By Giriraj Bhattacharjee*
Protests, many including violence, have exploded across India, since the passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 (CAA 2019) on December 12, 2019, and have put at risk the relative and fragile stability that had been established across India’s troubled Northeast at enormous cost in blood and treasure. All the seven states of India’s North East have witnessed widespread protests, with at least three – Assam, Tripura and Meghalaya – recording violence during the anti-CAA demonstrations. Assam has been the worst affected among these States.
According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal, at least 18 violent incidents have been recorded in these three States. Assam accounted for 11, followed by Meghalaya, four; and Tripura, three. These incidents resulted in five deaths (all civilians) and 144 persons injured (90 civilians and 54 Security Force, SF, personnel).
The five civilians were killed in four different incidents in Assam. Four of these civilians were killed in Police firing, while another was burnt alive by the Protestors.
Protestors have also engaged in arson and have destroyed a large number of properties. For instance, on December 12, protesters set ablaze two railway stations in Assam: one at Chabua in Dibrugarh District and another at Panitola in Tinsukia District. Further, Army and Assam Rifles personnel rescued passengers of the Silchar-Dibrugarh Brahmaputra Express at Naharkatia in Dibrugarh District, which had been surrounded by a mob trying to set the train ablaze.
In Tripura, 66 tribal and 293 non-tribal families were displaced in the Kanchanpur Subdivision of North Tripura District following violent clashes during the anti-Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) protest on December 11, 2019. These families are presently staying in relief centres provided by the Government.
The protests have seen the participation of large masses. On December 13, 2019, for instance, around 100,000 protestors demanding scrapping of CAA turned violent and tried to enter Raj Bhavan (the Governor’s residence) in Shillong in East Khasi Hills District, compelling security forces to fire tear gas shells, resulting in injuries to 63 persons (unofficial estimates).
Indefinite curfew/night curfew has been enforced in seven cities/towns/Districts of Assam – Kamrup (Metro), Dibrugarh, Sonitpur Jorhat, Golaghat, Tinsukia and Charaideo. Two Districts of Tripura are also under partial curfew – North Tripura and Dhalai. Internet services stands suspended (till December 16, 2019) in 10 Districts of Assam – Lakhimpur, Tinsukia, Dhemaji, Dibrugarh, Charaideo, Sivasagar, Jorhat, Golaghat, Kamrup (Metro) and Kamrup. Internet services are also suspended (till December 16, 2019) in the entire State of Meghalaya. Internet services were suspended in all the Districts of Tripura as well, till December 13, 2019.
Violence has also engulfed the neighbouring State of West Bengal with several incidents of arson reported. Following the violence, on December 15, 2019, State administration ‘temporarily’ suspended internet services in Malda, Murshidabad, Uttar Dinajpur, Howrah, North 24 Parganas and parts of South 24 Parganas.
The Lok Sabha (Lower House of Indian Parliament) had passed the Bill on December 9, 2019, and the Rajya Sabha (Upper House of Indian Parliament) at around 8 pm [IST] on December 11, 2019. The Bill became an Act, the CAA, after receiving the assent of President Ram Nath Kovind on December 12, 2019.
The agitation against CAB 2019, in fact, started to regain momentum after the Union Cabinet’s decision on December 4, 2019, to go ahead and re-introduce the Bill in the Parliament. On December 5, the Doomdooma Regional Committee of the Asom Jatiyatabadi Juba Chatra Parishad (AJYCP) blocked the National Highway-37 at Rupai Siding Tiniali in Tinsukia District of Assam protesting against CAB 2019. On the same day, the Jorhat District unit of the All Tai Ahom Students Union (ATSU) burnt effigies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Union Home Minister Amit Shah and Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal at Jorhat. Similar demonstrations were observed in other States of the region. On December 9, 2019, normal life was affected in Manipur due to a ‘cease work’ protest launched by Manipur People Against Citizenship Amendment Bill (MANPAC). Earlier, on December 5, 2019, the Indigenous Nationalist Party of Twipra (INPT) organised a 12-hours National Highway and Rail blockade programme at Chandrasadhu Para and Bighudas Para areas of Chanpaknagar in West Tripura District, demanding withdrawal of CAB 2019.
It is pertinent to recall here that an intense agitation against CAB had first started subsequent to the passing of the Bill by the Lok Sabha on January 8, 2019. The protest, however, gradually subsided as the Government failed to present and pass the Bill in the Rajya Sabha and the Bill eventually lapsed when the 16th Lok Sabha’s tenure came to an end on May 24, 2019.
