[Nellie N Manpoong]
ITANAGAR, May 17: Barely eight months after Arunachal Pradesh erupted in violence against granting citizenship status to the Chakma and Hajong residing in the state, the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, has caused another furore – this time across Northeast India.
Introduced in the Lok Sabha on 19 July, 2016, by Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, the bill proposes to amend the Citizenship Act of 1955 and make minority communities of Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh eligible for applying for Indian citizenship.
In simple terms, the bill seeks to stop imprisonment or deportation of illegal immigrants from these communities and countries. It also appeals for reducing the minimum years of residency in India for qualification as citizen to be reduced from at least 11 years to six years for these immigrants.
However, it does not grant immediate citizenship to these minority groups. It merely makes them eligible for applying, which illegal immigrants cannot do as per current provisions.
Notably, the bill is not extended to the illegal Muslim immigrants or other communities from these three countries, and goes against Article 14 of the Indian Constitution, which prohibits discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, or place of birth.
While people of the Northeast region have been vocal in their rejection of the bill, political parties in the region (largely BJP ruled) have chosen to remain silent on the issue.
The Meghalaya cabinet (a coalition partner with the BJP) led by Chief Minister Conrad K Sangma was the first to openly oppose the bill, while Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal took his time even when the people of Assam were the first to come out to the streets and start a movement against it.
In the face of growing unrest and accusations of betraying the Assamese people, Sonowal said there was no reason for him to continue as the chief minister if the state’s interest was not protected.
However, the Arunachal Pradesh government did not bat an eyelid on the issue, even as the opposition and student bodies hurled a series of accusations.
State Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Tapir Gao and government spokesperson Bamang Felix did not respond to queries from this daily regarding the issue.
The lone regional party of the state, the Peoples’ Party of Arunachal’s (PPA) president Kahfa Bengia said that the state government’s silence on the issue reflected its intention of providing citizenship status to Tibetan refugees also in the long run.
“The bill includes Buddhists and there are several Tibetans (Buddhists) acquiring Arunachal Pradesh Scheduled Tribe (APST) status in Tawang and West Kameng districts illegally. If the bill is passed, it will pave way not only for the Chakma (mostly Buddhists) and Hajong (mostly Hindus), but also for illegal Tibetan migrants soon enough,” he said.
Arunachal Pradesh Congress Committee vice president Minkir Lollen also shared similar views and accused the state government of trying to settle Tibetans permanently in the state.
On Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju’s passing the buck to the Indian National Congress (INC) for settling the refugees from Bangladesh (between 1964 and ’69) here, Lollen said that blaming the Congress for settling the refugees would not resolve the issue.
“The Congress only gave them temporary refuge and they were to be sent back; but of course, the Congress should have thought of future repercussions. However, the BJP is in power now. Instead of playing the blame-game, why doesn’t it take action on the situation at hand, which the BJP itself has created?” he said.
The PPA and the Congress held a joint meeting on 10 May, where they resolved to oppose the bill, and suggested deporting illegal Chakma, Hajong and Tibetan immigrants from the state, informed Lollen.
The two parties have also strongly demanded reviewing and amending the Arunachal Pradesh Statehood Act of 1986, and to place the state under Article 371(A) instead of Article 371(H), at par with the states of Nagaland and Mizoram, to avoid such impositions from the Centre.
Article 371(A) not only safeguards the customary laws, social practices and beliefs but also safeguards the resources of Nagaland from the intervention of the union government and its various policies unless the state assembly so decides by resolution, whereas in Arunachal the governor can exercise his individual judgment as to the action to be taken.
Demanding that the Pema Khandu-led government speak up and take action on the issue, Lollen said, “If the government’s attitude is unfavourable, we will come out on the streets.”
While political parties engage in a war of words, student bodies across the Northeast region, under the banner of the North East Students’ Organisation (NESO) have initiated action.
Since the refugee issue is no longer confined to one particular state, the NESO, which consists of apex student bodies of the seven sister states – Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Nagaland, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, and Tripura – met with the 16-member Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC), headed by BJP MP Rajendra Agarwal, in Assam and Meghalaya this month.
The JPC was set up in August 2016 to gather the views of all stakeholders. The JPC has to be invited by states for discussion and does not visit a particular state on its own will.
In a memorandum it submitted to the JPC, the NESO clearly mentioned that “the proposed bill is the latest example that the lawmakers of the country have no regard for the future of the Northeast region.”
