that the well being of the contractors and the coal and limestone mine owners also depends largely on the labourers from outside the state. The contractors and the mine owners have a very strong lobby in the state capital. I will not be surprised if in no time the issue will be pushed to the back burner. If the government goes ahead and introduces ILP in the state, notwithstanding the fact that influx is temporary, the question is, will it be successful at all? Contractors and mine owners will always find ways to evade the mechanism and with the porous international border and an open and long inter-state border we share with our neighbour, the job of implementing ILP will be difficult if not impossible. Even if ILP is implemented in the state, the level of success will be very low. If the system has failed in the states that have been using it, what is the guarantee that it will meet with success here in Meghalaya?

Till the early nineties we seldom see foreign nationals visit our state. That is because Meghalaya was under the purview of the Restricted Area Permit (RAP) regulation. Very few die hard visitors would take the trouble to acquire RAP to visit Meghalaya. I have a real story of the trouble that my American friends took to be able to visit Meghalaya. To submit an application for RAP one has to travel in a group of eight. My friend who was then travelling the world on his bicycle went to put an advertisement in every hotel he knew in Calcutta to get the eight names needed for the application. He put up signs if anyone cared to join him to visit the so called Scotland of the East. In a way Marlin now Rev. Marlin Lavanhar was doing the advertisement for Meghalaya tourism department then. It took him weeks to get the necessary papers and finally he was able to get the eight names required to fill the RAP application and to visit us in 1993. He made it to Meghalaya but how many people would take the same trouble to visit Meghalaya? It is also an open secret that majority of tourists visiting Meghalaya are domestic tourists and if visitors have to take the trouble to apply for ILP to visit the state, there are plenty of viable alternatives where they don’t have to do any paper work at all. People will surely opt for another alternative and visit another state where they here they would not have to take the trouble of applying for ILP. If ILP is introduced in the state the first casualty will be the tourism industry. Yes the tourism sector will be hit the hardest.

Then the influx issue also gets complicated when the community converts to Christianity. The case in point is when the Hindu Nepalis under the banner of the Nepali Akhil Ekta Samiti planned to construct a community hall in Ladrymbai, all the NGOs in region went gung-ho against the idea. The community finally had to shelve the idea. The NGOs were also able to convince the administration in Khliehriat to demolish the Hindu temple which has existed in the town a long time ago. Now the same Nepalese or Bengalis if they convert to any Christian denomination will be provided with a church space and treated like a ‘para-bangeit/paraniam’ (confrere) and perhaps not even be considered an immigrant anymore. Which means the influx issue will vanish if all the migrant labourers convert to Christianity.

Influx is a complex issue and if the problem is to be solved then certainly the ILP is not a magic wand that governments can just wave and say the magic words abracadabra and just like that everything would vanish into thin air. In fact movement of people from one area to another in search of food and shelter is as ancient as the history of human beings themselves. If this time the move is towards the hills soon it will a move downhill towards the plain. The Khasi Pnar has moved to these hills a long time ago. It is only natural that at some point of time they will move down to the plains and no one can stop this process.

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