Issues of the Northeast

Issues of the Northeast

Ant-CAA protest in Assam. (PTI Photo)

With the Union Ministry of Home Affairs notification, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) 2019 has come into force from January 10 onwards. However, the protests across the country have not stopped - rather intensified especially in Assam and other North Eastern States (NES). 

The Assam government even urged the home ministry to frame separate rules of CAA. The concerns and issues regarding CAA and its implications can be broadly categorised into: (i) the legislative competence of the Act and the questions of altering the ‘basic structure’ of the Constitution; (ii) pushing the agenda of Hindu Rashtra by the BJP through CAA-National Register of Citizens (NRC); and, (iii) threat to the rights of indigenous people of NES. 

The third dimension has not received adequate importance in the ongoing mainstream discourse. Set in this context, it is essential to explore the issues of CAA with regard to NES. 

This is crucial given the (i) long historicity of migration in NES including the mass movement in Assam from 1979-1985; (ii) geographical proximity to the neighbouring nations, in particular, Bangladesh; (iii) NES experienced and bore the brunt of partitions and wars; and, (iv) vulnerability to the CAA-NRC in the wake of failure of NRC exercise in Assam. 

The intensity of protests can be understood in the words of Samujjal Bhattacharya who played an instrumental role in building the All Assam Students Union (AASU). He asserted, “we cannot allow CAA under any circumstances. They cannot play with the future of the indigenous people of Assam. We will fight CAA tooth and nail”. The stiff resistance of AASU and other organisations has led Prime Minister Narendra Modi to withdraw his scheduled visit Guwahati to launch ‘Khelo India’ youth games last week.

The Section 3 of CAA mentions that “nothing in this section shall apply to tribal areas of Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram or Tripura as included in the Sixth Schedule to the Constitution and the area covered under “The Inner Line” notified under the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation, 1873”. 

Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland were exempted from the CAA through the Inner Line Permit (ILP).  Recently, the Union government promised to extend the ILP status to Manipur. A natural question that arises here is, why is that the protests in the NES especially in Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura, are becoming intense day by day in spite of being exempted from CAA? 

Assam has 33 districts which are classified into five regional divisions namely Barak Valley, Central Assam, Lower Assam, North Assam and Upper Assam. Among these districts, only three areas - North Cachar Hills district, Karbi Anglong district and Bodoland Territorial Area district come under the purview of Sixth Schedule. It means that only these three tribal areas are exempted which infers that majority districts of the state have to implement CAA. In terms of region, only Barak Valley and Central Assam come under the CAA exemption that too to some extent. 

The bone of contention lies in the lower Assam region. More specifically, the districts of Barpeta, Bongaigaon, Darrang, Dhubri, Goalpara, Hailakandi, Karimganj, Morigaon and Nagaon effectively come under the purview of CAA. It must be noted that in all these districts, the Muslims form the majority population. 

In fact, these are the districts which are severely affected by the mass migration from Bangladesh and have contributed to the changing demographic pattern of Assam. This has been brought out in the report of the Committee for Protection of Land Right of Indigenous People of Assam under the chairmanship of Hari Shankar Brahma in December 2017. 

Administrative steps

The committee has observed that “in case no effective constitutional, legal and administrative steps including sealing off of the Indo-Bangladesh border and detection and deportation of the illegal immigrants are taken, the indigenous people are bound to be reduced to a landless class of people and to become foreigners at their own home”. 

The foregoing discussion clearly indicates the genuine issues of NES especially the states of Sixth Schedule, in particular, Assam. The CAA, apart from above existential threat to the indigenous people of NES, also adds on to the pressure on land and other resources thereby paying a way to local (indigenous population) and non-local (illegal migrants) conflict. 

Similar is the case with Khasi and Garo Hills districts of Meghalaya. Both these districts are exempted from CAA. However, the influx can’t be stopped fully to the other adjacent district of the state given the porous nature of border and its poor management. The CAA application to the other areas in the state effectively reduces the Khasi and Garo people to become minorities in their homeland. 

The systematic decline in the indigenous population of Tripura from 37.2% in 1951 to 31.8% in 2011 tells the impact of illegal migration on the demographics, culture, politics, economy and society of Northeast India. In a nutshell, the exemptions made to NES are not really going to curb either the entry of illegal migrants or ease the resource burden on the same, giving rise to new intra and inter-societal conflict. 

In addition to these, the security threat is another dimension which the BJP governments both at the Centre and Assam have wilfully ignored in pursuing the identity and religious politics. The joint secretary of Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW) has deposed before the Joint Parliament Committee (JPC) on the CAB saying, “our only concern has been that the agencies who are inimical to us should not have a legal framework within which they can exploit our situation and infiltrate their own people into our own country. ”.

The BJP government has ignored these cautionary tales in enacting CAA only to create a legal base to conduct “NRC Part 2” as rightly mentioned by a Member of Parliament and a member of JPC in the dissent note. 

(The writer is PhD Fellow, Centre for Political Institutions, Governance and Development, Institute for Social and Economic Change (ISEC), Bengaluru)

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