CAA: The north-eastern quagmire

Print edition : January 17, 2020

Members of 30 indigenous organisations protesting against the CAA in Dibrugarh district of Assam on December 24 at a rally organised by the All Assam Students Union. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

The CAA has added to the complexities of settling the question of who is an “illegal migrant” in the north-eastern region. Defining who is indigenous in each State there is expected to be a new political puzzle.

The movement against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), 2019, has swelled across the country on the singular threat of determination and grant of citizenship on the basis of religion. In Assam and other north-eastern States, the threat of loss of linguistic and cultural identities of indigenous communities, which became the basis for the agitation, has now been compounded by the threat of determination of citizenship on religious lines.

Unlike in the rest of India where the “no NRC” chorus is growing louder after the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAB) was enacted, the majority of the people in Assam have been saying no to the Act in order to defend the updated National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the 1985 Assam Accord. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Sangh Parivar, however, support the CAA while seeking the rejection of the updated NRC in the State. The updated citizens’ register validates the Assam Accord and the cut-off date of March 24, 1971, for identification, disenfranchisement and expulsion of “illegal migrants” in the State.

Besides the religion of the immigrants, the cut-off date of December 31, 2014, in the Act has sparked off mass resistance in Assam as it violates the cut-off date provided in the Assam Accord. Therefore, making the CAA secular by including Muslims in the list of persecuted immigrants is not going to address the problem. Rather, it will turn catastrophic for Assam as it will result in burdening the State with “illegal migrants”, not just those belonging to Hindu and other non-Muslim communities but also Muslims from the period between 1971 and 2014 and beyond.

The announcement by Union Home Minister Amit Shah that those eligible for citizenship under the CAA just needed to submit a written application and would not be required to produce any supporting document vindicates the apprehension that the illegal Hindu and other non-Muslim immigrants who came after the cut-off date will take advantage of this clause to claim residency in the State before this date and obtain citizenship. This will mean opening the doors for illegal Bangladeshi immigrants to come and settle in the Barak and Brahmaputra valleys for all time. The question of indigeneity being the primary concern, the anti-CAA movement groups in the region are demanding compilation of the NRC. The issue surrounding immigration varies from State to State in the region. There have been demands for separate cut-off dates for various restrictive regimes as well as identification of permanent residents and indigenous peoples. This explains why the North East Students’ Organisation (NESO) has been demanding State-specific modalities for the NRC in the region and why a one size fits all modality for the proposed nationwide NRC is not going to work in the region.

The clamour for the colonial-era restrictive regime of Inner Line Permit (ILP) under the provisions of the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation, 1873, as a protective mechanism for preservation of indigenous identities has grown in the region. The ILP regime requires Indian citizens from other States to obtain a permit to enter these States and the areas protected under it. The permit is valid for a limited and stipulated period. The Narendra Modi government’s decision to push for the ILP in Manipur, after excluding the existing ILP States, has spurred the ILP demand in Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura, the three States bordering Bangladesh. These three States have been bearing the brunt of the unabated immigration from the erstwhile East Pakistan and later Bangladesh through the porous border. As of now, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland have the ILP regime. Manipur became a new member of the ILP club after its inclusion by a presidential order in December 2019.

The demographic change in Tripura, owing to the influx of people in the pre-Partition and Partition days from the erstwhile East Pakistan and present-day Bangladesh, keeps buzzing the immigration alarm for indigenous people in all the other States in the region. Official data show that ethnic and indigenous communities enlisted as Scheduled Tribes constituted 52.89 per cent of the total population of 1.73 lakh in 1901. Their share declined to 50.09 in the 1941 Census. It declined drastically to 36.89 per cent in 1951, 28.95 per cent in 1971, and 28.44 per cent in 1981. In 2001, the population of indigenous Tripuris increased marginally to 31.05 per cent and in 2011, to 31.78 per cent of the total population of 36,73,917. Tripura was a princely state before its merger with India on October 15, 1949.

