Drawing the Line

Why the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill united northeastern India in protest

Activists of the All Assam Students’ Union, along with 28 other organisations, held a protest in Guwahati against the Indian government’s Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in June 2018.

On 8 January this year, the Lok Sabha passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, which declared that a specified category of undocumented immigrants residing in India—Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians who hail from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan—would not be treated as illegal immigrants. This implied that only Muslims, atheists and practitioners of indigenous faiths from these countries would be treated as undocumented, making them fit for detention and deportation. In the month that followed, there were widespread protests in India’s northeastern states, where people felt the legitimisation of foreigners would threaten the culture and demography of the indigenous people of the region. On 13 February, the protestors were momentarily victorious, as the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government had to abort the plan to table the bill in the Rajya Sabha before parliament was prorogued, causing it to lapse.

But after the BJP’s thumping victory in the 2019 election, the spectre of the bill looms large again, as the party’s manifesto promises its reintroduction and enactment. The contentious bill provides foreigners of the six mentioned faiths a speedier way to obtain citizenship through naturalisation. While the existing Citizenship Act, 1955 mandates that citizenship applicants have to reside in India for a period of 11 years before being naturalised, the proposed amendment would reduce the period to six years for this subset of immigrants. The bill’s blatantly discriminatory provisions violate Article 14 of the Constitution, which guarantees people the “right to equality before the law and equal protection of the laws within the territory of India.” The bill does not provide a constitutionally sound reason behind its religious basis for determining citizenship.

While a bill that undermines the Constitution itself by introducing an exclusionary vision of citizenship should have seen protests across the country, it was only the northeastern region that appeared to be contesting these advances. The mainstream media barely covered the protests, and showed little understanding of how the bill stands to affect the northeastern states and the existential threat it poses to the region’s indigenous people and their cultures.

A protest of this magnitude over a single cause is rare and unprecedented in the history of this region, where there are recurrent divides and negotiations that take place along ethnic lines. On the day after the bill was passed, an eleven-hour bandh across the northeastern states was called by the All Assam Students Union and the North East Students’ Organisation, demanding revocation of the bill. The NESO’s constituents, which include various activist organisations and student bodies such as the Khasi Students’ Union, the AASU, the Naga Students’ Federation, the Mizo Zirlai Pawl, the Twipra Students’ Federation, the All Manipur Students’ Union, the Garo Students’ Union and the All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union, led the protests in their respective states.

For decades now, the indigenous and tribal people of the northeastern states have been living with the fear of becoming outsiders in their own region. The demography of the northeastern region has been changing, with a disproportionate increase in non-local settlers because of porous international borders and the unchecked movement of people from other states of India.

Scholars such as Sanjib Baruah, Hiren Gohain and Subir Bhaumik have studied the change in the region’s demography and the resulting frictions between communities. They have argued that the demographic change has adversely affected indigenous cultures, landholding patterns, livelihood options, political representation and the overall socio-economic status of indigenous ethnic communities. With large parts of the region still occupied by military settlements, the relationship between the indigenous people and the Indian state remains fraught. Many areas continue to demand inclusion in the sixth schedule of the Constitution, which provides greater autonomy to certain regions, and introduction of the inner-line permit, a provision that makes prior approval of the central government necessary for venturing into a protected area.

This struggle to protect indigenous people and their cultures has been ongoing for decades, regardless of which political dispensation occupies the centre. The experiences of colonisation under British rule, and then by the Indian state, have spawned ongoing insurgencies and militarisation. While the region is still recovering from historical violence, the opening up of indigenous territories has only made them vulnerable to further exploitation and conflicts that serve the political interests of certain players. The indigenous people continue to struggle for fair recognition and dignity as full citizens, preservation of traditional indigenous cultures and customary practices, and parity with regards to socio-economic status, development and political representation.

The current government’s design behind the bill follows from its ideological goal of creating a Hindu nation. By settling migrants of Hindu origin from the neighbouring nation of Bangladesh, it can effect a demographic change that would ensure for it longstanding political power through an enduring voter base.

These actions would have lasting consequences for the future of indigenous communities in the region. Through the bill, the BJP is laying the groundwork for creating divides based on religious identities and caste that hitherto have not been significant bases for conflict and anarchy in the northeastern region. The communal agenda would help the BJP not only consolidate its regime, but also “Indianise” the northeastern states, which, taken as a contiguous whole, share 96 percent of their external borders with countries other than India. It is doing this by manufacturing consent, and by deflecting and converting the longstanding sentiment of resistance against the Indian state into a toxic infight directed against the “Muslim Other” within, thereby mainstreaming the region via the Hindu–Muslim communalism that India is easily recognised for.

In mainland India, where ignorance about the northeastern region abounds, the contours of the debate on the bill have been flattened to the secular–communal and the Hindu–Muslim form. The mainstream media only articulates two positions: one, to allow both Hindu and Muslim foreigners to become eligible for citizenship from the three specified countries in keeping with the secular spirit of the Constitution; or rejecting the bill on grounds that it is communal. However, both these scenarios do not account for the aspirations and concerns of the indigenous communities. While the struggle to preserve secularism is crucial in the current political climate, it may not be the right frame to understand the everyday realities and struggles of the people of the northeastern region.