After returning to power with a brute majority in the Lok Sabha and enhanced strength in the Rajya Sabha, subsequent to the General Elections of April-May 2019, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the ruling party at the Centre, has stampeded on with its agenda of core Hindutva, first diluting Article 370 in J&K and reducing the State to two Union Territories, and then reintroducing CAB in Parliament and eventually securing its hasty passage.
Though the Bill presented in January 2019 and again in December remains more or less the same, the Government inserted a cut-off date of December 31, 2014, for granting of citizenship in the new Bill. There was no mention of a cut-off in Bill originally passed by the Lok Sabha on January 8, 2019. The cut-off date directly negates the March 24, 1971, date agreed upon under Clause 5 of the 1985 Assam Accord. Moreover, the Government brought down the requirement of the aggregate period of residence in India or service in the Government of India to “not less than five years’’ from the earlier six years.
In Assam the agitation is led by the All Assam Students Union (AASU). Other groups involved in the current agitation mainly include the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samithi (KMSS) and AJYCP.
These groups oppose CAB/CAA 2019 because they believe that it violates the 1985 Assam Accord. It is important to recall here that in July 1979, the “anti-foreigner movement” was launched by the AASU and the All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP), for the detection of illegal immigrants, their deletion from the voters’ list and their deportation to Bangladesh. The six-year-long movement culminated with the signing of the Assam Accord on August 15, 1985. Significantly, the militant United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) also emerged in 1979 over the same demands, and gave the troubles in Assam and armed dimension.
Similarly, the protest is led by the United Arunachal Indigenous Peoples Forum (UAIPF) in Arunachal Pradesh, the Joint Movement Against Citizenship Amendment Bill (JMACAB) in Tripura, the NGO Coordination Committee (NCC) in Mizoram, MANPAC in Manipur and the Joint Committee on Prevention of Illegal Immigrants (JCPI) in Nagaland. On December 12, 2019 JMACAB withdrew its indefinite protests against CAA after meeting Union Home minister Amit Shah, saying it would continue the movement in a ‘democratic manner’ with ‘continuous dialogue’. On December 15, 2019, JMACAB ‘Convenor’ Antony Debbarma disclosed, “Amit Shahji assured us that he would consider our concerns over the Act very shortly. That’s why we called off the strike. We do believe the Centre will make special provision for the state of Tripura.”
According to these groupings, the entire current exercise is a move to appease ‘Hindu Bangladeshis’ on the dictates of Bhartia Janta Party (BJP) -led Government at the Centre, in order to create a captive vote bank for the party. They believe that the predominance of Bengali Hindus in the list of persons excluded from the National Register for Citizens (NRC) forced the State’s ruling BJP to question the reliability of the entire NRC exercise. The updating of the 1951 NRC, conducted under the supervision of the Supreme Court, left out approximately 1.9 million (1,906,657 in total) in the final list published on August 31, 2019. The President of the All Assam Bengali Students’ Federation (AABSF), Kamal Choudhury, claimed that more than one million out of the 1.9 million applicants excluded, belonged to the Bengali Hindu community.
The fear of legitimising the settlement of such ‘illegal’ outsiders through CAB reignites the collective fear of a ‘demographic invasion’ amongst the ‘indigenous’ communities of the North Eastern region, often citing the case of the demographic reversal in the erstwhile princely State of Tripura. Patricia Mukhim, Editor of The Shillong Times and former member of the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), articulated this shared anxiety driving the present protests:
…Assam has a few districts where the Sixth Schedule is in place. It is not an ILP (Inner Line Permit) state. Hence, it will become the only state in the North-East where illegal Hindu migrants from Bangladesh could potentially be settled… Tripura is the red flag that reminds the people here how a tribal state could be transformed in just a few decades into a one where the indigenous people make up only 32% of the population. The state has been overrun by migrants, first from East Pakistan and later from Bangladesh. Now, the Bengali-speaking population is a majority in Tripura and runs the affairs of the state. Fears of a similar fate are real and widely held across all states in the region… In Meghalaya, there is a large area (10×10 sq. km) within Shillong city called the European Ward, which is out of the purview of the Sixth Schedule. This is already overpopulated and some localities have become slums occupied by people of Bangladeshi-origin (visible from their language and profiles). The anti-CAB protesters in the state know that 17 million Bangladeshi Hindus, who claim to be persecuted in their country, would want to settle in Meghalaya and the Barak Valley in Assam due to language and cultural proximity with the Bengalis, who already reside in these locations…
Meanwhile, the protests against CAB/CAA in the past as well as present has brought into the open the BJP’s doublespeak, as it claims to be a party advocating ‘one nation one law’, but has announced arbitrary exceptions for several states. Indeed, expecting protests from tribal dominated States of the Northeast, the Government has excluded 6th Schedule areas and States where ILP system is in place, from the purview of CAA. Further, the ILP system has been extended to Manipur and to the Dimapur District of Nagaland (other Districts of Nagaland were already within the ILP system). ILP regulates visits by Indians to the States of Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Nagaland and Manipur under Section 2 of Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation, 1873. Foreign citizens visiting these places need to get Protected Area Permit under Foreigners (Protected Areas) Order 1958. The Union Ministry of Home Affairs (UMHA) has decided to relax the six-decade-old Protected Area Permit system for foreign citizens visiting Nagaland, Mizoram and Manipur for five years with effect from April 1,2018. However, citizens of Pakistan, China and Afghanistan still need to take prior permission from the UMHA.
