The National Register of Citizens (NRC) is an exceptional register of citizens in the state of Assam in Northeast India. Sanctioned by the Supreme Court in 2014, the process aimed to identify “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh who entered Assam on or after 24 March 1971. The final NRC, published on 31 August 2019, excluded a total of 1,906,657 persons, effectively calling into question their citizenship and leaving them in a state of limbo.
According to Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) Assam, a human-rights organisation in India, 57 cases of suicide relating to NRC were reported in various police stations across the state even before the final NRC was published, pointing to the incredible anxiety and anguish the process has caused. Meanwhile, this Supreme Court mandated process has harvested and legitimised feelings of hate and xenophobia, refuelling the anti-migrant and anti-foreigner narrative that culminated in the Assam Movement a few decades ago.
The effects of the NRC are also being felt in the neighbouring and contiguous states. As soon as the second draft of the NRC was published on 30 July 2018, the areas bordering Assam and its contiguous states were on high alert, fearing that people left out of the NRC might cross over. On 1 August 2018, the Khasi Students’ Union in Meghalaya decided to erect ‘infiltrator gates’ at several points of entry from Assam into Meghalaya, in the districts of East Jaintia Hills, West Khasi Hills and Ri-Bhoi. After two days they called off this action, which had been allowed to proceed unchecked by the authorities. The anti-infiltration unit of the Meghalaya police then began to carry out ‘routine checks’ on people to ascertain whether they had the necessary documentation that proved their right to reside in or visit the territory.
The All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union (AAPSU) also launched a similar campaign called ‘Operation Clean Drive’ to identify and deport “illegals”. The then convener of the AAPSU, Tatung Taga, in an order issued to the District Students’ Union on 2 August 2019, highlighted the need to launch a joint effort to weed out “illegal immigrants” in the state. Following this, a 15-day window – from 2 August to 16 August – was provided for “illegal people to leave the state.” Operation Clean Drive would come into effect immediately thereafter. As part of this process, the union stressed the need to carry out strict checking of the Inner Line Permit (a special travel document issued by the government of India to control entry into certain regions of the country) and directed the District Students’ Union to comply and “launch” the order.
Such activities are not new to student unions in the Northeast, but following the NRC, there is fresh impetus as well as apparent state acquiescence. This is unsurprising given that the process has succeeded in dehumanising large numbers of people and labelling them as foreigners.
Apart from these unfettered acts of vigilantism, legislative steps have also been taken. In particular, two bills have been tabled in Manipur and Mizoram: the Manipur People’s Protection Bill 2018 and Mizoram’s Maintenance of Household Register Bill 2019. The implications of these bills are far-reaching and can be characterised as part of a spillover effect of the NRC.
Manipur: original inhabitants vs illegals?
The social and political context that led to the Manipur People’s Protection Bill 2018 is complex in nature. The state assembly passed the bill on 23 July 2018 with the stated objective of protecting ‘indigenous people’ against an influx of ‘illegal migrants’ from across its various borders. Having obtained approval of the governor, the Bill is currently pending before the President for assent. The Bill is comparable to the NRC process in many ways and makes a distinction between Manipur and non-Manipur persons. The Manipur people category includes the Meitei, Pangal (Meitei Muslims) and Manipur Scheduled Tribes listed under the Constitution, as well as individuals who have been living in the state since before the year 1951. Those not on the list, are expected to register themselves within a month; additionally, all outsiders visiting the state will now require an Inner Line Permit (ILP).
The internal divide created between Manipur and non-Manipur people is analogous to the Original Inhabitant (OI) category used during the initial phases of the NRC process. The OI category, meaning ‘original inhabitants of Assam’, is a product of Clause 3(3) of the Schedule of the Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of National Identity Cards) Rules, 2003. Although NRC officials later clarified that the OI category shall no longer be used to differentiate between individuals under this category and those included in the final NRC, the Foreigners’ Tribunals (FT) continued to use it as an official category. The Gorkahs and Tea- tribes, among others who were not considered as OI, challenged this category, and were considered as part of OI henceforth. However, the OI category continues to be ill-defined and consequently highly discriminatory and divisive.
