Guest post by Roluahpuia, a researcher based in Guwahati, Assam. This post is the fifth instalment of the Border Criminologies themed week on the Citizenship, Identity and Belongingness: Narratives from India, organised by Rimple Mehta.

Picture: Map of India showing region wise classification with states, viz. Northern, North-Central, Western, Eastern, Southern and North-Eastern. Image credit: Alamy.

On 13 December 2019, groups of youth in Aizawl, the capital of Mizoram in northeast India were picked up by the local police of the state. This came in the wake of passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 (CAA) in the Lok Sabha, when the lone Member of Parliament (MP) from the state of Mizoram, Pu C. Lalrosanga voted in favour of the Bill. The MP belongs to the Mizo National Front (MNF), the ruling party of the state which is also a part of the non-Congress alliance led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) known as the North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA). The protest by the youth of Aizawl has two broad significances. First, the northeastern region that comprises of Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh has been the heart of anti-CAA protest since its inception. Student bodies of the eight states under the banner of North East Student Organization (NESO) have been leading the protest across the region. However, as the Bill was tabled and eventually passed in the Parliament, the protest in the northeast region was gradually becoming less visible with media spotlight shifting to protests elsewhere in mainland India. Similarly, the protest by the youth in Aizawl did not register much attention in national media but locally, it represented a continued resentment of the local population against the new Act.

Image: Sit-in-protest against Citizenship Amendment Act on 13 December, 2019, Aizawl, Mizoram. Image credit: Northeast Now.

Secondly, the CAA and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) arrived with a new political arithmetic by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the political party at the helm of the central government, in trying to keep peace with the regional ethnic groups in the northeast. The protest by the youth in Aizawl came against the backdrop of the central government promise of excluding states under Sixth Schedule and the Inner Line Permit (ILP) from the purview of the Act. Both the ILP and Sixth Schedule are designed for the protection of tribal communities of the region that grant them special constitutional rights and certain degree of political autonomy. This means that states of the region such as Mizoram, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and the areas under Sixth Schedule in Assam, Tripura and Meghalaya are excluded from the new Act. Despite this exclusion, the BJP plan of appeasing the tribal communities have failed to completely curb protest against the new Act. The continued protest needs to be understood in the historical and contemporary contexts of India’s tribal communities.

Image: Rally by Mizo Students in protest against Citizenship Amendment Bill on 23 January, 2019. Image credit: Indian Express.

Mizoram and other states of the northeast are borderland states. The region is connected with mainland India by a tiny stretch of land, a mere 21 kilometres while the rest of its border is international which makes up to 4,096 kilometres; 99 per cent of its borders. Borders have their own life and history in the northeast. This is imbricated into the region’s incorporation in the wider colonial administrative apparatus that imposed borders, albeit arbitrarily and violently. Colonial borders were retained and formalized with the Partition of British India in 1947 and the formation of Bangladesh in 1971. However, a mere two-nation theory explanation on the basis of religion, Hindu and Muslim obscures the experience of Partition particularly for the region’s tribal communities.

There is a strong claim of indigenous/tribal identity in protests against CAA and NRC. The experience of marginality and oppression at the hands of colonial rulers and non-tribals in post-colonial India shapes tribal political contour, including in the context of NRC and CAA. For instance, the British instituted a policy of resettling migrants in the region both from the former East Bengal (now Bangladesh) and Chhotanagpur region. This policy continued under post-colonial India where migrants, refugees and other displaced communities were resettled in states such as in Assam, Tripura, and Arunachal Pradesh. One of the most serious implications of this process is the loss of rights and socio-political marginalization, such as the rights over and access to land and other resources. The NRC and CAA strengthen old memories of re-settlement that many fear will result in further undermining tribal community rights and their marginalization.

What the NRC and CAA sets to achieve is to either grant or deny citizenship to select religious groups. The two are integrally linked in its logic to reverse the idea of equal citizenship. By rewarding citizenship to persecuted minorities from select religions, the BJP intends to make Assam ‘safe’. However, one cannot undermine the electoral calculations. This was evident when the BJP rejected the final NRC published on 31 August, 2019 on the ground that it includes large number of Bengali Hindu populations, the party’s major vote bank. It also goes against the party’s ideological standpoint, hence the demand for re-verification of the NRC list. However, what is often missed is the exclusion of large number of tribal communities within the NRC. The first draft publication of NRC on 30 July, 2018 was a testament to this where different communities across religion; Hindu, Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians were excluded from it. Of this, Scheduled Tribes (STs) constitute a large number of them cutting across religions. For the tribal communities, the opposition is not merely about the ‘communal’ nature of the CAA and NRC; rather, it’s a question about their survival and existence.

The NRC has a strong violent undertone as is evidenced in the rising number of deaths from the existing detention centres. The fear psychosis and the burden of proof have immense cost, psychologically and economically. Furthermore, the bureaucratic logic that underpins the exercise is tortuous and painful. This is because those under detention are made to prove their citizenship through documents, failing which will render them stateless. Given the longstanding cycle of violence in the region, we need to contextualise such practice. For instance, detention centres resembled the regrouped villages- commonly known as grouping centres or camps- implemented during the period of counter-insurgency in Mizo Hills from 1967 onwards. The process was violent, involving forcible relocation of people by uprooting them from their ancestral villages to specific grouping centres/villages identified by the state. The grouped villages were heavily guarded by the security forces surrounded by high bamboo fences and spikes. The grouped populations were made legible to the state through the issuance of identity cards, restriction of movements and maintenance of census. Under this sinister design, close to 90 per cent of Mizos had been directly affected, remnants of which are still present in a modern Mizo pysche.

Camps in Mizo Hills were used to further segregate the population on the basis of ‘loyal’ and ‘suspect’ communities, or to borrow Mahmood Mamdani’s words; ‘good’ and ‘bad’ citizens. Similarly, the CAA and NRC are set to achieve similar forms of identifications. With the plan to implement a nation-wide NRC, the impact will be disastrous as it targets minorities across religions and communities. This familiarity of violent strategies rekindles fear of renewed violence and ethnic hostilities. As a result, it becomes difficult to disentangle the CAA and NRC from this history of violence.

Finally, there is a wider sense of regional solidarity emerging from the protest, particularly against the CAA. This sense of solidarity is expressed in the press handout issued by the protestors in Aizawl which notes that the Northeastern region would be the most affected under the new citizenship act. The handout further notes that a mere exclusion i.e., referring to the ILP and Sixth Schedule, from the Act does not promise any effective protection if neighboring states such as Assam are not exempted from its purview. While local concerns of identity and rights are at the heart of protests across the northeast region, the NRC and CAA have re-opened up the issue of identity and citizenship in India’s peripheral region.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Roluahpuia. (2020). Peripheral protests: CAA, NRC and tribal politics in northeast India. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2020/02/peripheral (Accessed [date])