While the Modi government has been pushing for a nationwide NRC, it is yet to clarify whether it favours the NRC exercise in Tripura by taking the cut-off date of July 19, 1948, as sought in a petition filed by the Tripura People’s Front in the Supreme Court in 2018. In 1993, the Dasarath Deb-headed Left Front government in Tripura signed a Memorandum of Settlement with the erstwhile militant outfit the All Tripura Tribal Force (ATTF) to send back all “illegal migrants” from Bangladesh who came to the State after March 25, 1971.

Meghalaya’s demand

In Meghalaya, the demand for the ILP regime has reached a new high. The State Assembly unanimously passed a resolution during a special session of the House urging the Central government to extend the ILP regime to the State to safeguard the interests of the indigenous people. Meghalaya has three autonomous district councils (ADCs) under the Sixth Schedule: the Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council, the Garo Hills Autonomous District Council and the Jaintia Hills Autonomous District Council. Nearly the entire State of Meghalaya, except the cantonment and municipal area of Shillong, is covered by the three autonomous councils. These ADCs were constituted in 1952 when Meghalaya was part of Assam. When Meghalaya was carved out as a full-fledged State in 1971, the three ADCs continued in the new State.

On November 1, the Conrad Sangma Cabinet approved the Meghalaya Residents Safety and Security (Amendment) Ordinance, 2019, which seeks to impose a restrictive regime on the lines of the ILP to “ensure enhanced security of the State”. The ordinance seeks to verify and regulate the entry of visitors to the State and regulate tenants or any other person residing in rented houses or any other place in the State. The Meghalaya Governor is yet to grant approval to the ordinance. The ordinance, when it takes effect, will require any person who is not a resident of Meghalaya and intends to stay for more than 24 hours in the State to furnish information in the manner as may be prescribed in the rules. The State government has announced that the ordinance will be done away with once the ILP regime is extended to Meghalaya. The Sangma government will be under pressure to pursue the ILP resolution with the Modi government in 2020.

Extending the ILP regime to the State of Manipur and Dimapur district of Nagaland only added to the momentum of the anti-CAA agitation in the States without the ILP. However, the anti-CAA agitation continued in Manipur and Nagaland to express solidarity with the agitators in the non-ILP States.

Pradip Phanjoubam, author, columnist and editor of The Imphal Free Press, told Frontline: “The ILP promise to Manipur came just ahead of the Rajya Sabha voting in the Citizenship Bill. Probably, the BJP was unsure if the Bill would make it past the Upper House, especially if the Shiv Sena decided to go against it, so it wanted to mop up every vote. Therefore, the rush to include Manipur and Dimapur district in the ILP. Two NPF [Nagaland Peoples Front] MPs, one from Nagaland and one from Manipur, who had earlier stated they would vote against the Bill, later voted in favour of it. Manipur is pacified momentarily, but after more considered assessments, apprehension is again building up. Also, there are powerful calls for solidarity with Assam, Tripura and Meghalaya.”

The demand for the ILP has increased in Sikkim, with the newly formed Sikkim Against Citizenship Act group pushing for it and the exclusion of the State from the purview of the CAA. The demand for the NRC and the ILP gained momentum in the run-up to the Assembly elections in April 2019. Sikkim was merged with India in 1975, so, in order to undertake any exercise relating to the NRC or the ILP this reference year will have to be taken into account. The preparation for undertaking the exercise of updating the National Population Register (NPR) in the State bordering China along with rest of India, barring Assam, has already started.

The widespread agitation against the CAA in Nagaland is a pointer to New Delhi and the rest of India that the question of safeguarding the demography of the north-eastern States and the identity of indigenous people cannot be addressed with a singular approach of simply creating an exclusionary regime of ILP or Sixth Schedule. The complexities of identity issues in the region with a large number of smaller ethnic nationalities have become much deeper with change in the demography due to unchecked immigration during the pre- and post-Partition period and requires a State-specific approach to remove their apprehension of losing their identity and culture.