While the Manipur People’s Protection Bill 2018 was brought in purportedly to protect the interests of the indigenous, various groups in the region have opposed it on grounds that it is a subterfuge that will result in the discrimination of the Scheduled Tribes and deny them of their land rights and citizenship claims. The All Naga Students’ Association Manipur (ANSAM), the Bengali-speaking people from Jiribam district, and Tribal Rights Vigil Manipur (TRVM) are some of the groups that have protested against the bill.
The bill is the successor to three draft bills of 2015 – Protection of Manipur People Bill, Manipur Shops and Establishments (Second Amendment) Bill, and Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms (Seventh Amendment) Bill. Tribal communities were particularly suspicious of the latter two, which they felt would provide the Meitei community with greater leeway to engage in land-grabbing.
Opponents of the 2018 bill have also taken issue with the 1951 cut-off year that it provides for; they find it to be arbitrary, particularly because Manipur attained statehood only in 1972. This could lead to additional challenges in obtaining the necessary documentation to prove a claim to residence; 1972 is therefore the preferred cut-off year. Further, the TRVM contends that the data in the 1951 NRC and Village Directory is inaccurate and unlikely to include the tribal community because it would have been difficult for the government to document the then out-of-bounds interiors of the state. Hence, they see the bill as an expression of Meitei hegemony over Scheduled Tribe land rights and citizenship claims.
The bill also introduces an ILP, a British-era requirement that demands documentation from ‘outsiders’ for entry, exit and movement within a territory. The ILP is currently operational in Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Nagaland and Manipur, and issued under the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation 1873. The ILP was originally enacted to protect the Crown’s trading interests and prohibited the entry of “British subjects” into certain territories. The Citizenship Act 1955, replaced the term “British subjects” with “citizens of India” and the ILP has since been adapted as a bulwark to safeguard tribal cultures and interests in the Northeast.
The demand for an ILP system operates on the assumption that an exponential influx of tourists and ‘illegal immigrants’ from Bangladesh, Nepal and Myanmar has caused a severe strain on resources and competition over employment. However, it is interesting to note that the impetus for the ILP agitation comes from the Meitei community who are the most powerful in the state; other tribal communities and Pangals are neither included in nor supportive of the movement. The Pangals, a native community of Manipur, with ancestry that can be traced back to over four centuries ago, have always distanced themselves from the Meitei. Consequently, the Pangals’ place and rights as an indigenous community have also been contested, as has their inclusion within the category of ‘indigenous communities’.
Clause 2 (b) of the bill defines ‘Manipur People’ as “Persons of Manipur whose names are in the NRC 1951 (as Manipur was part of Assam then), Census Report 1951 and Village Directory of 1951, and their descendants who have contributed collective social, cultural and economic life of Manipur.” The Guwahati High Court, however, has declared the NRC 1951 as an inadmissible document. Justice P K Goswami in a judgement of the Guwahati High Court, states:
It only shows that the National Register of Citizens is a contemporaneous register prepared by the officers appointed under the provisions of the Census Act in the course of Census operations. If so, Section 15 of the Census Act will make such records of Census not open to inspection nor admissible in evidence… what is directly prohibited under Section 15 of the Census Act cannot be let in by an indirect method through the agency of a private organisation.
Additionally, the definition of ‘non-Manipur person’ is also of paramount importance. Anyone living in Manipur who does not belong to the above three categories is reduced to a visitor, a ‘non-Manipur person’, who will be issued a pass for a maximum duration of six months provided they satisfy Clause 4 (4) of the bill: Clause 4 (4) states that a pass will be issued to a ‘non-Manipur person’ if the person is a “bonafide citizen of India” and on specification of place of origin and a stay in the region not exceeding six months. As Manipur is not a tribal state, there are constitutional limits to applying the ILP. It is, therefore, seen as an imposition pushed for by the Meitei communality that would lead to the branding of certain groups as ‘non-Manipur persons’ and others who settled in Manipur after 1951 as foreigners.
