Northeast stands united

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Reason has finally prevailed with the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 not even put to the Rajya Sabha test. The ruling NDA and the Opposition agreed to a trade-off — putting CAB in cold storage in lieu of smooth passage of the Motion on President’s Address, the interim budget and a few bills over which there was consensus. The government already had its hands full with the storm in Lok Sabha over the CAG report on Rafale deal, so letting CAB (along with the triple talaq bill) to lapse quietly was the sensible way out. The concerted protests in Manipur, Mizoram, Meghalaya and Nagaland forced the government to back down, which with its divisive bill had been driving a wedge between the Brahmaputra and Barak valleys in Assam on reducing the waiting period for citizenship (from 11 years to 6 years) for selected ‘persecuted’ refugees. More specifically, the prospect of the door being opened further for Hindu refugees from Bangladesh has stirred public anger in Northeast States, battling waves of disruptive migrations. Kudos to Meghalaya Chief Minister and NPP leader Conrad Sangma for standing up to alliance partner BJP — his initiative helped the platform of 11 regional parties take the fight to New Delhi. In the past, the NE region has suffered from the Centre’s ill-thought, ham-handed policies due to the lack of effective pressure groups, with forums like that of Northeast MPs working mostly at cross purposes. For decades, Chakmas from Bangladesh in Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram, Bangladeshi Muslims and Hindus in Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur and Nagaland, along with other influxes have been posing existential threat to indigenous peoples. Successive regimes at the Centre have shown little understanding and absolutely no concern for safeguarding the interests of indigenous peoples in these economically (and now ecologically) fragile States.

In Manipur, where protests against CAB turned violent in past few days, the illegal migration issue has been hanging fire. The hill areas may well be protected, but Meiteis in Manipur valley have been up in arms over Bangladeshi migrants flowing in from Tripura, Assam and Nagaland; tensions have been aggravated by the Rohingya exodus from Myanmar, and it would be foolish to overlook or forget the inner line permit (ILP) agitation that is still a smouldering issue in Manipur. The BJP-led government in Manipur has been voicing its unhappiness with CAB, while urging the Centre to clear Manipur Peoples’ (Protection) Bill, 2018 passed by the State Assembly which seeks to protect the identity and interests of indigenous people. Mizoram has been on the boil over CAB, which is hardly surprising given the frequent outbursts in the State over Bangladeshi infiltrators in Chakma autonomous district council area; the NRC update fallout in Assam last year had sparked fears in Mizoram of yet more Bangladeshis coming in after exclusion from the citizens’ register. While the Church and Mizo youth associations took the lead in protests against CAB, Chief Minister Zoram Thanga firmly indicated his resolve to take MNF out of the BJP-led North East Democratic Alliance fold; the display of pro-independence banners in Mizoram should be taken seriously, indicating as it does the depth of feeling among sons of the soil in a State where insurgency once posed serious problems for the Centre. In Nagaland, the CAB row has prompted questions whether inner line permit and other restrictions are enough, bringing the Naga Hoho and various civil society organisations out to the streets in protest. In all these States and Arunachal too, the governments having BJP as a partner took principled stands against what is perceived as a ‘Hindutva’ bill, putting the saffron party’s central leadership on a sticky wicket.

In no other Northeast State is the embarrassment for BJP more acute than in Tripura, which the central leadership has been holding up as a trophy wrested from the Left Front. Alliance with tribal platform IPFT made possible BJP’s resounding victory last year — so the agitation of tribal groups against CAB does not augur well for Biplab Deb’s government, more so after police firing on tribal protestors and ensuing shutdown in Tripura tribal areas autonomous district council (TTADC). The loss of tribal identity in Tripura due to Bangladeshi influx galvanises indigenous peoples in other NE States, and the fire could return in the form of renewed demands for Twipraland by tribals who now constitute just one-third of Tripura’s population. Amidst this upsurge, the BJP-led government in Assam cut a sorry figure by its disconnect with the people over CAB, preferring to parrot the party’s central leadership. In the aftermath of CAB’s lapse, the State BJP’s assertion that the bill would be re-introduced in broader ambit to cover Garo, Rabha and Koch-Rajbongshi people living in Bangladesh, should be seen for what it is — bravado in the face of retreat. Such a bill can never be about Assam alone, sister NE States are impacted even more. Successive dispensations at the Centre have been tweaking citizenship laws to suit their votebank politics. A consistent refugee policy in line with Constitutional ideals would do this region, and the country overall, much good.