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RANJU DODUM | 16 JANUARY, 2018

Citizenship Issues Create Fissures and Tensions in N-E States

Citizenship Register in Assam creates deep divisions within and outside the state


ITANAGAR: The National Register of Citizens or NRC for short is a term that is seldom used without the context of some controversy. A burning issue in Assam, the process of updating the NRC has been mired in controversy and is a topic of constant discussion in the media and public space. Although much of the debate is confined to Assam, neighbouring states are ‘fearful’ of its larger implications.

The NRC is being updated for the first time since 1951 in what has been called as a move to ‘weed out foreigners’ that are living in Assam illegally, i.e. without valid documents.

What this translates into is that in order to be considered a legal resident of the state of Assam, individuals must prove their citizenship through various government-issued photo identity cards. What that in turn translates into is a fear among a large number of Bengali-speaking Muslims in the state who worry that they will be deported to Bangladesh or confined to detention centres over perceptions that the move is targeted at them.

The first draft list was made public on December 31 which listed 1.9 crore names out of 3.29 applicants in the state. Civil society organisations aside, the NRC process has gained political traction in and outside the state.

Rajya Sabha MP and president of the Assam unit of the Congress party, Ripun Bora, wrote to the Register General of India alleging that there has been a “deliberate negligence in verifying documents in 208 NRC Sewa Kendras of 13 districts in Assam”.

The Congress said that the names of only 10 percent of the population of the districts of Darrang, Morigaon, Naogaon, Goalpara, Dhubri, Cachar, Karimganj, Hailakandi, Kokrajhar, Barpeta, Mancachar, parts of Nalbari and, Bongaigaon have appeared in the first draft where it claims that people of “religious and linguistic minority” groups are predominant.

The NRC process has also drawn criticism from Bengal chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, who said that it is a ploy to chase away Bengali people from Assam.

Her comments led to a flurry of police complaints and condemnation by political parties, civil society organisations and activists in Assam.

But what has got neighbouring states wary are fears that the deletion of names from the registry in Assam will lead to a perceived influx of the minorities into neighbouring states.

Across the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Nagaland and to some extent, Meghalaya, the Bengali-speaking Muslim people (most often of East Bengal origin) are colloquially referred to as miyas. In these states, and Manipur, the state governments have begun taking ‘precautionary measures’ to keep their borders closed.

An official statement from the Arunachal Pradesh chief minister’s office recently read that the government has “taken all possible preventive measures to prevent a possible spill over of illegal migrants”.

Chief minister Pema Khandu had directed the state DGP to “keep strict vigil” along border outposts to stop the entry of illegal immigrants.

In Manipur, special police teams at the Jiribam Babupara Bazar and along the Barak river bordering Mizoram have been deployed for similar reasons.

While the police in Meghalaya has increased surveillance along its border with Assam, no official directive has been given in Nagaland.

In Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland, citizens from outside the states are required to procure an Inner Line Permit (ILP) before entering. The ILP is also mandatory in the hill districts of Manipur and there have been calls for its implementation in Meghalaya as well. Even with the ILP system in place, apprehensions remain over the influx of ‘the others’.

What is a primary driver of these concerns is that the unrestricted entry of people not indigenous to the aforementioned states will lead to a perceived dilution of tribal communities.

In Nagaland for example, the fact that the ILP system is not implemented in Dimapur district bordering Assam is a major bone of contention and a topic of constant discussions.

Groups such as Survival Nagaland have been at the forefront of debates over the issue, calling for stricter implementation of the ILP system and its expansion into Dimapur district. Even without the weight of formally organised bodies, there is consensus in Nagaland that Dimapur has an extremely high number of ‘outsiders’.

In the city of Dimapur, posters demanding the introduction of ILP are a common sight and aimed primarily at people referred to as (in English) Illegal Bangladeshi Immigrants (IBIs).

Last year in Manipur, chief minister N Biren Singh had said that Rohingya Muslims were illegally entering the state from the border it shares with Myanmar. There are fissures within the issue as well, with the All Manipur Muslim Organisations Coordinating Committee saying that the Rohingya Muslims should be given temporary shelter while citizen groups such as the Joint Committee on Inner-Line Permit System demanding stricter vigil along the state’s 364km-long border it shares with Myanmar.

Similar concerns exist elsewhere in the region too where communities are constantly concerned that their relatively low population will witness an upheaval if ‘outsiders’ make the states their home.

For the communities in the region, the domino effect from the NRC exercise is just one of the concerns. What many have raised alarm about, especially in Arunachal Pradesh and Assam, is the Centre’s plans to implement the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016, which will grant citizenship to illegal migrants from Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian religious communities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

In Assam, the All Assam Students' Union (AASU) and the Asom Gana Parishad have been leading protests in the state against the Bill. Those opposed to the Bill feel that if it is implemented, Assam’s indigenous communities will be the worst hit by its impact.

If a decision is made to implement the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, its impact and fallouts will be felt immediately in Arunachal Pradesh too, where indigenous community organisations of various tribes have been opposing the Centre’s decision to possibly grant citizenship rights to members of the Chakma and Hajong populations who were settled in parts of the state during the 1960s when they had to flee their homes in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh due to the building of the Kaptai Dam and to some extent due to religious and ethnic persecution.

Any plans by the Centre to grant citizenship to communities that are not indigenous to the state are viewed with much suspicion in Arunachal Pradesh, where last year a bandh called by the powerful All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union led to an almost complete shutdown of the entire state.

With the second list of the NRC scheduled to be published in February, the issue is likely to continue to be part of the discussion in the public space. While many Bengali-speaking Muslims whose names were not published in the first draft will be hoping that they are in the second draft, several others will be hoping that the exercise results in the safeguarding of the interests of the indigenous communities of the region from perceived threats of ‘the others’.
 

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