The protests have erupted in the North-East since the passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2019 in the Lok Sabha in January. (AFP)
The protests have erupted in the North-East since the passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2019 in the Lok Sabha in January. (AFP)

Citizenship circus: North-east in crisis again

  • The Citizenship Bill is seen as further imposition of forced policy, one that is threatening the region’s fragile ethnic balance
  • The BJP either does not understand, or neglected to understand, that its majoritarian policies may not work in North-East India

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits Assam, Tripura and Arunachal Pradesh on 8 February, to talk electoral strategy with Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) officials and inaugurate some projects ahead of Lok Sabha elections this summer, he will need to assuage frayed nerves and rising tempers in the region over the Citizenship Bill. The heft of such unrest had already underscored the importance of the relatively-minor collective of 25 Lok Sabha seats north-east India accounts for, especially in an election widely projected to be a close call for the BJP. It certainly accounts for BJP top brass scrambling into damage-control mode.

The Lok Sabha passed the Bill on 8 January, and protests have since snowballed on fears that the Bill will legitimize illegal migration—the touchiest of topics in north-east India. The Bill’s passage in the Rajya Sabha seems stillborn in its present shape, and in the current atmosphere.

An influential electoral ally in BJP-led Assam, Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), has pulled out. Another ally, National People’s Party (NPP), pulling out in Manipur would rock the BJP-led coalition. The BJP is not the largest party in that state. Strikes have for some days affected life in Imphal valley. Modi effigies have been set on fire.

An emphatic BJP victory in Tripura’s assembly elections in 2018 is being eroded by dissatisfaction among indigenous Tiprasa—as opposed to the state’s migrant Bengalis—and BJP’s electoral ally, the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT). Protest is alive in Mizoram, Nagaland—where the BJP is part of the ruling coalition—and Meghalaya, where NPP rules.

There will be more trouble. Mizoram hasn’t come anywhere close to the unrest of the sort that birthed a rebellion in 1966 over an utterly callous administrative response to local famine. But it couldn’t be a pretty sight from New Delhi to see several thousand student protesters carrying banners proclaiming “Hello China, Bye Bye India". Momentum against the Bill has also picked up in Arunachal Pradesh—where there is some resentment against migration and forced resettlement, such as of Chakma and Hajong refugees from Bangladesh—and to a lesser extent in Sikkim.

The bigger picture

The BJP either does not understand, or neglected to understand, that its majoritarian policies aimed at northern, central and peninsular India—mainland India, as it were—may not work in north-east India. Even Assam and Tripura, the two states it has electorally won as much on incumbency as pandering to local pro-Hindu impulses. The party is realizing, as the Congress did decades earlier, that it’s really the price to pay for ignoring local realities—indeed, rejecting local histories in a bid to create histories of its own.

The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2019 as passed by the Lok Sabha is pure play BJP. This proposed amendment to the Citizenship Act 1955 states “persons belonging to minority communities, namely, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan… shall not be treated as illegal migrants… and such person shall be eligible to apply for naturalisation …" After a relatively benign amendment to prevent holders of Overseas Citizens of India cards from misusing their privileges, the Citizenship Bill seeks to reduce residency requirements of “…persons belonging to minority communities, namely, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan" from an aggregate of “not less than eleven years" to “not less than six years".

The amendment was introduced in the Lok Sabha in July 2016—it was at the time the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016. It was referred to a joint parliamentary committee in August. The committee’s findings were formally accepted in early January this year, just before the Bill came up in the Lok Sabha.

Also Read: Citizenship bill an attack on the very idea of India: Yogendra Yadav

It isn’t surprising that the BJP would attempt legislation to bolster its Hindu credentials by excluding Muslims from the equation. (That poses its own Constitutional issue: of inequality on grounds of religion.) It’s equally unsurprising that it would do so without figuring out myriad nuances that shake and shape north-east India, because its majoritarian thrust has for long been a bludgeon designed for majoritarian nuances, not those of minorities in India—minorities on account of religion or ethnicity. This impulse had grown more acute since May 2014, under the second NDA government, and its managers for north-east India like BJP general secretary Ram Madhav. And more so now, as the BJP scrambles to engineer a third NDA government.

Danger in Assam

In Assam, with all the pro-Hindu drumbeating of recent years, it has always been a combination of Axomiya, Bodos and other indigenous folk in Assam, against migrants—whether long-time Bengali residents, those of Santhal, Oraon and other tribes brought over from the Chhotanagpur region in colonial times to work in tea plantations, or those perceived to be Muslim migrants, illegal or otherwise, from Bangladesh. The flaring up of Assamese nationalism of the 1980s—and the Bodo nationalist movement—was predicated on such issues.

It’s complicated. Disagreements over updating the National Register of Citizens (NRC)—transparently aimed at identifying illegal Bangladeshi migrants, and the Citizenship Bill have brought to the surface tension over the Bengalis. Several Hindu-Bengali organizations, especially in the Bengali-majority Barak Valley-Cachar area support both the NRC process and the Bill. (This area was part of Sylhet before the Partition; after the Partition it became part of Assam.) Nothing underscores this reality as well as Congress MP from Silchar, Sushmita Dev’s support for the Bill. But many Axomiya feel the terms of the NRC update and provisions of the Bill are both skewed towards immigrants. At any rate, irrespective of whether they include Muslims or Hindus, they are not considered Assamese.

The pro- and anti-peace factions of United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) have weighed in on this side, and, along with AGP, have voiced concern that the Bill negates the Assam Accord of 1985 which provided for a 1971 cut-off for deportation of illegal immigrants.

