DIMAPUR: As the date for the monsoon session of Parliament nears, opposition to the BJP government’s Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 in the Northeast is growing.

The proposed amendments seek to 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, to six years.

Opposition to the Bill has been brewing in the region, with several civil society organisations representing indigenous communities voicing their concerns that the amendment will lead to a massive influx of Bengali-speaking Hindus from Bangladesh into the Northeast that will lead to demographic changes and threaten indigenous populations.

Even the state governments of Mizoram and Meghalaya, where the BJP is in power as a coalition partner with the National People’s Party, have passed resolutions opposing the Bill.

In May this year, students’ organisations under the umbrella of the North East Students Organisation staged protests across the region opposing the Bill.

Before those protests, a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) headed by BJP MP Rajendra Agarwal concluded public hearings about the Bill in Assam and Meghalaya where it discussed the issue with various organisations.

With the monsoon session set to begin on July 18, representatives from civil society organisations from seven states of the Northeast gathered at Dimapur in Nagaland on July 14 to oppose the Bill from being enacted.

Anup Chetia, co-founder of the banned United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and currently the general secretary of the ‘Progressive’ (pro-dialogue) faction of the outfit, warned of the amendments’ implications on Assam’s demographics.

Organised by the Naga Peoples Movement for Human Rights (NPMHR), the Conclave of Human Rights and Civil Society Organisations of North East India against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, hosted delegates from across the region, including the author of this article, voicing their concerns over the proposed changes.

Chetia, whose real name is Golap Baruah and was attending the conclave as leader of the Assam state unit’s Indigenous Forum- a joint platform of over 30 organisations representing various indigenous communities.

The former armed rebel who spent years in jails in Bangladesh and extradited to India in November 2015 said that Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal -a former student leader- of ceding his loyalty to the BJP government in the Centre instead of looking out for Assam’s interests.

He also said that the BJP and the Congress are “water from the same bottle”.

One of Chetia’s ‘concerns’ was that unlike in Tripura where the indigenous tribal population is already a minority to the Bengali-speaking population, Assam has limited land rights protection, save for Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao districts which are protected by the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. He also claimed that in the Bodoland Territorial Area Districts, the indigenous tribal Bodos have been marginalised by “outsiders from India and Bangladesh”.

Patal Kanya Jamatia, the founder and president of the Tripura Peoples' Front (TPF), who was also at the meeting said that the influx of immigrants from Bangladesh has led to the marginalisation of indigenous tribal groups.

“The indigenous people are being crushed and the Indian government is not helping us,” she said, adding that a process of “Aryan-ization” has led to indigenous tribals becoming minorities in the ancestral lands and losing their rights.

Jamatia voiced a collective concern when she said that unity among the states in the region is “very weak” and that it is important for the states to come together and protest in unison.

While similar calls for making a united stand against the Bill were made by delegates from across the region, it became imperative for me, as someone from Arunachal Pradesh to question how it could be done when my home state is looking at a unique crisis of its own.

Unlike the other states of the region where there has been “illegal” immigration, in Arunachal Pradesh, the settlement of Chakma and Hajong refugees from Bangladesh happened under the orders of the Indian government.

Concerns have been voiced by pressure groups from the state that if the amended Bill is approved it would automatically award citizenship to the Buddhist Chakmas and Hindu Hajongs.

While the state government has said that that will not be the case considering that Arunachal Pradesh is protected by the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation, 1873, there is still ambiguity surrounding its implementation, especially considering that last year the Centre had given its nod to implement a 2015 Supreme Court order to grant citizenship rights.

The dilemma of coming together lies in the fact that there are sizeable populations of Chakmas in Mizoram and Tripura where communities there have land rights as other tribal communities in the state.

Any move to protest the granting of citizenship rights to refugees who were settled in Arunachal Pradesh without the consultation of indigenous people is bound to be met with opposition from Chakma representative groups, from within and outside the state.

Although questions over co-operation in one aspect may remain, the conclave came to the conclusion to hold a joint demonstration at New Delhi against the amendment.