By R G Lyngdoh
There is no doubt that there is a genuine fear among the indigenous people of the North East region as a whole, and Meghalaya in particular, of influx and its effects. Frequently Tripura and Assam are indicated as examples of the adverse effects of influx. In Tripura especially, influx has affected the demographic, economic and political scenario to such an extent that the indigenous people are no longer able to determine their own future, or that of their land. This fear of influx adversely affecting our delicate demographic, economic and political balance has driven the people to search for possible solutions to the problem.
The common solution in the past, has been to insulate, and in some cases isolate, the people of the region from outside influences. Over the years, many laws have been enacted to protect the indigenous people from losing their land, their identity, and their future. Unfortunately, scant attention was paid to the support system required to implement these laws effectively. As a result, many of the laws enacted could not be implemented. And the few that were implemented had so many loopholes that they spawned corruption to such an extent, that the objectives of the law could not be achieved.
This, in turn, led to a feeling of frustration among the people. This frustration led to an angst that found expression in a number of ways – some peaceful, many violent. In this volatile situation, a number of leaders emerged with their versions of the solution. Some of these leaders were genuinely concerned and they offered solutions that they thought were the best to control the situation. Unfortunately, there were other leaders who saw this pent-up fear and frustration as a means to achieve their own personal ambitions – economic and political. These leaders stepped into the limelight without any concern for the consequences of their solutions other than the fact that it could make them rich or propel them into political stardom, or many times it could do both. They were often so glib that they could appeal to the emotions of the many and in this manner they would lead the gullible along the path they wanted.
But, by far, my biggest fear today is that we are still allowing our emotions to determine public policy. The whole world has realised the wisdom in evidence-based policy making. The consequences, good and bad, have to be studied objectively before a policy is recommended for implementation. Evidences for and against the policy have to be first studied and weighed. Then, corrective measures, and support systems, have to be put in place to ensure that the policy is able to effectively achieve its objective.
In 1873, The British were ruling India, and was exploiting the resources of this country for the economic benefit of the Empire. The East India Company was in the process of setting up its economic base in the Brahmaputra Valley, and had successfully started off the tea and oil industries in the area. The indigenous tribals of the area were living in the almost impenetrable hill areas of the region. These tribals were primitive and would conduct raids into the plains to loot and plunder the villages there. This was the historical context in which the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation (BEFR), 1873, was promulgated.
To quote Vijendra Singh Jafa, in his paper on “Administrative Policies & Ethnic Disintegration Engineering Conflict in India’s North East, he says: “The British gave the reasons for formulating the policy of segregating the hill tribes from the plains of Assam and Bengal: (1) to protect the plains from raids and plunder by the hill tribals (1873-1900); (2) to protect the hill tribes from exploitation by the plainsmen (1900-1928); and (3) to foster an enlightened public policy aimed at cultural survival of the hill tribes (1928-1947).
Thus, we can safely conclude that: Initially, the BEFR was meant to restrict the tribals and stop them from marauding the tea gardens, oil rigs and trading posts set up by the British East India Company. Within a few years of the British occupation of these hills, after these tribals were “tamed”, restrictions ceased on the movement of hill tribes, and they were allowed to fish, hunt and attend markets freely on both sides of the Line. Ironically, the restrictions now applied only to the people of the neighbouring plains districts of Bengal and Assam for whose protection the Line was initially defined.
Is the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation of 1873 relevant today? Constitutional experts say that according to Article 19(1)(d) and (e) of the Constitution, every Indian citizen has the right to move freely throughout the territory of India and also to reside and settle in any part of the territory of India. Is a law restricting this fundamental right relevant today? Article 19(5) of the Constitution states that “nothing shall prevent the State from making any law with reasonable restrictions in the interests of the general public.” But constitutional expert Subhash Kashyap says that the term “State” should be read to mean the Union of India, and not the State Legislature.
The BEFR forms part of the regulations made under the Government of India Act, 1870, and the Government of India Act, 1915. It is therefore a Central Law. The Union Home Minister, Sushil Kumar Shinde, when reacting to the demand for implementation of the Inner Line Permit System by the State of Manipur said, “Our Constitution will not allow such things.” A senior Home Ministry official added, “There is no rationale for the State to seek restrictions on the entry of Indians under an outdated law.”
If the BEFR is not the solution, then how do we find a solution? I think the solution can come from a better analysis of what causes influx into Meghalaya. The major cause for influx from other States is mainly economic. People see the economic opportunities to earn a living in Meghalaya and they come to exploit these opportunities. What then stops our locals from exploiting these economic opportunities? Is it that we cannot see these opportunities? Then let us get rid of the tunnel vision that blinds our people so that they too may see the opportunities that others see. Is it that we do not have a work culture that will enable us to effectively compete with outsiders? Then let us ingest a proper work etiquette and culture into our people. Is it that we do not have the skills required to exploit the opportunities? Then let us impart these skills to our people on a war footing. Is it that we have a mental block about taking up certain kind of jobs? Then let us get rid of the taboo existing against these jobs. I know this may take time, but I wish we could put development in a pressure cooker. If we start the process in a focussed, phase wise time bound manner, I am certain we will have found a sustainable solution to our problems.
Understanding that the fears of the people are real, there is a definite need to address these fears. It is time now for our policy makers to be proactive rather than reactive. Discussions rather than confrontations are required today. And it is open minds not closed minds that will bring sustainable solutions.
(The writer is Vice Chancellor, Martin Luther Christian University and can be contacted at [email protected])