Currently, the sixth-schedule provisions exist only in four northeastern states—Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram. The provisions in the rest of the states lack any safeguards for protection of indigenous land, resources and culture. The absence of sixth-schedule status and inner-line permit regulation in the tribal populated areas in states such as Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur and Tripura makes the region susceptible to the unscrupulous designs of the Indian state to engineer demographic changes.

Tribal and ethnic minorities of the region, including those supporting the BJP for their limited political interests, are acutely aware of the bill’s implications. If the bill is passed and implemented, it will sow seeds of communalism.

On the political front, the outrage from several quarters of the seven states of northeastern India shook the political parties affiliated to the BJP-led North East Democratic Alliance. On 29 January, a convention was held in Guwahati, in which ten political parties—the Mizo National Front, the United Democratic Party, the Asom Gana Parishad, the Naga Peoples’ Front, the National Peoples’ Party, the National Democratic Progressive Party, the Hill State Peoples Democratic Party, the Peoples Democratic Front, the Indigenous People Front of Tripura and the Khun Hynniewtrep National Awakening Movement—unanimously came out with a resolution to oppose the bill. The Asom Gana Parishad also withdrew from its alliance with the BJP in Assam.

The BJP’s central leadership, however, was relentless. On 17 February, speaking at a public gathering in Guwahati, the then BJP president Amit Shah—signalling primarily to Hindu Bengali voters in the Barak valley—pledged that the party would bring back the bill if it was voted back to power. The BJP also made assurances that it would protect the interests of indigenous communities, but has not yet come out with a detailed mechanism on how it plans to operationalise them.

A month before the elections, the Asom Gana Parishad had softened its stance and renewed its alliance with the BJP in Assam. Some former members of the NEDA, such as the United Democratic Party of Meghalaya and the Naga People’s Front of Nagaland, have officially cut ties with the alliance. While other parties have expressed their resentment towards the BJP’s stance on the bill, they have not officially withdrawn from the NEDA.

On 9 April 2019, a week before the elections, the BJP presented the reintroduction of the bill as a core agenda in its manifesto, and emphasised that it would protect the interests of the northeastern people, without explaining how. Thus, the apprehensions of the tribal people remain. The bill in its current form, therefore, is a by-product of mainland Indian politics that continues to be incognisant of the realities in the northeast.

While the BJP has done well electorally by raking up the anti-immigrant sentiment against undocumented Bangladeshi Muslims in Assam, it is trying to legalise the entry of Hindu Bangladeshis into the same region. The lack of a strong response on the bill from other major political parties helped the BJP. Local leaders, officially or unofficially linked to the party, went about assuring sections of the indigenous people that the bill would not affect them adversely. The BJP’s success also sheds light on the sinister role played by the party in polarising the ethnically diverse societies that have coexisted in the region.

The single-point Hindu-nationalist agenda of the bill ensures that it ignores several pertinent questions. Why is Bangladesh being included while other countries, such as Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, China and Myanmar—with whom the northeast shares borders and has closer social, cultural and ethnic affinities—are excluded in its provisions? What is the Indian government’s stance on the Naga and Kuki-Chin-Mizo tribes that are arbitrarily divided by the border between India and Myanmar?

These questions require a sincere response from the people behind the legislation, but also from the people in mainland India who have expressed their intermittent interest in these ongoing affairs. The way this bill has been designed and imposed on the region appears to be no less than an assault on the counter-narrative to the Indian mainland that the northeastern region represents.

With the BJP coming back to power, many opposition parties as well as students’ and civil-society organisations in the northeastern states remain steadfast in their resolve to oppose the bill. But even as such groups continue to reject the bill, a senior party leader and convenor of the NEDA, Himanta Biswa Sarma, reiterated the BJP’s commitment to implementing the bill after addressing some core concerns. Speaking to the news website EastMojo after the elections, and conveniently construing the BJP’s victory in Assam as people’s support for the bill, Sarma said: “It was wrong to assume that this bill will create backlash. This bill addresses concerns of displaced Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Christians, Jains, etc. It’s always wrong to call that the bill will create backlash if the bill works for the betterment of the displaced Hindus. If you do something for the Hindus in India why there should be a backlash?”

While the current pause can in no way be construed as an end to the bill, it is certainly remarkable that the northeastern region, given its historical experience of structural exclusion and neglect, finds itself in a rather ironic position, where it is left alone to protect the values of secularism underlying the notion of Indian citizenship by way of protecting the rights of its indigenous communities. Moreover, the fact that the Indian government is yet to officially recognise its tribal people as indigenous, even after more than a decade has passed since the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, seems to suggest that it has not been committed enough to follow international protocols when it comes to preserving the rights and interests of indigenous communities; and the current dispensation pushing for the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill with utter disregard for the concerns expressed by indigenous groups leaves little hope for change.

An earlier version of this article mistakenly spelt “northeastern” as “northern.” The Caravan regrets the error.