A year on, protests against citizenship issue continue in North East; ILP demand gets louder

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Nabamita Mitra
Nabamita Mitra
is a freelance journalist and is associated with The Shillong Times

Shillong: On January 8 last year, the Lok Sabha passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill despite protests in the North East and other parts of the country. The protest reached its crescendo after the bill became a law. One year on, the resistance in the North East still continues with an added demand for Inner Line Permit (ILP) in states like Assam and Meghalaya.

The sustained year-long protests have done little to change the BJP-led NDA government’s stand on the issue. The Centre seems to be adamant on going ahead with the amended law. This has only raised the apprehension of the indigenous population of the North East, which has culminated in making them demand for ILP in the entire region. However, many are of the view that ILP in the gateway state of Assam and the popular tourist destination of Meghalaya will curtail the development and economic growth of these two states.

Recently, former governor of Meghalaya, RS Mooshahary termed ILP as isolation. But protesting groups believe the permit is one way to safeguard the region and its people from illegal migrants. Samujjal Bhattacharya, the president of All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), said there was a provision for ILP in many districts of Assam.

“But the provision was abolished… ILP is one way to protect the identity of the indigenous people,” he said, citing examples of Mizoram, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh where ILP already exists.
In Meghalaya too, the protesting groups believe that ILP will have no adverse effect on the growth of the state. The state’s Cabinet has already passed a resolution in support of ILP and is awaiting the Centre’s nod. Vanlalruata, the president of Central Young Mizo Association, said the exemption of the state from the law is a relief. But according to Sanjoy Hazarika, a social scientist and expert on North East, neither exemption from the Citizenship Act nor ILP “addresses the challenge of those who have come in illegally and settled in the state over the decades”.

“This may be small for other parts of the country but in a small region like the NER, where there are more than 250 ethnic groups, some numbering barely a few thousand, the settlement of substantial numbers stirs deep anxieties about the future of the original small groups,” he said.

There will be long-term repercussions of the citizenship law and NRC if implemented.

“Assam and the NE appeared to be pulling themselves out of a deep nightmare and abyss – now it is being pushed to the edge. People are also angry and upset because they feel they haven’t been consulted and there’s a breach of trust. How can the government at the Centre or the state, including the chief minister who emerged in the aftermath of the Assam agitation, say that the Assam Accord of 1985, which was set in March 1971 as the cut-off point for undocumented migration and settlement, is unharmed by this amendment? The goalposts are changed by 43 years, from 1971 to 2014, and there’s no impact on the clauses of the accord,” he explained.

“What baffles me especially is the contradictory stand of the Asom Gana Parishad which has gone to the Supreme Court against the amendment but continues to remain in the Sonowal government in the state. This hypocrisy is being tested in the public fora with protests against CAA but also against AGP. Their MP votes for the amendment and they go to court against it! That they do not see this contradiction in their stand, that it is completely untenable, is truly remarkable! It would have been better if they had come out of the government and pursued their case independently. I would think that right now, their locus standi with the BJP and those opposing the act is equally poor,” Hazarika added.

The question now is whether the Centre’s move to exempt parts of the country from the law will douse the protests to a great extent. Both Bhattacharya and Tobom Dai of All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union said the protests will continue with or without exemption or ILP.

“We have decided to continue peaceful protests based on the principles of Mahatma Gandhi who had concerns for the people of the North East,” said the AASU chief.

The North East Students’ Organisation, the umbrella body, has recently said it would continue the anti-citizenship law protests. But Hazarika stresses the importance of dialogues and debates to resolve the issue.

“I believe that there must be dialogue, discussions and debate: The Government as elected representative needs to heed the call of people and be open for talks. The protests, if they continue, must be absolutely non-violent and peaceful. The right to peaceful assembly is a fundamental right.

They provide also an opportunity to make the public, young and old, understand their rights and the importance of the Constitution from which all institutions in the country, government, the permanent executive, parliament, judiciary and the media, draw their mandate,” he said.

Nabamita Mitra
Nabamita Mitra
is a freelance journalist and is associated with The Shillong Times

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