Railways and the Issue of Inner Line Permit in Arunachal Pradesh

The Background
The introduction of rail services in the border state of Arunachal Pradesh has been a long cherished dream of the Arunachalees. However, the event has evoked mixed feelings among the people of the
state. There is immense anxiety among student organisations and civil society groups who fear that rail connectivity between Arunachal Pradesh and the rest of the country will bring in an influx of people, entering the state without the requisite Inner Line Permit (ILP). The others see the coming of railways, in absence of proper road and air connectivity, as a development which will boost trade and commerce in this remote state, bringing about much needed growth.

Despite the state being considered as a geo-strategically important state, both by scholars and policymakers, as it shares an international boundary with China, Myanmar and Bhutan, it has been plagued by underdevelopment. In fact, not only Arunachal Pradesh, but all the North-Eastern states of India suffer from underdevelopment. Sanjeev Baruah rightly pointed out that the “partition of 1947 and the state of diplomatic relations between India and its neighbours turned Northeast India into a ‘sensitive border region’ requiring special attention on national security concern. The condition has not been conducive to the region’s economic and political well-being” (Baruah 2005).

The people of Arunachal Pradesh are dismayed by the indifferent attitude of the central government towards the development of the state. This border state has been at the centre of a territorial dispute between the two Asian giants, India and China. But despite that, the government has not bothered to develop infrastructure along the border. Acknowledging this fact in the Parliament in October 2013, the erstwhile Congress Defence Minister A K Anthony said that “China is superior in terms of border infrastructure as India was late in deciding on building roads and other capabilities near the LAC (Line of Actual Control) because of the impact of the 1962 war”. While describing it as a “collective failure” of all the successive governments, the minister further said that “after ‘years of neglect’, India is fast developing capabilities near the China border, including building of roads, raising of two mountain divisions and setting up many new airfields and landing grounds” (Times of India 2013).

In a bid to bolster the connectivity and infrastructure in this remote border state, the railways embarked on a project to put Arunachal Pradesh on India’s railway map in the late 1990s. The Harmutty (Assam)–Naharlagun (Arunachal Pradesh) line was laid, and on 7 April 2014, the first passenger train rolled into Naharlagun, 15 kms from the state capital Itanagar, from Dekargaon in Assam.

This was in line with the railway’s policy to provide connectivity to state capitals of North-Eastern states. It can also be understood as an attempt by the Indian government to bring infrastructure development in Arunachal Pradesh on par with what the Chinese government has accomplished in their territory along the border.

Advent of Railways

The railway project in Arunachal Pradesh was sanctioned in 1997, when the former Railway Minister Ram Vilas Paswan announced the 21 km Harmutty-Naharlagun railway line (9 kms in Assam and 12.75 kilometers in Arunachal Pradesh) to link Arunachal Pradesh with the national rail network for the first time (India Times 2014). Accordingly, a survey was conducted in 1997 by the Indian railways and a meter gauge line was sanctioned in the 1996-97 railway budget. However, the state government approved the project only by 2006. The project was delayed further when the line had to be upgraded to a meter gauge line at the request of the state government. (Economic Times 2014).

With the completion of the Harmutti-Naharlagun railway link in early 2014, the infrastructure was in place to connect Naharlagun with New Delhi. Under the 2014-15 railway budget, a Rajdhani Express between New Delhi and Naharlagun was proposed. In order to facilitate comfortable travel, the Arunachal Pradesh government relaxed the rigid norm of obtaining the ILP, which is mandatory for outsiders to enter the state. Instead, the reserved ticket held by the passengers was deemed sufficient by the state government. The plan had to be put on hold, as this was met with stiff resistance from the locals who feared that they would be inundated by outsiders, threatening their identity and culture.

