Manufacturing citizenship : The ongoing movement against Citizenship Amendment Bill in North East India

Binalakshmi Nepram *

 Meira Rally (Torch Rally) against Citizenship Amendment Bill 2016 at Imphal :: 30th January 2019
Meira Rally (Torch Rally) against Citizenship Amendment Bill 2016 at Imphal on 30 January 2019 :: Pix - Shankar Khangembam

When you single out any particular group of people for secondary citizenship status, that’s a violation of basic human rights
~ Jimmy Carter, Former US President & Nobel Peace Laureate

History show us that in 1500s, an estimated10 million plus indigenous people lived on land now known as current United States of America. In the year 1830, the federal Indian Removal Act was passed that forced thousands of indigenous people out of their homeland. For hundreds of years, conflicts with colonizers, introducing of diseases, atrocities and discriminatory policies devastated the indigenous people. It is estimated that over 9 million indigenous people died from this.

And in current day in North America, many indigenous people now live in areas designated as “Reservations”. The story of what happened to indigenous people in American is the story which many indigenous people living in what is currently known as “Northeast Region of India” is now facing, a fear of becoming outsiders in their own lands.

Of late, the indigenous areas of Northeast Region of India was rocked by a series of protests over the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill that was tabled in Indian Parliament on 8 January 2019 by the BJP Government of India. The region that saw the rise of the strongest protests is inhabited by 272 indigenous communities speaking over 400 languages and home to one of Asia’s longest running armed conflicts. Over 50,000 people have died in this conflict and the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act has been imposed in the region since 1958.

On top of all the seven decades of violence here, the indigenous peoples of Northeast Region of India are wary of the newly minted Citizenship Amendment Bill as the Bill sets to amend the Indian Citizenship Act, 1955 to make migrants from selective religion who are Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, eligible for Indian citizenship.

The Bill reduces 11 year requirement of citizenship to 6 years. Sources say that 2 million people (20 lakhs), mostly belonging to Hindu religion from three countries could potentially be granted Indian “Citizenship” as a result of this. The Bill thus makes migrants without any documentation eligible for citizenship on the basis of religion which is a violation of Article 14 of the Constitution.

On other hand, at around the same time, another initiative has been taking place in a place called Assam in Northeast India called the “National Register of Citizens” (NRC). NRCis the list of Indian citizens of Assamand process was taken up as per a Supreme Court order in 2013. Under this, around 4 million people (40 lakhs) in the state were suddenly found to be stateless, without a nation due to lack of proper documentation which proves that they are citizens.And most of them were from Muslim faith.

And due to the above factors, there is fear that the indigenous people of Northeast India who are living there may suffer as a result of the huge influx. Past instances of how indigenous people in Tripura in region have become a minority in their own land. The partition of Bengal in 1947 changed the demography of Tripura. In two decades, the indigenous people of Tripura were reduced to a minority. The percentage of indigenous population in Tripura declined from 64 % in 1874 to 28 % in 1981.

Migrants now constitute 70 % of population and politics decided by them, leaving indigenous people in a minority situation. And recently, Tripura state police forces belonging to the dominant population shot at unarmed indigenous student protestors against the Citizenship Amendment Bill which drew widespread outrage.

A closer study of histories of the world show that what is currently being attempted in India with Citizenship Amendment Bill has also been done in other parts of the world by politicians whose only aim is to engineer “vote banks”. Take the case of Project IC. This enigmatic sounding Project IC is the name used to describe the allegation of systematic granting of citizenship to immigrants in Malaysia in the state of Sabah in East Malaysia.

Sabah was multiracial state with no clear majority race, but with the Kadazan-Dusun as thelargest ethnic group having 32 % of population. The project aim was to alter the demographic pattern of Sabah to make it favourable to the ruling government and certain political parties by changing the electoral voting patterns.

The project reportedly began around 1990s and years later the population of the Kadazan-Dusun was reduced to 17 % and non-citizens rose to 25%. It was reported that Harris Salleh, a leader who admitted to carrying out and planning to change the demography of Sabah in favour of a specific religious community. During the Royal Commission of Inquiry on illegal immigrants in Sabah in 2013, Harris Salleh also stated that the granting of citizenship to refugees weredone as per the Federal Constitution.

He further stated that Malaysia’s first prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman had announced in 1970s that certain refugees belonging to a certain “religious” group can stay in Malaysia while other refugeeswho does not belong to that group can stay anywhere in the world.This is a clear act of discrimination.

Hence, for many observers of Northeast India, the current introduction of Citizenship Amendment Bill is akin to those that has been introduced to the world and in region itself– Indian Removal Act of 1830 in USA, Project IC in Malaysia and the population engineering that happened in Tripura.

Current Indian Home Minister, Rajnath Singh said at Indian Parliament that people from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh from minority communities have nowhere else to go and hence they are helpless and Government of India introduced the Bill to give Citizenship.

This argument does not hold water as if India truly cares for atrocities done, then why deport Rohingyas from India back to Myanmar as it did. And also if India truly cares, then country must sign the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees and opens its door towards asylum seekers. The right of asylum is aconcept where a person persecuted by one’s own country may be protected by another. United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 states, “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution”.

It is important to note that 90 percent of current population of Northeast India is indigenous. To impose the Citizenship Amendment Bill without the pre, prior and informed consent of the indigenous peoples of Northeast is a clear violation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Rather than bringing in divisive policies that violates laws, India must sign 2007 UN Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples and ensure protection of Northeast people.

India also has not signed the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. It is time that country and ruling parties stop the policy of divide and rule, pitch one community, one religion, one ethnic group against another. A nation cannot be built by creating fissures. It can be build when care, concerns and voices of the people are listened to.

The Citizenship Amendment Bill is against the idea of India. It violates the Constitution of Country and it fails the people of Northeast Region, which is home to a wide range of diverse people, speaking multiple languages, histories, struggles and religion, many of whom are also lead indigenous ways of life, living and worship which is neither Hindu nor Muslim.

It is better that Government of India realises the serious issues involved as raised by concerned people of Northeast Region and scrap the bill in all its entirety to enable peace to return.

* Binalakshmi Nepram wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer is an internationally renowned award winning scholar and activist.
She is the founder of Manipur Women Gun Survivor Network and Northeast India Women Initiative for Peace and convener of The Global Alliance on Indigenous Peoples, Gender Justice and Peace.
Bina was recently awarded 2018 Anna Politskovskaya Award along with Nobel Laureate from Belarus, Svetlana Alexievich
This article was webcasted on February 06 2019.

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