NRC ‘need of the hour’ in North East, say social groups

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

Shilong: The BJP government at the Centre may have been pilloried by a section of the opposition for implementing the National Register of Citizens (NRC) but in the North East, which shares about 4,000 km of border with Bangladesh, the new method of identifying “foreigners” and eliminating them from the voters’ list has been appreciated. After Assam, social organisations in other northeastern states, like Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh, are seeking the same method to safeguard the vulnerable tribal communities from the onslaught of migration.

The final NRC list was released on August 31 leaving out over 19 lakh people and creating a widespread panic among neighbouring states over mass entry of the Assam defaulters. In Meghalaya, the Khasi Students’ Union (KSU) set up several check points immediately after the list was out. “NRC is the need of the hour,” asserted Donald Thabah, KSU general secretary.

Why NRC?

The KSU is also demanding implementation of inner line permit (ILP) as per the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulations, 1873, in letter and spirit. Besides, there is the Meghalaya Residents’ Safety and Security Act, 2016, that forbids any outsider from buying land or property in the state. So why does KSU want another check on outsiders?

Thabah explained that there are loopholes in the existing acts and their implementation is not stringent. When asked what loopholes have been identified, he said, “We cannot go through all acts. But there are certain loopholes which go unrectified. Moreover, it is always better to have more constitutional safeguards,” he added.

However, Thabah said KSU does not want the same model of NRC to be implemented as “our land tenure system is different”.

“Also, we do not want NRC on religious lines. We do not want illegal Bangladeshis here, be it Hindu or Muslim,” said Thabah.

The check gates which the students’ union had set up have been stopped after KSU held talks with the government, which has assured that task forces will be set up in all districts to keep a watch on infiltration.

In Arunachal Pradesh too, apprehensions about illegal migration are widespread. Tobom Dai, the general secretary of the All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union (AAPSU), said NRC is an obvious choice to protect indigenous people and “we will get an accurate figure of how many illegal migrants are staying here”.

“We are embroiled in a refugee issue concerning the Chakmas and Hajongs since 1964. We are not accepting them as members of Arunachal tribes… We have been demanding that these people should be moved out of Arunachal Pradesh,” Dai said.

Reiterating Thabah’s sentiments, Dai said, “Our concern is not Hindu or Muslim but illegal immigrants, that is why we are also vocal about CAB (Citizenship bill) that allows a certain section of people to settle in the country.”

According to him, AAPSU does not have problem with outsiders from other states of India coming in for business or work.

But Dai is clear about the union’s dislike of the way the NRC exercise was carried out targeting people from one religious community. Reiterating Thabah’s sentiments, Dai said, “Our concern is not Hindu or Muslim but illegal immigrants, that is why we are also vocal about CAB (Citizenship bill) that allows a certain section of people to settle in the country.”

The CAB, which the BJP government at the Centre is trying to push hard, has met with protests in the North East. CAB, if enacted, will allow non-Muslim refugees from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan living in India for at least six years to get citizenship.

Arunachal Pradesh too has ILP but Dai informed that implementation is not proper and the union members have been demanding that authorities take note of it.

AAPSU had launched an ‘Operation Clean Drive’ last August and detected “around 6,000 illegal migrants in and around Itanagar in just one day”. Most of the districts in the state share borders with Assam and are vulnerable to infiltration. However, no report of migration from Assam post-NRC has emerged so far, informed Dai.

Similar sentiment is running high in other northeastern states like Manipur and Tripura. According to Samuel Jyrwa, president of the umbrella body North East Students’ Organisation (NESO), all states in the region share borders with foreign countries like China, Bangladesh and Myanmar and this makes it imperative to have a check on infiltration. “I don’t know about Tripura but all other state governments have acknowledged the need for NRC,” he added.

When asked about CAB, Prakash said it is unconstitutional as citizenship cannot be given on the basis of religion.

Sinam Prakash, the secretary general of NESO in Manipur, said every state government should go for NRC without even being told.

“It is every government’s duty to amend registration of citizenship from time to time but it does not do. It has to be told. In Manipur, we have many foreigners coming in not only from Bangladesh but also from Myanmar, Pakistan and Nepal. They marry local women and become locals… it is a serious issue,” he said, adding that several memoranda were submitted to the state and the central governments seeking NRC in Manipur.

But No to Cab

When asked about CAB, Prakash said it is unconstitutional as citizenship cannot be given on the basis of religion.

When asked whether NRC can solve the problem as Bangladesh has refused to take back refugees, Samujjal Bhattacharya of the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) said it will be the first step in solving the foreign national problem.

“All political parties have failed miserably over the years to solve this problem. The solution lies in the Assam Accord. At least the process has started for the first time in the country… Now it is the duty of the Indian government to hold talks with Bangladesh and deport the illegal migrants,” he added.

At the same time, Bhattacharya asserted that AASU was not happy with the way NRC was carried out in Assam and that the union has submitted a petition to the Supreme Court in August to take immediate measures.

Besides NRC, Bhattacharya feels the international borders should be sealed, which again the Centre has failed to do so far. Assam shares 268km of border with Bangladesh. “Fundamentalist groups are entering Assam and other states… The Assam government should evict them if they have already been identified,” he said.

“We have 100 per cent support for NRC. But before the NRC, we want to stop CAB. There is a double game by the central government. The cutoff year then becomes 2014 (if CAB is implemented). So our demand is that before implementing NRC, CAB should be stopped. It (the Centre) is making a fool of the northeastern people,” Sunil said.

Sunil Debbarma, the general secretary of Twipra Students’ Federation, pointed out that Tripura is the worst sufferer among the seven states as the indigenous people in his state have no power and out of 60 Assembly seats, only 20 are held by them. He also pointed out a crucial contradiction in the Centre’s policies.

“We have 100 per cent support for NRC. But before the NRC, we want to stop CAB. There is a double game by the central government. The cutoff year then becomes 2014 (if CAB is implemented). So our demand is that before implementing NRC, CAB should be stopped. It (the Centre) is making a fool of the northeastern people,” he said.

Home-grown solution

Ninoto Awomi of Naga Students’ Federation said there is no such demand for NRC in the state. However, the process of Register of Indigenous Inhabitants of Nagaland, or RIIN, has started that is similar to NRC.

In Mizoram too, NRC is not a popular demand and not many people are aware of the issue. Van Lal Zawma, an MLA of the ruling Mizo National Front, said the main threat in the southern part of the state is from the Chakmas. The state home department and the police department are taking steps to stop those who are trying to migrate from Assam, he added.

Infiltration, no doubt, is a major problem and with right laws in place, this can be tackled. And to do so, politicians need to stop playing games and view the problem as an existential threat to small tribal groups and not from the point of view of a zealot.

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

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