There appears to be a temporary calm in the north-eastern states, now that the controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2016 has lapsed with the Rajya Sabha adjourned sine die on February 13th. Yet, tension in these states go deeper than the reported protests and violence that occurred over the proposed amendments in the above law.
In fact, while the Citizenship Amendment Bill brought the fault lines in the focus of national attention, there are other deep-rooted issues, other laws that are still fuelling ethnic conflict in the region.
Whatever motivated the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi to push the Citizenship Amendment Bill for so long, had to be restrained in the face of unprecedented united and massive protests against it by the people of the seven sisters — Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura (AAMMMNT).
Political parties, student unions, organizations across the board and people from all walks joined hands and poured on to the streets in protest — from Guwahati to Imphal to Agartala, and the situation went from tense to fragile. Several cities imposed Section 144, while curfew was clamped in the Manipuri capital, and the Internet, mobile networks blocked.
But what was it in the law that led to such aggressive reaction from the people?
The historical context
The controversial law aimed to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955 by relaxing eligibility criteria for attaining Indian citizenship for immigrants belonging to six minority (non-Muslim) religions — Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, Christians and Parsis — from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. It was passed in the Lok Sabha in December 2018.
Starting from the late 1970s, books and articles with provocative titles like “North east in flames” or “Frontier in flames” have been common with writers and journalists documenting the events that engulfed the region, as it rose in arms against foreigners.
The word “foreigners” has a tricky meaning in the region. In Assam it is basically taken to mean migrants from Bangladesh, whereas for other states of the region (minus Assam), generally known as the ‘hill’ states, it meant at that time (and even now in many instances), people from the plains from anywhere.
The All Assam Students Union (ASSU) movement enjoyed extensive support of its citizenry, who had seen migrants simply walk across the porous border at various junctures of history, and melt into the host population, threatening to change the demography of the state by marginalizing local populations.
The ASSU line was followed closely by student unions in the other hill states as well, where the tribes and indigenous communities were equally apprehensive as their neighbours about what migration and migrants would do to the demography. The anti-foreigner movement turned violent many times.
It is to be noted that every state in the region is a border state — Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Manipur, Nagaland, Tripura (AAMMMNT) and Sikkim—they share over 4500 kms of international boundary with Tibetan-China, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Myanmar. Foreigner influx is an issue in every corner of the region, whether they are fellow-tribes or Muslims or Hindus from across.
From Assam Accord to NRC and ILP system
Some semblance of order, however, was restored once the Assam Accord was signed in 1985. This provided for new rules of citizenship for the people of Assam: Only those who had entered the state before January 1, 1966 would be considered regular citizens; those who had entered between January 1, 1966 and March 24, 1971 would be disenfranchised for 10 years, while those who had entered after that date would be deported.
It was in alignment with this Accord that the National Register of Citizens (NRC) was enacted under which all citizens (Assam) had to register to chaff out the ‘foreigners”. 40 lakh names were left out from the final NRC draft published on July 30, 2018. Other states have also demanded implementation of the NRC.
Currently, Assam is grappling with the NRC results and its frightening implications even as the hill states are seeing unprecedented activity by people demanding constitutional safeguards for their land, identity, culture, language in the form of implementation of the Inner Line Permit (ILP) system.
The ILP, operative so far in the states of Mizoram, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh, is derived from a British law made in 1873 known as the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation, 1873. This sought to curb inter-marriages between tribals and non-tribals and strengthen land transfer laws to prevent migrants from proliferating. The ILP, currently, is a travel document issued by the Government of India that allow travellers to visit these areas, considered protected, for limited periods of time, but imposes several restrictions, such as barring them from buying property, etc.
There are also demands for upgrading these to union territories, autonomous councils and states while some armed organizations also press for independence from the Indian Union altogether.
It is agreed by most that the opposition to any form of inward migration to the region has peaked because the Indian nation could not, or did not, protect its borders and as a result failed to safeguard the sovereign rights of its citizens in the border states of the region. Thus, even to those otherwise indifferent, it was obvious that the amended bill was unacceptable.
According to Prasenjit Biswas, general secretary of the North Eastern Hill University Teachers Association (NEHUTA), this Bill if enacted would go against the indigenous people of the region and encourage even more illegal migration into the area, which is already grappling with migration issues. “Hindus will be attacked in Bangladesh, while they will not be welcome here,” he said calling the drama by the BJP ‘a farce’ and an “attempt to divide people along religious lines.”
NEHUTA had organized and launched an indefinite campaign to oppose the Bill to join all the other protests. Now, with its lapse, this and other protests have been withdrawn and yet, not all seems to be fine.
An uneasy calm
Even if the government has allowed the Citizenship Bill to lapse, it has stoked up other ethnic fires in various corners. In particular, the passage in Rajya Sabha of the Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order (Amendment) Bill, 2019, could well unsettle the fragile harmony in the region.
This law gives Scheduled Tribe Status to six communities in Assam, namely Tai Ahom, Koch Rajbongshi, Chutia, Tea Tribes, Moran and Matak. Then, there is the order to give ST status to the Bodo community in the hill districts of Assam and Karbis in other districts of state.
The original tribes under the banner of the Coordination Committee of the Tribal Organizations of Assam (CCTOA) has warned the Centre and the State Government that the Bill introduced in the Rajya Sabha for according ST status to the six ethnic groups of Assam may lead to fratricidal clashes in the cities and other parts of the state. They feel that the grant of ST status to these communities will eat into the educational and employment opportunities reserved for the 14 existing and original tribal communities and that they will be deprived of representation in the Panchayati Raj institutions, urban bodies, municipalities and higher governments.
Thus, the embers of separatism, pushed into the sidelines over the past years, are once again trailing smoke because of the recklessness of vote bank politics. These whipped emotions will now take time to settle down.