The extension of the ILP to Dimapur district, the commercial hub of Nagaland, gained momentum when the Neiphiu Rio government announced its decision to compile a Register of Indigenous Inhabitants of Nagaland (RIIN). However, there has been no consensus on the cut-off date for the RIIN until now.

At a meeting of all apex tribal bodies and civil society organisations held on December 18, the Joint Committee on Prevention of Illegal Immigrants passed a resolution that the ILP and Article 371 (A) would not protect Nagaland once the CAA was imposed in neighbouring States. They also demanded that December 1, 1963, should be the cut-off date for the ILP in Dimapur district as the protective regime came along with statehood on this date. In order to be eligible to obtain a certificate of indigenous inhabitant of Nagaland, one of the three conditions have to be fulfilled: a) The person should have been settled permanently in Nagaland before December 1, 1963; b) his or her parents or legitimate guardians should have been paying house tax before the cut-off date; and c) the applicant, or his/her parents or legitimate guardians, should have acquired property and patta (land title certificate) before the cut-off date.

Anti-CAA rallies were organised in Mizoram, which witnessed a strong anti-CAB agitation although the ruling Mizo National Front government decided to vote in favour of the Bill as Mizoram, a State with the ILP regime in force, is excluded from the purview of the CAA.

The rising momentum against the CAA in the ILP States brought to the fore the issue of the effectiveness of the protective regime in addressing the problem of demographic change in the region.

Chakma and Hajong refugees

In Arunachal Pradesh, for instance, the issue of granting citizenship to Chakma and Hajong refugees from the erstwhile East Pakistan has become more complicated. Although the CAA will not be applicable in the State, the Supreme Court directed the Government of India in 2015 to grant citizenship to Chakma and Hajong refugees settled in the State. The court gave the judgment on a petition filed by the Committee for Citizenship Rights of Chakmas of Arunachal Pradesh seeking a directive to the Centre for granting citizenship to Chakma and Hajong refugees settled in the State between 1964 and 1969.

The All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union (AAPSU), a constituent of the NESO, has asked the Centre and the Pema Khandu-led BJP government in the State to clarify their position on the issue of citizenship to Chakma and Hajong refugees in view of the CAA. The AAPSU has been holding protest rallies in support of the NESO demand for complete withdrawal of the CAA from the region. The student body has demanded a clear notification to put into action the assurances by the Modi government that the refugees, who have been living here for decades, would be required to obtain an ILP to enter or stay in the State. In 2017, the Centre announced that it would seek a modification of the Supreme Court order on granting citizenship to Chakma and Hajong refugees as it could offset the demographic balance in Arunachal Pradesh. Chakma and Hajongs refugees were originally residents of the Chittagong Hill Tract in the erstwhile East Pakistan and sought shelter and settled in the State (then known as North East Frontier Agency) after they were displaced by the Kaptai dam project.

In Assam, the clamour for ILP has intensified as it is seen as the immediate mechanism to ensure non-implementation of the CAA in the State. The support for the anti-CAA movement is also growing. The Sarbananda Sonowal government announced a slew of measures to lure students and youths, ethnic communities and artistes from the movement in order to weaken it. The announcements included the creation of autonomous councils for Moran, Matak and Koch-Rajbangshi communities in undivided Goalpara district excluding the areas of the Bodoland Territorial Area District and the Rabha Hasong Autonomous Council; initiation of the process of appointment for 50,000 government jobs; and provision of an ex-gratia payment of Rs.50,000 each to 2,000 artists.

artists reject ASSAM government offer

Organisations representing the communities that will benefit by the proposed autonomous councils welcomed the announcements but maintained that these were their legitimate dues and that they would continue the anti-CAA agitation. Artists rejected the ex-gratia offer and took a resolute stand to continue taking part in the agitation and boycott all official cultural programmes. The Sonowal government came under flak for not mourning the death of five “martyrs” of the anti-CAA agitation in the State. By extending support for the Act, the Sonowal government had become a betrayer, protector of illegal Bangladeshis and it had been reduced into a killer government as it never cared to mourn the death of those killed in police firing, which included a minor school student, said AASU leaders Samujjal Kumar Bhattcharjya, Lurinjyoti Gogoi and Dipanka Nath while addressing rallies and memorial meetings.

