The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019, has faced its most fierce backlash in the Northeast. This is not a surprise, for it is the Northeast which has witnessed the intersection of debates around ethnicity, religion, citizenship, migration and cross-border flow of people most intensely. In Assam, the anti-immigrant sentiment led to a mass movement, culminating in the exercise to update the National Register of Citizens. Tensions between Bengali speakers, who mostly migrated from what is now Bangladesh, and indigenous people, have persisted in Tripura. Nagaland is home to Asia’s longest insurgency, seeking its distinct identity and geography. Manipur has witnessed insurgencies, and conflicts between both the dominant Meitei community with “outsiders”, and between Meiteis and tribes. And it is in all these states – and Meghalaya, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh – where there is a cross-cutting resentment against immigrants.
To allay fears that CAB would mean an influx of immigrants, the Centre made three decisions. The cut-off date for religious minorities seeking expedited citizenship was fixed for December 31, 2014. Those availing CAB provisions would not be able to settle in states requiring an Inner Line Permit (ILP) – Nagaland, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh – and sixth schedule areas, which include parts of Assam, almost all of Meghalaya, parts of Tripura. For good measure, ILP was extended to Manipur.
This has helped the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) win the support of some of its allies in the region. It has also managed to get its local units to fall in line. But as the protests show, there remains anger. This newspaper has argued the CAB and the idea of a nationwide National Register of Citizens is flawed and dangerous for it undermines India’s constitutional values and will burden citizens. It also has the potential to unsettle the fragile peace, as the Northeast shows. Ironically, for a party which emphasises the idea of “one nation”, the BJP has reinforced and even created almost an entirely distinct exception for the Northeast from CAB. Equally ironical that a government which speaks of making the Northeast the lynchpin of its Act East policy has introduced a move which can usher in instability. And for the Centre, which, to its credit, has ensured peace in the Northeast, a move that revives old wounds could be a political and security threat.