ITANAGAR: States across the Northeast today witnessed protests against the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, amidst concerns that the Centre’s proposed amendment will lead to massive demographic changes amongst the ‘indigenous’ populations of the region.

The Bill, which, if amended, will reduce the number of years of residency in India required for immigrants from religious minority groups including Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jains, Parsis, and Sikhs from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan who came to India on or before December 31, 2014, from the current 11 to six years. The amendment, however, does not apply to illegal Muslim immigrants from those nations.

Concerns have been growing across the region over the proposed amendment even in states where the BJP is in power or part of the ruling alliance.

In Assam where the BJP is in power, chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal had said that he would resign if he was unable to protect Assam’s interests. In Meghalaya where the BJP is a partner in the Meghalaya Democratic Alliance (MDA) with just two MLAs, the National People's Party (NPP) chief minister Conrad Sangma’s Cabinet had taken a “unanimous decision” to oppose the Bill.

In Arunachal Pradesh where the BJP is in power and in Manipur and Nagaland where it is part of the ruling alliance, the state governments have been mum on the issue.

However, Arunachal Pradesh’s government spokesperson PD Sona today told The Citizen that while the state is already protected by the ILP, the state government is opposed to the conferring of citizenship to illegal immigrants and had passed a resolution to that effect in the last legislative assembly.

Sona said that the rights of the indigenous populations must always be protected.

He also said that the issue of settling Chakma and Hajong refugees was sub-judice and that there needs to be greater clarity on the status of refugee populations that were settled by the Indian government itself.

The Supreme Court had in 2015 ordered that citizenship should be granted to the Buddhist Chakma and Hindu Hajong people who were settled by the Indian government in Arunachal Pradesh during the 1960s after their displacement from the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh. Last year, the Centre had agreed to implement the order which has since been challenged.

Any proposals to grant citizenship to members of the two communities are often met with widespread protests across the state. Last year witnessed a massive bandh that brought the state to a standstill.

Today’s protests, organised by the North East Students’ Organisation (NESO), were held ten days after Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) headed by BJP MP Rajendra Agarwal concluded public hearings about the Bill in Assam and Meghalaya.

In Guwahati, Assam, NESO office bearers sat in protest in front of Raj Bhawan and shouted slogans against the Bill and the government.

“This is a warning to the Centre. We are not going to sit idle. We are going to fight against the bill, the Northeast as a whole. We have the numbers and we have the logic to oppose the Bill. We will go to any extent to oppose the bill. We will not compromise on anything which will go against the interest of the indigenous people of the region,” said Samujjal Kumar Bhattacharyya, the advisor of NESO.

NESO leaders have already threatened to carry out a series of agitations across the region and also in New Delhi in the next several weeks to oppose and build consensus against the Bill.

The protesters are not just opposed the Bill but also reiterated their demand for implementing the Inner Line Permit (ILP) and also a National Register of Citizens (NRC) which is being updated in Assam to segregate illegal residents from genuine ones.

The ILP is an official document issued by the government to Indian citizens as well as foreigners to travel to states including Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, and Nagaland.

In Assam, the All Assam Students’ Union had agreed to the Assam Accord’s cut-off date for illegal citizens. According to the Assam Accord which was signed in 1985 after the six-year-long ‘Assam Agitation’, anyone who has come after March 25, 1971, irrespective of religion is an illegal citizen.

In the Arunachal Pradesh capital, Itanagar, the sit-in protest was held following some late night drama after the administration had initially refused to grant permission to the protestors to stage their dharna.

The administration had said that it had denied permission to the All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union (AAPSU) and NESO because an application to hold the protest was not submitted “at least five working days in advance” as is the rule. It had also said that the protest could “obstruct normal traffic, create nuisance, and breach public peace”.

The AAPSU had alleged that the deputy commissioner’s order denying them permission to hold the protest was sent to them at around 7.30 PM on Sunday, a day before the scheduled protest. Sources in AAPSU said that they received a second order from the administration granting them permission to hold the dharna well past midnight at around 12.50 AM, just hours before the protest was to begin.

Sources said that permission was also earlier denied to the Twipra Students’ Federation in Agartala, Tripura where the BJP recently came to power but was later allowed to hold its protest.

After the protest in Itanagar, the AAPSU submitted a memorandum to Raj Bhavan stating its concerns over the amendments.

AAPSU said that the proposed change in the Bill is “one among the latest examples that the lawmakers in our country have no or very little regard for the indigenous populace of Arunachal Pradesh and the entire north-east region”.

Citing the example of the Chakma and Hajong settlers, the AAPSU said that the state is “infested with illegal foreigners from erstwhile East Pakistan” and that the settled refugee populations have “encroached upon every aspect of our social fabric in the eastern part of the state”.

AAPSU alleged that the proposed Bill is an “attempt to dump the burden of post-1971 Bangladesh liberation on the entire Northeast”.