In the Northeast the new citizenship norms are not only pointless but hugely disruptive. It cannot be the aim of a regime which seeks to take forward a united and strong India to bring forward a measure that creates enormous uncertainty in a geographically significant corner of it.
It is hugely ironic that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government’s decision to speedily amend the Citizenship Act should be met with strong protests not just by key opposition parties for understandable reasons, but also by students across the Northeast, foremost being those in Assam, when they should have been the first to welcome it.
The hurried move was prompted by the need to make the National Register of Citizens (NRC) work after the final shape of the Assam NRC was found to be deeply flawed by those who has fought for it over the years. The register, prepared under the supervision of the Supreme Court, was meant to fulfil the promise of the Assam Accord to record the citizenship status of all those who migrated into Assam until 1971, thereby establishing those who came thereafter as foreigners. In the event the Assam NRC excluded many who were not post-1971 entrant Muslim cultivators.
When this flaw which excluded many indigenous Indians created an uproar and hurdle in the path of introducing the NRC across India (the BJP lost a byelection in West Bengal because a dominant ethnic group voted against it as their brethren in Assam were excluded from the NRC), the BJP has promised to set right the boundaries of citizenship quickly so that it could thereafter bring in the NRC across India. Hence, the citizenship amendment Bill now passed by the Lok Sabha — and given the changing arithmetic, likely to be passed in the Rajya Sabha too — will enter the statute books.
Three questions arise: one, why are Northeast students protesting; two, what is the likely future of a pan-Indian NRC; and three, even if it comes, will it do more good than harm?
The Bill confers citizenship rights on non-Muslim refugees from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan who have entered India till 2014. This is good for the BJP in the Northeast as it has built a substantial following among Hindu migrants into the region, notably Assam and Tripura, both of which have a BJP Chief Minister. However, this has exposed a long-term fault line in Assam where the movement since the late seventies was as much against the immigrant Muslim cultivator from Bangladesh as against the immigrant Bengali Hindu, who will now get citizenship rights in large numbers.
The Assam movement, spearheaded by its caste Hindus, was directed as much against Muslim cultivators on grounds of electoral arithmetic as against Bengali Hindus in order to protect the state’s linguistic and ethnic character. Conversely, the BJP in Tripura has benefited from the change in its linguistic character post-Partition and gained the support of immigrant Bengali Hindus who are now in a majority.
The fact that the Northeast is highly complex and how the same thing means different things to different people within that geography is best brought out by the fact that it is the mainstream students’ community in Assam which is at the forefront of keeping outsiders or foreigners out and opposing the citizenship amendment Bill. However, in Tripura it is the ethnic peoples, now in a minority, who would like to keep foreigners out and have joined forces with those opposed to the new definition of citizenship.
The cardinal issue in the northeast is its small entities seeking to keep outsiders out. The main concern of Arunachal Pradesh with its dominant ethnic and indigenous character and Christian-majority Mizoram is migration by Buddhist Chakmas from the troubled adjoining areas of Myanmar. The new norms of citizenship opens the doors to Buddhists.
For this reason, parts of the Northeast have been kept outside of the purview of the new Act. Thus, the whole of Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland (dominated by tribals and Christians), almost the whole of Meghalaya, and parts of Assam and Tripura dominated by indigenous peoples are excluded. There are also likely to be special provisions for Manipur where the tension is not over outsiders but between plains people and tribals.
Parts of the Northeast are also ‘protected’ from outsiders through the inner line permit system and the special status given to autonomous regions through district councils. What good will becoming an Indian citizen do to an outsider in an autonomous region when she has to run her shop with a benami trade license?
The bottomline in the Northeast is that the new citizenship norms are not only pointless but hugely disruptive. The northeast accounts for a small part of the Indian population but a significant section of its landmass. It cannot be the aim of a regime which seeks to take forward a united and strong India to bring forward a measure that creates enormous uncertainty in a geographically significant corner of it.
Now let us turn to the main Indian landmass. The new citizenship norms palpably seek to exclude Muslim refugees (sections such as the Ahmadiyyas and Shias are persecuted in neighbouring countries) when Muslims make up a seventh or more of the Indian population. This move will not promote their sense of oneness with India; in fact make them feel distant from the mainstream.
The biggest disorientation is likely to be caused not by new citizenship norms but the NRC which it enables. In a country with large numbers of people who come from families with barely any education and who may have migrated from another region in the country, creating a paper trail to establish citizenship can be a horrendous task.
If nothing else, trying to do so can make them easy fodder of petty officialdom. The tribal in Bastar or Chhotanagpur can find herself pitted against a non-tribal in a government office in a totally unequal situation in which getting done what is her due can require the payment of speed money. The NRC can end up by creating one more channel for petty corruption.
The NRC is in clear danger of creating a rift with a major friendly neighbour, Bangladesh, when India is already surrounded by two barely friendly neighbours — Pakistan and China. This, when illegal migration from Bangladesh, experiencing rapid economic growth, is a declining process as apparent from census figures.Subir Roy is a senior journalist and author. The views expressed are personal.