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How Modi, Shah have shred Vajpayee & Jana Sangh’s principled opposition to ILP in Northeast

Vajpayee & Jana Sangh fought Nehru for quarantining fellow Indians in Northeast under Inner Line Permit. Their successors have strengthened & expanded it.

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The tribal states of the Northeast have been promised Inner Line Permit protection from the fallout of the CAB-NRC process. To explain what this means, I need to do some story-telling.

One very special privilege of holding a most distant outpost in difficult times is how much attention, time and affection you can get from people who’d be way above your station in ‘normal’ times.

One of the many blessings of my three-year stint in the Northeast as The Indian Express correspondent based in Shillong (1981-83), therefore, was how some brilliant, old and eminent people dropped by, mostly unannounced at our tiny ‘Assam Type’ cottage home in a quaintly-named neighbourhood (like much else in Shillong), Kench’s Trace.

One such, on a brilliant and fortuitous afternoon, was N.K. ‘Nari’ Rustomji, among the doyens of what used to be called the IFAS, or Indian Frontier Administrative Service.

The IFAS was designed to manage the most sensitive Northeastern border (essentially tribal) states of India. It consisted of a tiny elite of the elite, hand-picked by Jawaharlal Nehru and his tribal affairs adviser (especially for the Northeast) anthropologist Verrier Elwin.

Rustomji, an ICS officer of the 1942 batch, had been a favourite of both. He had held the most important positions in those difficult and dangerous decades, including as prime minister to the Chogyal of Sikkim.

Also read: Without a pan-India NRC, Modi-Shah know Citizenship Bill is nothing but symbolism 

Long after retiring now, he had become a writer. He was a devastating raconteur. Of course, some of his exploits will be a bit risqué for mere news columns.

He was spending time in Shillong because he was working on a new book: Imperilled Frontiers (I reviewed it later for India Today). He had tasted much fame with an earlier one called Enchanted Frontiers. In the early 1980s, the Northeast had four active, foraging insurgencies (Naga, Mizo, Manipuri and Tripura tribals), and a mass movement in Assam so popular it had blocked off the flow of crude from its oil fields to mainland India’s refineries.

That’s why the book’s title, Imperilled Frontiers.

He took a liking to us, our first-born and, I presume, our dogs, and dropped by often.

One theme recurring through his book drafts was ‘hastening slowly’. He said this was the innovative plan Nehru and Elwin had devised for the tribal regions of the Northeast. They wanted change to come to these distant, sparsely-populated, tribal and sensitive regions eventually, but at a pace that these fragile communities and geographies could absorb.

Elwin, by the way, was a self-taught anthropologist who fell in love with Indian tribes, became a friend of Nehru’s and, in 1954, became the first Briton to be given Indian citizenship. It is only then that he was appointed adviser to the prime minister on tribal affairs, especially in North Eastern Frontier Agency or NEFA, as Arunachal Pradesh was then called. In 1957, he published his Philosophy for NEFA. You can find more details in Ramachandra Guha’s biography of him.

The essential pillar of the philosophy was that “people should develop along the lines of their own genius and we should avoid imposing anything on them”.

The entire philosophy rested on the idea of controlling and carefully calibrating the interaction between these communities and ‘outsiders’. Inner Line Permit (ILP) restrictions on outsiders from the rest of India freely travelling to these states were the instrument to implement this. Nagaland, Arunachal (NEFA) and later Mizoram came to be thus ‘protected’ with the ILP.

Not everybody agreed. Least of all the Right-nationalists of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (the parent of BJP). It saw the usual Nehruvian woolly-headedness here, and sometimes, even a diabolical Western conspiracy.

Also read: What is Inner Line Permit in Northeast and how it is linked to citizenship bill

Even at their most charitable, they compared these ILP areas with the ‘reservations’ the Americans had built for their natives. Why should we quarantine our fellow Indians into the wild, only so missionaries could go and convert them at will? The Hindu-Right was joined in its fears by socialist Ram Manohar Lohia. He made two visits to NEFA to break through ILP restrictions, was arrested and returned.

