NEW DELHI: Last week, the Union Cabinet approved the updation of the National Population Register (NPR), sanctioning funds of over Rs. 8,400 crore for the same. The NPR exercise, scheduled to be updated April onwards, is being seen as the first step to the National Register of Citizens (NRC).

With protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and the NRC gaining ground, the arguments against the citizenship amendments have moved from solely criticising the religious binarial divide of Hindu-Muslim to incorporate the concerns of the historically disadvantaged communities that will be adversely affected. With tribals constituting 8.6 percent of the total population, there are growing concerns regarding the implications of the citizenship law and the NRC for the indigenous and forest-dwelling communities of India.

The primary issue is regarding documentation. Forest-dwelling communities have faced a long-lost battle with displacement for the sake of development. In the wake of the NRC, this displacement, that forces them to leave their land and migrate to far-off settlements, has placed them in yet another precarious situation.

According to Aloka Kujur, Jharkhand-based Adivasi rights activist, the state of Jharkhand, being a “Scheduled Tribe/Adivasi area” has witnessed a long history of displacement due to projects including Bokaro Steel Plant, and mining for coal, uranium and bauxite. Displacement continues, even today. “Due to this, many people’s villages have disappeared. So how will these show up in documents?” she asked.

“These people are constantly migrating from one place to another. If you tell them to give documents of their father or grandfather, or ask them where they took birth, how will they tell you? Because even the name of their village has been removed, it has disappeared. It is not in the system anymore. Even if they name the village, where is it? Which district? This is a major issue,” Kujur told The Citizen.

Kujur gave the example of Nilamber Pitamber village in Jharkhand. “Modi sarkar came and inaugurated the Mandal dam. If due to the Mandal dam, there is again an order for displacement, then the entire village will be submerged. Those who are then displaced to other areas, unka naam, pata, thikaana badal jaayega (their name, address and locality of residence will change),” stated the activist, who has a sedition case filed against her for posting on Facebook supporting the Pathalgadi (or Pathalgarhi) movement in Jharkhand.

CR Bijoy, with the Campaign for Survival and Dignity, a national forum for tribals and forest dwellers stated, “The whole point is that if you ask me if I have a birth certificate, I don't. In my generation, I don't think any one of us has a birth certificate, because it was never considered at that time as a necessary document.”

“Now what I have is what is available in my school records. I do have a passport. But the point is that if you are making a birth certificate a fundamental evidence even to validate my passport, what do I do?” How then are the tribal and forest-dwelling communities expected to furnish such documents, he asked.

Kujur referred to the 2019 Supreme Court order that called for the eviction of lakhs of people belonging to tribal and forest dwelling communities, whose claims to forest land rights were rejected under the The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act (FRA), 2006. “People are living in the forests without Aadhar. They migrate and live in these areas. How will they provide documentation? How will they prove their citizenship?” she asked.

Kujur further stated that the tribal populations who fall under the category of Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTG), earlier known as Primitive Tribal Groups (PTG), do not have any documentation and will find proving their citizenship an extremely arduous task.

As per the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, there are 75 tribal groups spread across 18 states and the Union Territory of Andaman and Nicobar Islands that are identified as PVTGs. With “pre-agricultural level of technology, stagnant or declining population growth, extremely low level of literacy and subsistence level of economy”, PVTGs constitute “the most vulnerable section among tribals and largely reside in isolated, remote and difficult areas.”

Even the Dalit population in Jharkhand does not have any property in their name, but sustain themselves by working as daily-wage labourers, Kujur told The Citizen. According to her, while documentation is one hurdle the tribal population will find hard to cross, the granting of citizenship based on grounds of religious persecution will create yet another obstacle in their path.

“One thing that has been mentioned in the Citizenship (Amendment) Act is very significant for Jharkhand. The Indian government is saying citizenship will be provided based on religion. In Jharkhand, the adivasi population has become Christian. Sarna Dharmik group is another group that is not mentioned in the Indian Constitution. They have not been given recognition by the government. In this situation, where will this dharmik group go?” Kujur stated.

“Apart from this, Birsa Munda had made a Bhisai Dharma. This Bhisai Dharma is practiced within the Munda community. This has also not been recognised by law,” Kujur told The Citizen. Adivasis, being primarily animistic, worship the forests they inhabit and resources they derive sustenance from, rather than the recognised forms of organised religion today.

She further explained that there was a Tana Bhagat team that worked with Gandhi during the freedom struggle. “Even today there are Tana Bhagats. They live a simple life and they are fighting their own property battle to be settled on land of their own by law. This is an issue on the basis of religion. In this situation, the adivasi population, if they practice and follow different dharmas, then if they need to provide identity documentation for citizenship, their ethnic identity will be completely destroyed,” Kujur said.

Against the backdrop of the CAA that will grant Indian citizenship to members of six persecuted religious communities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, tribal rights activists also fear that the land inhabited by the indigenous populations of India will become a “dumping ground” for the refugees.

“As far as Central India is concerned, the likelihood is that for the Indian state and the upper ruling caste/class to see the lesser populated tribal region as an easy dumping ground for any person, whether they are internally displaced or foreign ‘illegal’ immigrants,” Bijoy told The Citizen.

