Drawing the Line

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

01 July 2019
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.
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.

Richard Kamei is a doctoral candidate at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai.

sabina y rahman is a doctoral candidate in sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.

Keywords: Citizenship (Amendment) Bill Parliament Narendra Modi BJP indian constitution equality Northeast India AGP AASU