In 2014, the central government also took the decision to strengthen the infrastructure along the China border and facilitate the easy movement of troops and tanks. The central government decided to expedite the building of four top priority strategic railway lines along the China border. Out of these four lines, two are in Arunachal Pradesh. The identified lines are Missamari-Tawang (378 km) in Assam-Arunachal Pradesh and Murkongselek-Pasighat-Tezu-Parashuram Kund-Rupai (256 km) in Assam-Arunachal Pradesh (The Indian Express 2014, 22 October). The government has called for a survey to check the feasibility of these lines. Notably, the Murkongselek-Pasighat-Tezu-Parashuram Kund-Rupai (256 km) in Assam-Arunachal Pradesh line is facing stiff opposition from the people of Pasighat.

Inner Line Permit Issue

The euphoria over the introduction of railways in Arunachal Pradesh was short lived, and the move sparked huge protests in the state. Just a month after the introduction of the passenger train service in April 2014, its services were suspended due to ILP issues. The local people feared that their indigenous identity would be threatened due to massive ingress of non-indigenous Arunachalees entering the state without the ILP, which has been in operation in the state from colonial times.

These developments once again compel many of us in the state and across the country to revisit the discourse on the ILP system. This system has been operational under the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation Act, 1873, which was devised by the British government to prohibit the entry of the non-indigenous people in the tribal hill areas of North-East without a special permit. The law was designed to protect the culture and identity of indigenous tribes residing in the region as well as the commercial interests of the colonial government.
The ILP essentially is an official travel document issued by the state governments of Arunachal Pradesh Nagaland and Mizoram to any Indian citizen who wants to visit these restricted states/areas. The foreigners require the protected Area permit (PAP) to visit these states.

People’s Perception

The hasty introduction of rail services in Arunachal Pradesh in April 2014 by the state government without a suitable mechanism in place to grant ILPs to railway passengers took the local people by surprise. It was seen as an attempt by the Nabam Tuki-led Congress government to reap electoral dividends in the state assembly elections, which were going to be held on 9 April 2014. The influx of passengers without ILPs in the initial days of the rail service raised serious concerns among the people of the state. The people viewed this development as an underhand move by the central government to eliminate the ILP regulation from the state of Arunachal Pradesh.

Students organisations like the All Nishi Students Union (ANSU), the All Papumpare District Students Union (APPDSU) and other civil society organisations raised serious concerns regarding the state government’s failure to strictly implement the ILP regulations. Though on 14 January 2014, the Papumpare deputy commissioner on behalf of the government of Arunachal Pradesh had declared that “the state government would put a mechanism in place for checking the ILP of passengers” (Arunachal Times 2104, 15 January), it failed to deliver an effective mechanism to regulate ILP.

As a result of the intense protests, the passenger train service was suspended on 10 May 2014. The ANSU and APPDSU, who were spearheading the movement, demanded the framing of a proper mechanism to execute the ILP provisions before the resumption of rail services. They also called for “white paper assurance from NF Railway authority to ensure that the C and D grade job are reserved for local people in particular and people of Arunachal Pradesh as a whole” (Arunachal Times 2014, 9 May).

It was against this backdrop that the people of the state also opposed the introduction of the Rajdhani Express. The fact that the reserved ticket required to board the train would replace the official permit necessary for visiting the state was unacceptable to the people and was vehemently condemned by the various organisations in the state. (Indian Express 2014, 22 September). It seemed that the motive behind the introduction of railways was more strategic than economic. This was evident from the speech made by the erstwhile Congress Railway Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal on 27 February 2014. He said that “‘nation security was a top priority for railways. The Harmutty (Assam) - Naharlagun (Arunachal Pradesh) would be commissioned within the financial year 2013-2014” (Times of India 2013, 28 February). However, the people believe that if the railways are to be introduced in the state for national security reasons, then rail connectivity should be extended to border areas like Tuting-Gelling in Upper Siang district on the international border.

Protecting the ILP

The commencement of railway services in the state is sure to spawn many important developments. It will not only open up Arunachal Pradesh to rest of the world but also provide a boost to the state’s economy. With the adoption of the “Act East Policy” by the central government, which focuses on improvement of its economic ties with Southeast Asian countries, the North-Eastern states due their geographical proximity to these countries stand to gain. For example, states like Arunachal Pradesh can play a prominent role in paving the way for economic permeability. To achieve this, many of its age old restrictive laws like ILP, PAP, Restricted Area Permit (RAP), etc, need to revisited.