Giving an example of the Tamil Sri Lankan repatriates who became estate labourers upon entering India, Bijoy said that about three lakhs were “dumped” in Tamil Nadu’s Nilgiri District, primarily occupying the Gudalur and Pandalur Taluk which were originally tribal regions. “In fact, today the situation is that these repatriates who are estate labourers and tribals are jointly fighting for their land rights,” Bijoy said.

Land rights and the legal security they offer for tribal and forest dwelling communities remain a matter of contention. “There are millions of tribals who are officially landless but holding on to small bits and pieces for their survival,” Bijoy stated. He explained the difference between the two forms of land rights—revenue land and forest land.

“According to the government's own estimates, there are about 40 million hectares of forest land that fall within the purview of the Forest Rights Act, according to the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change. Out of which, if we actually look at the extent to which the land has been titled, that is maybe about less than 15 percent,” he said.

While forest land has a component of collective ownership under the Forest Rights Act, the revenue land law primarily talks about individual rights. “If you look at the actual holding of the tribals in the revenue land, you will find that only a very insignificant part of what they really hold is actually titled. So under the government, they are officially ‘landless’ but they are actually holding the land. The reason is that we do not have a revenue law that actually goes through the process of determination of rights,” Bijoy told The Citizen.

Access to documentation is a rare luxury for those living in far-flung regions of the country. While many do own ration cards and Voter IDs, the confusion regarding the documents necessary to prove citizenship is continuing to create anxiety among the populace. The label of ‘landless’ that hangs over the tribals and forest-dwellers further adds to their quandary.

“The government here has made a land bank,” Kujur said. “Within this land bank there is a lot of land. There are people who sustain themselves on the basis of that very land. If it is part of a land bank, it becomes the property of the government. Then the identity of the adivasi community that lives there is threatened,” she told The Citizen.

The granting of residential status under the FRA differentiates between those belonging to Scheduled Tribes (STs) and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (OTFDs). STs must prove that they have been living on forest land since before December 13, 2005. OTFDs must prove that at least three generations have been residing on the land in question, prior to the same date.

“Three generations means a person who is currently alive, whether his father and grandfather were seen around the area. If there is some elder person who says we have seen them around, then you can say that at least for three generations they have been residing here,” Bijoy said.

Highlighting the issues created by the bureaucratic takeover of granting of land rights in this manner, he stated, “The mischievous thing was that bureaucrats subsequently twisted that particular provision. When it became an Act, they put 25 years as one generation equivalent. So they now require documents from 1930 onwards.”

Meanwhile, protests in North East India have emphasised concerns regarding the ethnicity of the indigenous populations being destroyed in the wake of the citizenship amendments. According to Bijoy, the historical influx of refugees from Bangladesh and Myanmar has created a precarious situation for the indigenous population in the North East.

Protective legislations have also been enacted differentially in the North East. Bijoy further stated that people from the Oraon and Munda communities have not been recognised as Scheduled Tribes in Assam.

“There is a different history for North East, as far as the mainland is concerned and therefore inapplicability of varieties of Indian laws, be it revenue laws, the forest laws. Say for instance, most of the North East except for Sikkim—particularly states like Nagaland, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh—there are areas called ‘unclassed forests’ where the Indian forest laws are not made applicable,” he said.

“Same thing with land, and therefore people believe the community still has control over the land and resources. With immigrants getting merged with the Indian population, the fact of the matter is that a sizeable section of people are becoming invisible to the state,” Bijoy told The Citizen.

While activists and concerned citizens have been bringing up the implications of the CAA and NRC for the Adivasi population, how much do the people belonging to tribal communities truly understand the citizenship law? A recent report by Hindustan Times highlighted the lack of awareness among those living in the tribal-belts of India. While most had heard of the CAA and NRC, they were unaware about the implications of the same, wondering whether the documentation they currently have would suffice to prove their citizenship.

Neingulo Krome, of the Naga Peoples’ Movement for Human Rights (NPMHR) expressed his reservations regarding the implementation of the Act and the citizenship register, stating, “Even implementing this on the ground, it would be almost impossible to cover every area where indigenous people are staying. The people who are living in far flung areas, they will not even understand what this Act means. And government implementation agencies can never reach all the nooks and corners of the country. Even the documentation will not be accurate.”

Reiterating Krome’s concerns, Bijoy stated, “I do not know how much the tribals understand the legalities and complications of this Citizenship Act. I'm sure they don't.”

With the citizenship amendments creating mass uproar, Bijoy emphasised the importance of implementing a National Refugee Policy. “The point of the matter is that India doesn't have a refugee law or an organised manner in which, what are currently called as ‘illegal immigrants’ could be categorized and classified as refugees and come under legal protection.”

“Possibly there could be a law for creating procedures for how the registered refugees can, after fulfilment of certain requirements, be brought in in an ordered fashion to be eligible for citizenship. All these are the kind of things that should have been there,” he stated.

“Right now, it is a huge mess,” Bijoy claimed. Coming back to the complications created by the certification process for tribals in the aftermath of the citizenship law, he stated, “Community certification for tribals should actually be done by the community, not by bureaucrats who are external alien creatures who know nothing about that particular place. So the most ignorant are the ones who are authorised to deal with it. Even in this Citizenship Act, it is going to be the same old colonial bureaucracy who is going to have a field day.”

(Cover Photo: Courtesy Assam Sentinel - taken at an All Adivasi Students’ Association of Assam (AASAA) organised Awareness meet on NRC)