Indigeneity, migrants and justice: On the ILP movement

Bobby Sorokhaibam *

ILP :  Different form of Agitations in Imphal East and Imphal West demanding implementation of ILPS :: 15 August 2015
ILP : Different form of Agitations in Imphal East and Imphal West on 15 August 2015 :: Pix - Shankar Khangembam

For the past few months, Manipur has been rocked by the demand for an effective law against the unregulated inflow of migrants who are generally referred to as 'outsiders' to mean both foreigners and other migrants from outside the state, though from within India. The intensity of the movement has been matched by a maze of writings mostly in support of the ongoing movement.

Voices of self-introspection and critiques have been missing by large. This absence may be attributed to a general societal agreement over the detrimental consequences that uncontrolled migration poses to the indigenous populations of the state. Census figures based on 2001 count, frequently cited in these writings, put the migrant population to 7.04 lakhs outnumbering the combined population of all tribes put together that stands at 6.71 lakhs.

The details of the 2011 census are not yet in public knowledge. The size of the migrant population is second only to that of the Meeteis, the majority community of the state only by a few thousands. Understandably in this scenario, concerns have been raised regarding the continued survival and identity of indigenous communities. These concerns range from the cultural to economic spheres most prominently, the pressure on land and labour.

The tiny area of the valley that hosts most of the population of the state despite accounting for only about one-tenth of total area but does not enjoy any protection against transfers of land ownership that the hills enjoy, is one major point of reference too. While as concerns, all these have existed for some years now, the dormant anxieties have blown into full fire in recent months, resulting in the process to the death of a young school student at the hands of the police. This piece intends to raise certain questions on, and thus point to the urgency of reflecting upon, the mode and methods of this movement that has not shown any signs of let-up even amidst a most devastating flood in recent memory.

A Misplaced Shibboleth

First, when a cause is launched in the form of a people's movement, it is imperative that the leadership spells out clearly the objectives of the movement. The clarity of the objective is not necessary for the purposes of garnering support only but equally importantly in case of mass movements, to ensure that supporters display the right attitude both to the protest as well as to those with differing opinions and arguments.

While the present movement is for regulating or controlling migration, the shibboleth accompanying it is Inner Line Permit (ILP). Placards demand ILP, while the demand and protest are co-ordinated by the Joint Committee on Inner Line Permit System (JCILPS). However, given that what has come to be known as ILP owes its origin to a colonial law, the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation Act, 1873, ILP cannot easily relieve itself of the colonial spatial and cultural imageries. The questions then naturally arise in relation to each of the three words that form ILP. To take just one- Inner Line from whom, Inner of what, or Inner from where?

While these questions may sound irrelevant, it is important to remember that a savagery/civilization distinction was at play in the history of these lines. The protective function of these lines as was envisioned later can come to limelight only through a display of the right spirit by the mass of participants. If mysteries mask the shibboleths, clarities do not dawn on the participants.

Question of Ethicality

Secondly, protests in a democracy are rooted in questions of justice. And questions of justice by their very nature often draw legitimacy from a deeper, albeit often invisible, source of morality and ethics. The demand for ILP in as much as it is propelled by the fear of indigenous communities being annihilated appeals to a moral core. Even if this demand is framed in the language of a political right, drawing from the UN Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples, 2007, it is not a right like any other.

Invoking such a right does not mean advocating reciprocity of exclusivism. Rather, it founds itself on a political desirability of differentiation. In other words, a political demand of such kind necessarily carries within itself a universal moral stance since it assumes that any group or community in similar set of circumstances should be entitled to claim such a right.

Critics who are eager to dismiss any reference to morality also easily forget that any such dismissals tend to spill over to the mode and methods of protests.

It may safely be concluded that there is wide social consensus over the need for an effective law against uncontrolled immigration which is visible both in the spatial reach of the movement as well as in its participation by people across ethnic or religious lines, which is rather rare in recent Manipur. It must however be remembered that a consensus does not legitimate itself, or legitimacy does not exhaust itself in consensus.

On the other hand, it is undermined by any real or perceived lack of moral core. Mention may be made of the death of a student in police firing, the news of a lady having to deliver her baby in a vehicle because she was not allowed to proceed further to a hospital, and many other unreported cases vehicles on emergency health services being stoned.

Recent debates about whether Robinhood really knew what ILP was all about is not the issue. The polemics of the question only invites rhetorical counter-questions such as –did all revolutionaries, men and women, who participated in the Russian revolution, know the real import of Das Capital or the immense commentaries by philosophers on the texts by Marx, Engels and Lenin, etc.?

However, when school going children in their uniforms are either 'pressurised' or 'compelled' to be on the streets, it does raise a question of political morality. It is for a reason that in democracies, there is a certain age of eligibility for exercising the right to franchise. Further, there is the question of the wisdom and political morality of exposing school children to police brutalities, which is almost always guaranteed in a highly militarised state like Manipur, where the police and military alike have enjoyed impunity comparable to feudalistic sadism.

Few days after the death of Robinhood, when the shock and condemnation was still high, pictures were published in papers of a girl in her school uniform being dragged by the hair from behind by a policeman in such visible antipathy that the splits in the muscles of his forearm and face were prominent. It is an extremely disturbing scene, but one that elaborately paints the brutal reality that the society in Manipur has been for a long time now.

Questions of political morality are not merely concerns of the 'petty bourgeoisie', as many self-proclaimed radicals may be in a hurry to declare. Many of the political and social issues that the people are facing are not easily classed into neat Marxist binaries of 'haves' and 'have-nots'. For evidence, one need only to reflect on the slogan of Immigrant Workers' Freedom Ride, 2003- No human is illegal.

The fact that there is increasing support on the left horizon with the 2003 slogan should be a pointer to the need for a deeper reflection. Such a position is not seen to be conflicting with the principles of the UN Declaration on Indigenous rights. On the other hand, there is indeed ground to argue that capitalism would readily identify with and in fact, promote the above slogan.

The question then is -how have such traditionally opposing camps come to occupy a common position; or is it really a common ground? If the answer is a definite 'No' as it should be, it is imperative on the leaders of the movement to articulate a clear political position. Such clarity is required to save that thin line that separates xenophobia from a political movement to protect indigenous peoples.

The failure of which risks producing a generation of inward looking, xenophobic people intolerant of difference. And, a society of xenophobic minds does not need migrants to annihilate it; it will do it itself, automatically!

* Bobby Sorokhaibam wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer teaches Political Science at Zakir Husain Delhi College, University of Delhi.
This article was posted on August 19, 2015.

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