The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAB) 2016, which was passed in the lower house of the Indian Parliament on January 8, has run into troubled waters. The communal nature of the bill leaves out Muslim communities from its humanitarian pursuit of providing sanctuary and also restricts itself to three countries – Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.
The bill seeks to grant citizenship to Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Christian, Parsi and Jain migrants from those three countries even if they do not possess the necessary documents but have stayed in India for six years. This has led to strong reactions from groups in India’s Northeast.
The bill, particularly in the northeastern states, has received tremendous opposition, but not entirely for the right reasons. Strong sentiments against “foreigners” or “Bangladeshis” have been expressed, as protests against the bill have been widely covered and reported in both national and regional media.
In one demonstration held in Aizawl, capital of Mizoram state, on January 23, the Mizo Zirlai Pawl (MZP), the largest student body of the Mizos, in a four-point resolution stated that “to safeguard [our] land against foreigners, we the Mizos will fight till our last breath.” They further stated that “the government is favoring the foreigners over its own people living in the Northeast.”
Dissent for wrong reasons
Unfortunately, the dissent regarding the bill is not against the religious aspects and its communal nature, nor is it for including specific nations. In fact, the dissent expressed in the Northeast region is mostly driven by regional and identity politics, and more so in Mizoram.
Northeast India shares a border with Bangladesh, a fact that is mobilized by a certain class or people in power to scare the general public and turn that fear into a mass protest.
In the state of Mizoram, people took to the streets led by powerful non-government organizations in turn led by the MZP and Central Young Mizo Association (CYMA), among others, against the CAB.
The demonstrations, especially those with placards saying “Hello China, Bye Bye India,” caught the attention of national media.
The protesters even threatened the possibility of picking up arms against the Indian state. The news and incidents did not end with the slogans and protests, but extended to the level of forcibly preventing one Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer from attending the Republic Day celebrations in New Delhi on January 26.
Mizoram has no cases of people from Bangladesh seeking asylum or “illegal immigrants” taking shelter in the state. In fact, Mizoram is one of the three states in Northeast India that have Inner Line Permit (ILP) regulations in place. There are no possibilities of entering the state or finding employment without an ILP, or becoming ethnic Mizo at the stroke of entering Mizoram.
The Mizo history
The voice against the CAB is in fact an opportunity to mobilize, galvanize and campaign to express hate toward non-Mizos whether it be Chakma, Reang or even Indian citizens who share historical roots in Chin areas of Myanmar, although the latter are seen as part of their society now.
Indians with Chin ancestry have been beaten up in the streets of Aizawl repeatedly over the years, although now are accepted in the larger Mizo society.
The Asian Center for Human Rights (ACHR) notes that in 1992 about 380 Chakma houses were burned down by mobs organized by the MZP and Young Mizo Association (YMA) at Marpara, Hnahva and Aivapui villages in Mizoram.
Subsequently, thousands of Chakma voters were deleted from electoral rolls published in 1995 and 1996. The number stood at 2,886 Chakmas in Aizawl district alone. In 1997, facing the brunt of communal attacks orchestrated by the MZP and YMA, more than 30,000 Reangs or Brus fled from Mizoram to Tripura and Assam.
On January 23 with a demonstration against the bill in process, the Mizo groups also demanded dissolution of the Chakma Autonomous District Council (CADC).
Media reports said MZP general secretary Lalnunmawia Pautu’s statement directly expressed anger against the Chakmas. He stated: “So many Chakmas are living illegally in
Mizoram. Everyone will get citizenship if the [Citizenship Amendment] Bill is passed.”
On the other hand, the Chakma organizations for long have challenged the Mizos against such allegations and accusations. They have presented data and literature to prove that the Chakmas’ illegal immigration from Bangladesh is a myth.
Dilip Kanti Chakma, a human-rights lawyer based in Delhi, said: “The allegations of Chakmas’ abnormal population growth are nothing but creation of myths against the Chakmas. Before India’s independence, the western part of Mizoram belonged to the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) of Bangladesh, which was dominated by the Chakmas. [In the] aftermath of the partitions, just overnight Chakmas had to identify themselves with two nation-states, that is, India and the then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).”
He further explained: “The majority of the Chakmas had to remain with Pakistan despite their advocacy to be with the Indian state. The Chakma community being both in Bangladesh and India does not mean that they are illegally coming into the state of Mizoram. Such is nothing but xenophobic attitude by profiling and branding the Chakmas as foreigners or Bangladeshis.”
He even stated that while today it is the Chakmas raising their voices against the non-Mizos, tomorrow it could be Reang/Bru or even the helpless “Chins” who had to flee Myanmar because of their political situation and seek protection in the state of Mizoram.
Abuse of history
The demonstrations against the CAB also expose the abuse of history. As it is reported, the statement of the MZP general secretary further states that the bill is “extremely dangerous for the people of Mizoram and the Northeast” and warns against the repetition of violent secessionist movements like in the 1960s.
The fact is that the Mizo movement in the 1960s was for justice and equality when the Indian state neglected the suffering of the people due to poverty, famine, disease and deaths. It was not a secessionist movement.
The CAB has lit up xenophobic politics in Mizoram yet again and the minorities in the state are bearing its brunt.
Despite enjoying double protection in the form of the ILP and extremely strong civil-society and student-union bodies, the display of power is nothing but a spectacle to instill fear among the minorities in the state.
This article was co-authored with Shyamal B Chakma, a doctoral candidate at the School of Oriental and African Studies and a Felix scholar.