Women take part in a rally in Guwahati in Assam in 2008 against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, which would give citizenship or stay rights to minorities in India from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Photo: AFP/Biju Boro

Since the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) was passed on December 11 by the Indian Parliament there have been protests across the country. The reasons are many and varied. The nature of state repression against the protesters differs depending on which party rules the state.

The amendment to the Citizenship Act of 1955 provides a path to Indian citizenship for Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian religious minorities fleeing persecution in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan who entered India on or before December 31, 2014. But the Gazette of India published by the government to enact the law does not even include the words “religious persecution.” Muslims are not given eligibility, and this is the first time religion has been used as a criterion for granting Indian citizenship.

The concerns of the Northeastern states are different in character and dimension than the concerns expressed in the rest of India. While the “Chicken Neck” or the Siliguri Corridor in West Bengal with a width of 21 to 40 kilometers connects the Northeast with the rest of India, the region shares an international border of 5,182km (about 99% of its total geographical boundary) with neighboring countries.

Of this, 1,395km is the length of the boundary with the Tibetan Autonomous Region of China in the north, 1,640km with Myanmar in the east, 1,596km with Bangladesh in the southwest, 97km with Nepal in the west and 455km with Bhutan in the northwest. These borders have shaped a closer linkage with Southeast Asia than with India historically. As a result, the region developed a culture and identity that are unique and faces an existential threat from the CAA now.

The region has seen a number social and political crises, making it a hotbed for many armed insurgencies, cross-border migration, arms and narcotics smuggling and ethnic riots – challenges that are dissimilar in nature to those in any other part of India. It has seen more than seven decades of conflicts, many of which remain unresolved. While Manipur and Tripura were “Princely States” before 1949 as protectorates of the British Crown, and merged into post-independence India and were placed under the Part C States category, they were governed by a chief commissioner appointed by the president of India. This ensured that the states did not have any elected legislature when the Constitution of India came into force on January 26, 1950.

CAA threatens indigenous identities

Under the Citizenship Act of 1955, one of the requirements for citizenship by naturalization is that the applicant must have resided in India during the last 12 months and for 11 of the previous years. The amendment relaxes the 11-years requirement to five years for persons who are not Muslims. The act exempts the tribal areas of Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura under the Sixth Schedule of the Indian constitution.

It also exempts the areas covered under the “Inner Line” notified under the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation of 1873, which demarcates Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland as special zones. The inclusion of Manipur in the Inner Line Permit system was also announced on December 9, 2019, by Home Minister Amit Shah in Parliament to assuage fears that local identities will be swamped by newly legalized migrants.

Despite all these exemptions in the Northeast, there have been widespread protests across all of the region’s states. A demographic profile of the region will illustrate the reality. Excluding Assam and Tripura, the two biggest casualties of the CAA, the total population of  Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya and Sikkim according to the 2001 census was 10.88 million. While there are no exact figures available for Bangladeshi migrants in India, in 2004, Sri Prakash Jaiswal, the then federal minister of state (home), stated in Parliament on July 14, 2004, that there were around 20 million “illegal Bangladeshis” in India.

Kiren Rijiju, the present federal minister for youth affairs and sports in the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has claimed that 24 million “illegal Bangladeshis” live in India. Tripura, which had a population of 3.6 million according to the 2001 census, had only a 28% proportion of indigenous Tripuris after uncontrolled waves of Bengali migration took over the state.

Assam’s Barak Valley is dominated by Bengalis. Sikkim, the smallest state in India, has seen unnatural population growth in the last five decades. Indigenous Sikkimese-speaking peoples such as Lepchas and Bhutias are now a minority, while Nepali-speaking people made up around 62.6% of the population according to 2001 figures. Demographers and researchers project that the trend will be the same for Manipur, Mizoram and Meghalaya if the law is implemented. Therefore, while the anti-CAA protests across mainland India are mainly over principles and fears and politics over the Hindu-Muslim divide, the perception of the Northeastern people is that the indigenous people of the region will become minorities in their own land.

For many of the people of these states, the citizenship law is seen as an existential threat. It threatens to make them a minority in the states that have been defined and shaped by their indigenous culture and identity for centuries. The modified law also does not define a clear differentiation between those who have been granted refugee status and illegal migrants while clubbing them both together.

Political analysts say that this is well-planned long-term strategy of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to stay in power. Of the 25 lower-house seats in Parliament from Northeast India, 14 are from Assam, two from Tripura (which is dominated by Hindu Bengalis), two each from Manipur and Meghalaya, and one each from Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Nagaland and Sikkim. Assam has seven seats in the upper house of Parliament, while the rest of the Northeast has seven. Therefore, any party that can win at least 15 seats from the region in a general election by playing the communal card has the added advantage of forming the federal government.

The opposition parties and critics have pointed out that the religious and geographical criteria of the law exclude persecuted groups like the Rohingya of Myanmar, Hindus of Sri Lanka, Ahmadiyyas of Pakistan and the Uighur Muslims of Xinjiang in China. The Supreme Court of India, hearing 59 petitions challenging the law, has refused to stay the CAA. Meanwhile, agitations and nationwide protests against the law are on the rise. The Amit Shah has repeatedly stated that the government will not “budge an inch” despite the protests. This is an ominous sign for the future of India’s territorial and political integrity.

Vikram Nongmaithen

The author is a lecturer and independent researcher based out of Manipur, India

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