There is a strong foreshadowing of possible violence. Few among younger generations in Assam recall there was once bloodshed over Bengalis—and not just the Nellie incident in 1983 when more than 2,000 Muslims were butchered. Few recall the Bongal Kheda (get rid of the Bengalis) campaign that began in mid-1960 in the Brahmaputra valley. Or that in May 1961, 11 Bengalis were shot dead in Silchar, in Barak Valley. They were protesting the imposition of Assamese in a Bengali-majority region.

Bengali hand in Tripura

Tripura too has a complicated, tense history. On account of massive migration driven by the Partition and subsequent religious discord in former East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), Bengalis flooded Tripura. Bengalis now comprise a little shy of 70% of the population. The remainder are Tiprasa, who comprise the Tripuri—largely the Borok—Reang, Noatia, Halam, besides other tribes.

Mainstream Tripura is mainstream Bengali. Bengalis control politics. The last two chief ministers were Bengali: Manik Sarkar of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) from 1998 to early 2018; and since March that year, BJP’s motormouth representative, the obscurantist Biplab Kumar Deb. Bengalis also control the administration, trade, political and sociocultural discourse, even the language of office and official communication and education. In reservation-like areas, tribal-administered autonomous councils with short strings to the Bengali-heavy polity run limited functions.

In the late 1970s, an article in India Today magazine estimated that a staggering 90% of land that did not belong to government was owned or controlled by non-tribals. Some land that was deeded to Tripuri communities by their former kings, the Manikyas—a prescient intervention—was given over to settle refugees; and more was encroached upon.

Protest was a given. As early as 1967, an indigenous youths’ organization, Tripura Upajati Juba Samiti, was formed with the intention of official recognition for Kokborok and autonomous tribal councils as encouraged by the Constitution of India. As importantly, perhaps, there was demand for the restoration of traditional tribal lands that successive non-monarchical governments had either given to non-tribal settlers or kept silent about as these were appropriated.

In the early 1970s, an angry but half-hearted effort of Tripuri reclamation took root with the Tripura Sena. It took until 1978 with the formation of the armed group, Tripura National Volunteers, for the largely Bengali government to pay attention. Subsequent agreements have brought a tense peace, but not concomitant emancipation for the Tripuri. The Citizenship Bill is perceived by the Tripuri as an open invitation for more migration. IPFT’s sabre-rattling over the Bill is an indication of foment.

Rest of North-East

Manipur’s chief minister Nongthombam Biren Singh has, since switching sides from the Congress, been projected as a BJP wunderkind of sorts. He became the BJP chief minister in March 2017. In early 2018, he announced at a rally in Gujarat’s Madhavpura village that in the time of Lord Krishna, north-east India was a single entity. That Lord Krishna “made them part of India" by marrying the princess Rukmini, whom he alluded was from Arunachal Pradesh. Many accused him of selling Manipur’s soul. Biren’s line followed Hindu-right myths rooted in the Mahabharata. These also claim that the Pandava warrior Arjuna had a son, Babruvahana, by marrying the princess Chitrangada from “Manipur". Critics have claimed that the Manipur of Chitrangada was actually Manipura or Manikpatna in Odisha.

This is precisely the sort of majoritarian pandering that is now driving protests against the Citizenship Bill in Manipur. The birth of Meitei nationalism, and, later, armed rebellion that continues to this day, was predicated on what was—and continues to be—perceived as Indian colonialism: that India coerced the independent state of Manipur to join India in 1949 by a treaty of accession. And Hinduism was foisted upon the Meitei by diktat—an uncontested assertion—in the 18th century. Meidingu Pamheiba, the king who did so, and persecuted practitioners of Sanamahi, the traditional religion, is reviled by many Meitei nationalists.

The Citizenship Bill is seen as further imposition of forced policy—one that is seen as threatening the state’s fragile ethnic balance. NPP, a BJP ally has already threatened to pull out if the Bill is enacted into law. And this is just a perception of the majority Meitei population of the state. The minority Nagas, Kuki and Zomi people, are also threatened by the Bill. Doubly threatened, actually, as many see the Meitei as a threat to their lands, development and employment opportunities. So, it can’t but be an embarrassment to the BJP that, even its poster-boy Biren has demanded a “review" of the Bill.

In Nagaland the protests are relatively muted at present, but opposition parties led by the Naga People’s Front has already rubbished the Citizenship Bill. Article 371 (A) of India’s Constitution permits, for Nagaland, primacy of “religious or social practices of the Nagas", “Naga customary law and procedure", “administration of civil and criminal justice involving decisions according to Naga customary law", and “ownership and transfer of land and its resources". And an Inner Line Permit controls access to the Naga Hills. But cities like Dimapur, the state’s commercial hub, are exposed to greater migration on account of the Bill in a state that has already faced tension and outright violence over what locals call “IBI"—illegal Bangladeshi immigrants—and “Miyan". It has placed the ruling Nationalist Development Progressive Party, in power in a coalition with the BJP and NPP, in a spot.

In January, Meghalaya’s chief minister and NPP chief Conrad Sangma threatened to sever ties with the BJP over the Bill. I would wager it also had to do with his government’s disastrous handling of the coal mining tragedy in December. A move to claim a high moral ground over the Bill would certainly reclaim some face, besides better NPP’s bargaining position with the BJP. But the truth is also that, Meghalaya harbours a fragile ethnic situation with a history of great violence against non-locals.

Sangma met union home minister Rajnath Singh on 3 February in Delhi, along with AGP representatives. Sangma later described the meeting as “positive" and that Singh assured the group would be “taking the sentiments of the people of the North-East into consideration". Even, that the matter had “national" import.

Of course it does. The BJP ought to have figured that out in 2016.

Sudeep Chakravarti is a columnist with Mint, a commentator on north-east India .

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