Mizoram: revisiting a violent past?
In line with the NRC and the Manipur draft legislation described above, the Mizoram Maintenance of Household Registers Bill 2019 also aims to create a similar register of citizens and non-citizens. The register is to include all relevant details, including photographs of every single resident of the state, in an effort to “detect illegal foreigners staying and eating away benefits of development schemes.” There will be two distinct registers for citizen and non-citizen residents and the bill encourages all government departments and the police to use them for administrative purposes, law enforcement and development schemes. The registers will be updated every three months and understands the term ‘citizen’ to be the same as the definition of citizens under the Citizenship Act 1955. The rationale behind this bill is not dissimilar to that of the NRC and Manipur People’s Protection Bill. However, the spirit of the law carries wider implications within the state of Mizoram, especially for minorities like the Chakma and Reang communities.
In August 2017, Buddha Dhan Chakma, the only Chakma minister in the Mizoram government, resigned citing increased discrimination against students from his community. Chakma notes in his resignation letter the case of four Chakma students who had cleared the National Entrance and Eligibility Test, but were denied seats in medical colleges.
In the past, the Chakmas in Mizoram have faced numerous instances of exclusion and violence: many faced cancellation of trade licences, denial of the right to employment, removal from electoral lists in 1995 and 1996 (2886 names were deleted from Aizawl district alone), and the withdrawal of healthcare and educational facilities. Students belonging to the Chakma community, who qualified for various competitive exams, were also denied counselling in 2015 and 2017. The Mizo Zirlai Pawl (MZP) – that spearheaded a communal attack along with the Young Mizo Association, leading to the exodus of 30,000 Reang (or Brus) to neighbouring states in 1997 – also carried out vigilante acts such as the checking of documents of people entering into Mizoram, similar to its Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh counterparts, following the publication of the draft NRC in 2018. Notably, the MZP, like their counterparts in Assam, had also launched an anti-foreigner movement in the 1990s. The Reang and Chakma tribes found themselves at the receiving end of violence during that period; their houses were burnt and thousands were displaced.
The Mizos do not consider the Reang to be an indigenous community of Mizoram. However, they have resided in Mizoram for centuries. In the 1990s, the Reang, citing historical oppression and political exclusion, made the following demands: inclusion of a Reang programme called Aizawl in All India Radio; reservation of jobs in government services; nomination of the Reang in the legislative assembly; and creation of an autonomous district. Given this history, the new bill cannot be read in isolation and devoid of this exclusionary and violent history, where Mizo civil society and religious organisations consistently ill-treated the minorities.
The ‘illegal migrant’ discourse is very popular in Northeast and is the prime driver behind many claims of identity. Although Tripura is the oft-cited example, the Assamese case equally influences the discourse. In both Assam and Manipur, such migration is seen as a threat to ‘local’ communities, and as contributing to the erosion of a ‘historically significant identity’. Assam is also seen as a ‘dumping ground of naturalised citizens’ who have historical roots in present day Bangladesh.
Oinam Bhagat, in his paper ‘State of the States: Mapping India’s Northeast’, observes that there are parallels between the Assamese and Meitei cases: in both instances the ‘illegals’ are seen to have merged into the local culture, making them difficult to be identified. In Assam, ‘Bangladeshi migrants’ speak Assamese and their identities have amalgamated with the larger Assamese identity. In Manipur, the ‘Bangladeshi migrants’ – sheltered by their fellow Muslim brethren – are taught Meeteilon (the official Manipuri language), so that they can be easily absorbed into the category of ‘Manipur Muslim’. This has created a typical ‘fear of small numbers’ scenario, where minorities are presented as a threat to the majority.