Though many believe that the ILP is an infringement of the fundamental rights of people, the indigenous people of states like Mizoram, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh treat it as a constitutional measure to protect their indigenous culture and identity. States like Manipur and Meghalaya, today, have intensified their demand for the ILP system. Noteworthily, the Manipur legislative assembly in this regard, in July 2012, passed a resolution to “extend and adopt the Bengal eastern Frontier Regulation, 1873 with necessary changes in the point of details to the states of Manipur and to urge the government of India to comply the same”(Press Information Bureau, 4 Sepetmber 2012).

Nonetheless, the current apprehensions of the people are reasonable if we look at the deliberate attempts made in the past to lift the ILP system from the North-Eastern states of India. Responding to various petitions from various organisations to lift the system from the region, the Guwahati High Court on June 13, 2008 directed the Mizoram government not to deport or arrest any person without the ILP (Oneindia 2008).

The call for protecting the ILP system might come in the way of promoting globalisation, liberalisation and privatisation in the region, but it has to be remembered that the North-Eastern states are still trying to carve out their space within India’s federal structure. Though lately, the government of India is making an attempt to develop the North-Eastern region of India, particularly the state of Arunachal Pradesh. In addition to establishing railways, which will help in the development of the region, there is also a need to seriously implement the ”Act East Policy”, which will aid growth and development in the region through cross-border trade.

Viewing development of the region only through a security lens might not serve this purpose well. It is high time that the government of India reanalyses its policies of border trade with neighbouring countries, especially in regard to Arunachal Pradesh. Many traditional trade routes like the Bumla trade point (Indo-China) near Tawang, Pangsau pass in Changlang (Indo-Myanmar) etc, in Arunachal Pradesh, have economically benefitted the people of the area better in the past. General Singh, relevantly pointed out that recommencement of formal border trade will truly give a boost to the economy of the North-Eastern states, particularly Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Meghalaya and Nagaland (Singh 2014, 325). So if the government is really serious about economic development of this state, then it should work towards reopening these trade routes.

However, if we are to believe the statement of Kiren Rijiju, minister of state for home affairs, then this border state in a few years will see some development. In spite of the Chinese government’s reservations about India’s policy to develop this border state, the minister said “We will do certain infrastructural activities which have not been done in the last 60 years. The Chinese should not have a problem with my statement..... They cannot stop me from doing my work” (India Today 2014).

With movements against illegal immigrants taking place in neighboring states like Assam Tripura, etc, the fear of illegal immigration has always haunted the people of Arunachal Pradesh. And it is for this reason that the people have been demanding strict implementation of the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation, 1873. Constitutionally speaking, the state does not have special constitutional provisions like Article 371(A) and Article 371(G) applicable to the states of Nagaland and Mizoram respectively, protecting their religious, social and customary laws, ownership and transfer of land, administration of civil and criminal justice, etc. So in absence of such provisions, protection of indigenous tribal identity and culture is a major concern among people of Arunachal Pradesh. It is rather early to think about lifting the ILP at this stage, as the state is yet not in a position to accommodate the inflow of outsiders.

Railways and ILP

The state and the central government will have to come up with a satisfactory mechanism, whereby passengers travelling by train do not bypass the ILP system. Though the state government has decided to set up ILP counters at the railway stations, but without effective monitoring the desired result will not be achieved. In this context, creation of a separate department for granting ILPs with technical know-how and enough manpower would not only make the implementation process easier, but also the concerned department will act more responsibly.
The launch of the new AC Express between Naharlagun and New Delhi, putting Arunachal Pradesh on India’s railway map for the first time, marks a momentous occasion in the history of the state. But the event will become significant for the prople if the state government also comes up with an effective mechanism for the co-existence of railways and the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation, 1873 that is acceptable to the indigenous people of the state.


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