In India’s northeast, protesters rally against citizenship bill

Hundreds of protesters closed streets as part of an 11-hour shutdown across the region against the controversial bill.

Protesters shout slogans as they burn tyres on a road during the strike called by North East Students'' Organization (NESO) against the government''s Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB), in Guwahati on Dec
Protesters shout slogans as they burn tyres during a strike called by students organisation, NESO, against the federal government's Citizenship Amendment Bill [Biju BORO/AFP]

Guwahati, Assam – A controversial citizenship bill passed in the lower house of Indian Parliament has faced opposition in northeastern states, where protesters closed streets on Tuesday as part of an 11-hour shutdown.

The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAB), introduced by the government led by Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), seeks to provide citizenship to non-Muslim “persecuted” religious minorities from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

It needs to be passed by the upper house of Parliament to become law.

Major opposition parties from the northeast region, including Indian National Congress (INC), Nationalist Congress Party, Trinamool Congress, voted against the bill that critics say discriminates against Muslims.

Two prominent student bodies – the North East Students Organization (NESO) and All Assam Students Union (AASU) – have been at the forefront of the agitation against the bill, which they say will encourage more Hindus from Bangladesh to immigrate to India diluting the local culture and will compete for limited resources.

“We have already been facing a problem of illegal migration from Bangladesh in border states like Meghalaya, Assam and Tripura,” said Samuel Jyrwa, chairman of the North East Students Organization. “Now instead of protecting us, they want to legalise all these infiltrators.”

All Assam Student's Union (AASU) activists hang the effigies of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, middle and Home Minister Amit Shah, second from left and Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal, s
AASU activists hang the effigies of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, centre, Home Minister Amit Shah, second from left, and Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal, second from right, along with some other leaders’, during a protest against the Citizenship Amendment Bill in Guwahati [Anupam Nath/AP Photo]

Samujjal Bhattacharya, an AASU adviser, threatened a “democratic mass movement” in the northeastern states if the bill does not exempt the region from its purview.

Kabindra Chetia Phukan, president of Veer Lachit Sena Assam, a self-styled ultra-regionalist vigilante group, said his group will continue to agitate if the bill is legislated in any form.

“If this entire fiasco ends up hurting the rights of the indigenous people, we will intensify our protests. We are ready to appeal in the Supreme Court also,” he told Al Jazeera.

Exemptions for some northeastern states

However, a majority of the members of parliament from the region, comprising of eight states, voted in favour of the bill.

When the bill was introduced in January before May’s general elections, which Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP won in a landslide, northeast leaders had opposed the bill.

The bill’s passage in the lower house had sparked widespread protests in the northeastern states with a large number of tribal and indigenous citizens.

Home Minister Amit Shah has promised to exempt some northeastern states from the jurisdiction of the bill under the sixth schedule of the constitution and the Inner Line Permit (ILP) concept.

Under the sixth schedule, native people are given limited autonomy to administer the area and outsiders are not allowed to own property in the designated areas, while the ILP is a colonial-era document aimed at preventing largescale migration.

Indian citizens require a permit to enter Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and most of Nagaland. The home minister has promised Manipur will also be included in the ILP.

Despite the changes in the latest bill, Jyrwa says the civil society groups from all the states who are a part of NESO remain unified in their opposition to the draft law.

“What about the non-ILP states or non-schedule areas. Indigenous people live here as well,” he told Al Jazeera. “The government is trying to solve the issue state-wise but as NESO we cannot be a mute spectator if other parts of the northeast are affected because sooner or later the protected areas will also be affected.”

However, the Young Mizo Association (YMA), the largest and most powerful civil society body in Mizoram, were happy that ILP states were exempted.

“We were primarily against CAB but since Mizoram has been kept out, we’re fine with it,” Lalhmachhuana, YMA vice president, told Al Jazeera.

Hawa Bagang, the president of All Arunachal Pradesh Students Union, told Al Jazeera that while they were happy with the exemption to ILP states, they were obligated to oppose it as a part of NESO.

Some groups are still demanding that the entire northeast region should be exempted. “Even if a small portion in the northeast comes under the bill, the entire region will be affected because of our porous borders,” said Ninoto Awomi, president of Naga Students Federation.

“It is a misunderstanding to think that ILP will protect influx of foreigners. If that was the case, why do we have a Chakma Autonomous Council in Mizoram?” said Ningthouja Lancha of Manipur People Against Citizenship Amendment Bill, referring to Chakma refugees from Bangladesh residing in the region for decades.

Source: Al Jazeera