Such an idea forgoes the possibility of a shared socio-economic and political life among the multiple communities of Manipur. It gives rise to a ‘concrete other’ that mirrors the self. In other words, the creation of an ‘outsider’ or ‘illegal’ strengthens the notion of who an ‘insider’ is. Thus, the 2018 Manipur Peoples’ Protection Bill not only divides communities within Manipur, but also legitimises the racial gaze on the ‘non-Manipur person’. Bimon Akoijam, a professor at the Jawaharla Nehru Univeristy, notes that this outlook, together with the divisive politics that bolster it, is inherently ‘communal’ in nature and runs contrary to the modern political ethos of a life based on the civic rights of citizens. It also results in mistrust and leads to violence amongst different communities. This is true for Assam as it is true for Manipur and Mizoram.
The history of violence and bloodshed in the region – for instance the Kuki-Naga conflict and the idea of Greater Nagalim – that was fuelled by the Indian state, has increased its vulnerability. The threat of violent outbreaks remains constant and adds to the tremendous hardships that the people already face due to economic blockades.
Meanwhile, Temjen Toy, chief secretary of Nagaland, on 29 June 2019, through an official notification said that the government of Nagaland would set up a Register of Indigenous Inhabitants of Nagaland (RIIN) with the aim of preventing the proliferation of false indigenous inhabitants certificates. Notably, indigenous inhabitant certificates have been issued with a cut-off date of 1 December 1963. Since 1977, the three conditions for a person to obtain the certificate are: a) persons who settled permanently in Nagaland prior to 1 December 1963; b) persons whose parents or legitimate guardians have paid house tax prior to 1 December 1963; and c) persons or their parents or legitimate guardians with proof of acquiring property and a patta (land certificate) prior to 1 December 1963. RIIN, a replica of the NRC of Assam, has been targeted for release on 10 December 2019.
At the heart of NRC and the bills in Manipur and Mizoram is the spirit of exclusion. The various legally sanctioned formulations of the outsider category, result in different degrees of restrictions in relation to entry, exit, movement and livelihoods, and drawing such artificial distinctions on those who have been residing in a location for decades is completely unmindful of the continuum of their identities. The law is thus being used as a tool here, to shroud – in licit, technical requirements – the human question.
The NRC, the bills in Manipur and Mizoram, RIIN and the FT Amendment create sufficient grounds for what Catherine Besteman calls “racialised apartheid”. The other or outsider here is primarily a ‘Bangladeshi’. If in Assam and Manipur the Bangladeshi is primarily a Muslim, in Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh the Bangladeshi is the Buddhist Chakma with historical roots in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. There are, of course, anti-immigrant sentiments held against people from other parts of India such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar as well. However, the profiling of the ‘Bangladeshi’ has stood out for its racial and communal overtones.
The NRC process has demonstrated that there has been targeted discrimination against Bengali-speaking people in Assam. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, given language is both a dominant and sensitive agenda in the state, revealing fault lines and social boundaries. The focus on biometrics and other ways of documenting individuals, as evident in the NRC, RIIN and the bills in Manipur and Mizoram, is also an indication that the Indian state is moving towards new regimes of sanction, disposable labour and mobility control. In order to exercise the necessary control needed for such systems, containment areas are necessary – like the detention centres in Assam. The creation of such areas not only helps to segregate ‘unwanted people’, but also allows the state to exercise complete control over them.
Segregation, however, is not new in the region. Assam had a ‘line system’ in place in the early decades of the 20th century to segregate new settlers from older residents. Additionally, the region is also acutely militarised and seen as a playground for military excesses. The vigilante acts of the various student unions in Northeast, only exacerbates this state of affairs.
As with Kashmir, the Northeast has always been a victim of exceptionality at the hands of the Indian state. This exceptionality is seen in the special laws such as AFSPA, which allows the armed forces to control the Northeast with absolute impunity. Now, the NRC as a process, which has already influenced structural changes in other neighbouring states, creates yet another layer of exceptionality from within the Northeast, by a legitimisation of othering practices. This double exceptionality has therefore already created the ideal settings for apartheid. It is no longer only a remote possibility.
This article was updated after publication on 23 May 2023