The NESO and all its component units expressed strong opposition to the proposed bill and demanded inner-line permit (ILP) system for the entire region, like in Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, and Mizoram. They also sought constitutional safeguards for the people of the Northeast states, and grant of federal authority to the states to assert rights over land and natural resources.
Describing the bill as another effort to encourage infiltration of Hindus from Bangladesh into different states of the Northeast, the NESO asserted, “We shall resist creation of another Tripura in any part of the Northeastern region.”
All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union (AAPSU) general secretary Tobom Dai informed that the union has also placed a separate memorandum to the JPC, opposing the bill and highlighting the state’s refugee issue.
As per union home ministry records, a total of 14,888 Chakma and Hajong were settled in Arunachal Pradesh during 1964-’69. According to a 2011 census and a survey conducted by a Chakma organisation, the present population of the Chakma and Hajong in the state is estimated to be between 55,000 to 60,000.
Arunachal Pradesh Chakma Students’ Union president Tejang Chakma clarified that the allegations that the population increased to 300,000 or any such staggering number are false and not based on evidence, “and deliberately done to create fear.”
In September 2017, the AAPSU had launched a statewide protest against the Supreme Court’s directive to grant citizenship rights to Chakma and Hajong. The AAPSU had also filed a special leave petition, which is currently pending before the apex court.
This time around, the NESO has scheduled a protest for 21 May in all the capitals of the seven Northeast states.
The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, was proposed to be presented in the winter session of Parliament in 2016 itself by the JPC, but the committee has had nearly 17 sittings since its formation, and is yet to submit a report.
Voices from Arunachal
While the state government has chosen to remain tightlipped, the people of Arunachal have decided to break the silence.
Chow Tichanam Singkai (president, All Namsai Area Youth Association): The non-APST population within Namsai township is already over 4000, which is close to 40 percent of the total population of Namsai district. If the Chakma and Hajong are also given citizenship then it is a matter of serious concern for the indigenous people of Namsai district.
Namsai is the gateway to eastern Arunachal Pradesh, and although Dirak is the check post on the national highway, there are numerous other roads connecting the district. Anyone can enter through these roads – including Chakma and Hajong – to various pockets of the district. It is likely that crime rates will also increase.
The state government along with the district administration needs to chalk out a concrete solution, so that the indigenous people of the district and the state have space to breathe.
Isha Basar (homemaker): I feel for migrants who have to wander all their lives with no place to call home. At the same time, I also feel that India is already too populated for its own good. We have enough hungry, homeless, and unemployed people here, who are in need of government aid. I feel it’s just the BJP’s agenda to increase their vote bank, and I feel these refugees should be deported and rehabilitated in their respective countries with at least minimum-wage employment.
Hita Techi (entrepreneur): If these people are given citizenship and begin their settlement in the state, can the government guarantee that the tribal population of the state, which is already miniscule, won’t be subjected to what natives of Tripura are confronted with today?
Tai Niyu (junior engineer): The bill will create a large-scale law and order situation. The state government should stop being a puppet to the central government. We are already surrounded by countries like Myanmar, Nepal, China, Bhutan, and Bangladesh. Arunachal and other Northeast states will be easy victims to migrant influx and we will be reduced to a minority.
The Chakma stand
Tejang Chakma (president, Arunachal Pradesh Chakma Students’ Union): It is not the Chakma and Hajong but other non-tribal population, such as the Muslims, who pose a threat to the indigenous people of the state. As the focus remains on the Chakma for vested interests, the threat from Muslims and others is ignored, and this could have repercussions in the long run. We were born in Arunachal and for us it is our homeland.
We also welcome the protest by the AAPSU and the NESO with respect to the proposed grant of citizenship to certain categories of people who had come to India by 31 December, 2014.
However, the Chakma and Hajong are not affected by the same as the overwhelming majority of them are already citizens by birth under Section 3(1) of the Citizenship Rights Act.
At the same time, we remain concerned that citizenship is not being granted to about 4500 Chakma and Hajong who had been settled by the Government of India under a definite plan of rehabilitation after the Indo-China war of 1962. The then NEFA and Chittagong Hill Tracts of the then East Pakistan did not share any border and the Chakma were brought by the Government of India after making them travel through Mizoram, Tripura, and Assam, to be settled in Arunachal Pradesh.
Organisations such as AAPSU and NESO ought to realize that rights are never exercised by denying the same to others. They should take a principled stand.