After the 1962 debacle, these voices strengthened. Under pressure, a broken Nehru conceded the demand from Jana Sangh — articulated by a young Atal Bihari Vajpayee — that India resettle one lakh ‘sturdy’ Punjabis, especially Sikh ex-servicemen, in NEFA.

Elwin fought back. The Jana Sangh, however, said the state which the Chinese had just invaded had a Muslim chief secretary, Parsi adviser (Rustomji) and a Christian chief anthropologist (Elwin). It was unacceptable.

Guha’s biography mentions how Elwin visited the home ministry on 21 February 1964 and was told by another Northeast specialist officer Rashid Yousuf Ali that the decision to resettle Punjabis and lift all restrictions was final. He had the file on his desk.

The next day, Elwin met friend Nehru. He died the day after, at 62. Three months later, Nehru too joined him.

Now, time-travel quickly to today. Nehru, under his “British” friend’s influence, bought into the idea of ILP. Vajpayee and Lohia wanted it out. Over the following six decades, successive Indian governments allowed restrictions to weaken, and the result was welcome integration, hastening slowly.

Now, Vajpayee and Jana Sangh’s children haven’t just re-strengthened the ILP restrictions, but extended them to an entirely new state, Manipur (the third largest state in the Northeast) and also added to it Nagaland’s Dimapur, a bustling cosmopolitan town in the plains.

Postscript: For all talk of his Christian influence, Elwin had ceased to be a Christian years ago. He was cremated according to Buddhist rites in Shillong.

Also read: Modi govt’s Citizenship Amendment Bill silent on rights of Gorkhas, Koch Rajbongshis & Bodos 


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  1. The ” Hindutva” brigade neither knows nor understands the difficulties through which Nehru steered India . The people of the North-East are not ethnic Indians and have kindred closeness to Chinese rather than the Hindu North Indian . Was it not Indira Gandhi , who ensured accession of Sikkim to India ? Even the British were not in control at all of the North-East except a few tea growing pockets . As far as Modi-Shah are concerned they can do any thing to cement their political hegemony -morals be damned!

  2. Para at the top of this article talks of some story telling, and photo at the top of this article shows a joker! How does the joker fit in the pack or the story, I don’t know. Very soon no one will care to know, even if the photo shows our respected prime minister Mr Modi touchingly attempting a human interface. Post-CAB, clamour will turn into a crescendo at a lightning speed across the geographies of India : “Mr Modi and Mr Shah, please go back to Gujarat”.

  3. Shekhar may know North East much better than anyone and may have deep fascination for people who worked there earlier. However, as of now, to sort out CAB issue, if ILP is required, so be it. It can be implemented in a manner of ‘slowly hastening’ towards its removal over few more years! If ILP gives some sense of comfort to the local populace there, it is fine. Today mode and means of communication have changed drastically and complete isolation is impossible. Its is legacy issue and one must commend Modi Shah duo for taking concrete steps to sort it out. As you sort out, some other issue opens up due to its complex intertwined nature. Let us not beat Modi Shah every time with Vajpeyi standards; times have changed and we need to clear old cobwebs fast. Ataljee never had such a majority and Advani would have been a different leader if it were so!!

  4. Fascinating story, it is unfortunate, Modi to some extent may understand, but Shah who has zero knowledge about pre post independence history, geography and culture of North Eastern States. India is going to pay heavily for having a home minister.

  5. Ideology is not an old tree to which one should hang one’s self. Modi was opposed to GST as CM. But, as PM, he implemented it. The seat of power teaches many things which the opposition Bench cannot teach. If BJP has changed its view on ILP, and finds it a suitable way to pacify the agitators, it would be perfectly in keeping with common sense. One need not hang on to an ideological opposition of past, which was on a different basis – that of preventing integration. Now, the urgency is to prevent innundation of these regions by migrants.

  6. So, how do we know that Elwin was not a British mole? His actions surely suggest he was one. Just because the lefty pinhead Guha writes his biography does not make him a saint.

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