Similarly, the Government had assured Parliament on January 8, while presenting CAB, that Clause 6 of the Assam Accord would be implemented. Clause 6 states: “Constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards, as may be appropriate, shall be provided to protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people.” It also assured the granting of Schedule Tribe (ST) status to six communities, and the implementation of Clause Six of Assam Accord. Such assurances have, however, failed to cut ice. Earlier, on January 6, 2019, a nine-member Committee headed by M.P. Bezbarauah (a retired IAS officer) was notified by the UMHA to look into the implementation of Clause 6 of the Assam Accord. The Committee became redundant as the Chairman refused to be part of the group. On July 16, 2019, the Committee was reconstituted with an increased strength (12 members) under Gauhati High Court Judge Justice (Retd.) Biplab Kumar Sarma as Chairman. The Committee is to submit its recommendations by January 15, 2020.
The granting of ST status to six communities, implementation of clause six of the Assam Accord have all remained unfulfilled. AASU General Secretary Lurin Jyoti Gogoi notes,
Since CAB totally violates the Assam Accord, then why is the government selectively picking Clause 6. The BJP had 11 years of governance at the Centre; why did it not implement it then?
Meanwhile, there is a high likelihood of militants taking advantage of the rising discontent and mayhem. ULFA ‘commander-in-chief’ Paresh Baruah, warned on December 11, 2019,
The ULFA-I will not sit idle if a protesting student or any Assamese for that matter is assaulted. We appeal to Bhaskarjyoti Mahanta, Director General of Police (DGP) of Assam Police, not to lathicharge people taking to the streets and vehemently opposing the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. The DGP should control his police force and not harass innocent protesters.
Earlier on December 7, 2019, D. Uomthai, ‘secretary general’ of the militant National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT), warned,
fundamental conflict and political unrest in Twipra is all about the core issue of illegal immigrants that occurred in different waves right from 1947… Citizenship Amendment Act (when passed) in the state of Twipra… would lead to unprecedented ethnic unrest…
The ongoing protests have met with a heavy handed response from the resolve of the Government, both of the States and Union. In order to control the situation in the State, the Assam Government has imposed curfew and suspended Internet services, and has issued an advisory to private television channels to be ‘careful’ about airing content that can possibly incite violence. Police in Assam has so far arrested 175 people and detained 1,460 protesters for participating in violent agitations. The Union Government has moved five columns of the Army to Assam. The Centre has also deployed an additional 5,000 Central Armed Police Force (CAPF) personnel in sensitive locations. Two Columns of the Indian Army were deployed in the North Tripura and Dhalai Districts of Tripura as well.
The road ahead now looks uncertain, as the organisations agitating against CAA want the non-application of the Act in their respective areas, a demand that the Government would find difficult to accommodate. Crucially, it will be impossible to reconcile the Act with commitments made under the Assam Accord, on the one hand, and, on the other, to address the demographic anxieties of indigenous populations. These contradictions now threaten to create the very circumstances that drew the region’s youth into the insurgencies of the 1980s, many of which continue in dissipated form even today. The threat of increasing numbers of youth being drawn towards currently active insurgent groups, as well as the danger of the revival of other, presently defunct, Northeast insurgencies, driven by the fear of outsiders, constitutes a looming danger to the relative peace the entire region has experienced over the past several years.
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management