AASU leaders joined the opposition Congress and Left parties and different sections in seeking the immediate release of the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti chief, Akhil Gogoi, and other leaders of the anti-CAA movement. They criticised the handcuffing of Gogoi when he was produced in the Special Court of the National Investigation Agency (NIA) in connection with a case registered in Chandmari police station 10 years ago for his alleged link with the Communist Party of India (Maoist). Gogoi was first arrested by the Assam police on December 12 and later handed over to the NIA. The NIA arrested him under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.

The Sanmilita Sangram Parishad, a conglomerate of 43 organisations of Assam, has intensified its campaign against the Act by organising rallies across the State. Holiram Terang, president of the Autonomous State Demand Committee and one of the coordinators of the conglomerate, said leaders of indigenous bodies from Nagaland and Tripura had addressed a rally organised at Bokolia in Karbi Anglong on December 23. The parishad has lined up a series of rallies to mobilise support against the Act. The huge gathering in Karbi Anglong despite the exclusion of the Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council from the purview of Act is an indication of the apprehension among the indigenous people of the Sixth Schedule areas.

The ruling BJP is trying to put up a brave front to boost the morale of party workers and supporters by taking out “peace rallies” in different parts of the State, but BJP workers have been isolated in the face of the intensified agitation. Netizens have started witnessing a social media war on the Act, with the BJP mobilising about 1,000 volunteers of its IT cell to defend the Act and campaign against the supporters of the movement. The AASU has called for a counter campaign to thwart the BJP’s strategy. The Sonowal government was in no mood to withdraw the suspension of mobile/Internet services and sought a review of the Gauhati High Court order for restoration of these services, which were suspended for eight days from December 12. It imposed a restriction on government teachers from posting political posts on social media networks.

One of the key decisions taken by the Sonowal Cabinet to stymie the anti-CAA agitation is to approach the Union government to seek constitutional safeguards for Assamese as the official language of the State except in the Bodoland Territorial Area District areas, hill districts and the Barak valley, by amending Article 345. The decision failed to make an impression as the Assam Official Language Act, 1960, states: “Without prejudice to the provisions of Article 346 and 347 of the Constitution of India and subjects hereinafter provided Assamese shall be used for all and for any of the official purpose of the State of Assam.”

The preamble of this Act clarifies that Article 345 provides that the legislature of a State may by law adopt any one or more of the languages to be used for official purposes. The apprehension that the CAA poses a grave threat to the linguistic and cultural identities of Assamese and other ethnic language speakers is that it not only imposes on the State the burden of Bengali-speaking “illegal Bangladeshi migrants” of 43 years (from 1971 to 2014) but may keep the doors open to such immigrants forever as Hindu and other non-Muslim Bangladeshis immigrating to the State illegally after the cut-off date of December 31, 2014, may obtain citizenship by merely applying for it.

The BJP and the Sangh Parivar have been making desperate attempts to communally polarise the anti-“illegal immigrant” movement by pushing the campaign that “Assam will become a second Kashmir” in view of the immigration of “infiltrators” (read Muslim Bangladeshi) from Bangladesh and the erstwhile East Pakistan. Student bodies such as the AASU and the Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuva Chatra Parishad, which insist on the supremacy of indigenous people in Assam and other States in the region, counter this campaign with the rhetoric: “Assam neither wants to be a second Kashmir nor a second Tripura.”

For New Delhi and the rest of India, the writing on the wall is clear. The indigenous people of the north-eastern region consider both “infiltrators” and “refugees” “illegal migrants” posing an equal existential threat to their linguistic and cultural identities. The CAA has added to the complexities of settling the question of who is an “illegal migrant” in the region. Defining who is indigenous in each State is expected to be the new political puzzle here.

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