In Meghalaya in 1997, the Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council, which has constitutional jurisdiction over Khasi ‘customary law’, passed the Khasi Social Custom of Lineage Bill. The Khasis have a matrilineal kinship system and the bill sought to codify the system of inheritance through the female line. But it became highly controversial. A number of organisations, including the influential Khasi Students Union and the Syngkhong Rympei Thymmai (literally, ‘association of new hearths’) opposed the measure arguing that instead of codifying an ‘outdated system’ of matrilineal succession, Khasis should ‘modernise’ their kinship system. They proposed a change that would allow only children of two Khasi parents to be regarded as Khasi.
Why did legally establishing who is and who is not a Khasi become so important? Because the Khasis are designated a scheduled tribe (ST) and the lion’s share of public employment, business and trade licenses, and even the right to seek elected office is reserved for STs. Nearly 85 percent of public sector employment in Meghalaya, where a majority of them lives, and 55 of the 60 seats in the state legislative assembly are reserved for STs. While the historical disadvantages that the tribal peoples suffered account for this elaborate protective discrimination regime, the status of non-tribals in the northeast Indian state of Meghalaya, as well as in the neighbouring states of Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland, where such a protective discrimination regime exists, is best described as that of ‘denizens’. In all these states, the rights to land ownership and exchange, business and trade licenses and access to elected office are restricted.
The term ‘denizen’ goes back to the power of ‘denization’ that British monarchs once had to grant aliens some of the privileges of natural born subjects. At a later stage, the parliament sought to control the royal power of denization by passing laws that disallowed denizens from being members of the Privy Council and the houses of parliament and from occupying civil or military offices of trust, or from obtaining grants of land from the crown. While the restrictions on the rights of the non-tribal population have a very different history and rationale, the particular limits, eg on rights of property ownership, access to public employment and elected office are not dissimilar to those applicable to denizens.
The category ‘tribal’ and its definition would be considered problematic in many academic circles. In India, however, it remains part of the policy discourse because the protective regime necessitates the official recognition of certain groups as ‘tribal’. Article 342 of the Indian constitution provides for the president of India by public notification, to specify the “tribes or tribal communities or parts of or groups within tribes or tribal communities which shall for the purposes of the Constitution be deemed to be Scheduled Tribes”. The use of ‘tribal’ here simply means a group included in that list – hence scheduled tribe or ST. According to one scholar who has examined how the Indian government has arrived at the list, tribes were “defined partly by habitat and geographic isolation, but even more on the basis of social, religious, linguistic and cultural distinctiveness – their ‘tribal characteristics’. Just where the line between ‘tribals’ and ‘non-tribals’ should be drawn has not always been free from doubt” (Marc Galanter, Competing Equalities, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1984).
This protective discrimination regime is the result of an incremental policy-making dating back to colonial times when policy instruments were devised to protect vulnerable aboriginal peoples living in isolated enclaves — once described as ‘backward tracks’. Under the Sixth Schedule of postcolonial India’s constitution, many of these enclaves became autonomous districts and autonomous regions within those districts – each identified with a particular tribe. Subsequently, many of these territories became full-fledged states, whereby the protected minorities turned into majority groups in these states, and the system lost some of its original logic.
In three of these states — Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland — the continuation of the colonial institution of the ‘inner line’, which requires any outsider entering these territories to first secure a permit, gives an even stronger layer of protection against potential settlers. In spite of this, thanks to the changes in demographic trends inherent in economic development policies, such as the forging of national markets for large numbers of unorganised migrant labour crisscrossing the country, where again Indian citizens have become ‘subjects without rights’, the majority status of these protected groups is under increasing stress.
One of the unintended effects of the tensions between this process of incremental policy-making on the one hand, and migration into the area on the other, is that the notion of exclusive homelands, where certain ethnically defined groups are privileged, developed into an inflexible principle. This dynamic has translated into (often violent) exclusionary politics. Thus, the Northeast today is a hotbed of ethnic clashes between competing groups for exclusive rights to the same assets and, consequently, the site of significant levels of internal displacement.
Condemned to move
In recent years, internal displacements caused by violent ethno-national conflicts between tribals and denizens in many parts of northeast India have attracted the attention of refugee advocates. While most agree that there is substantial internal displacement in the region, calculating the precise number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) has not been easy. Jawaharlal Nehru University professor, Mahendra Lama, describes the nature of the problem in India as a whole. Political sensitivities prevent the government from releasing data on displacement, he says. But without “a central authority responsible for coordinating data from central and state governments, regular monitoring is not possible in such a huge country”. The “nature, frequency and extent of the causes of internal displacement” in India are so varied that it would be a “Herculean task to monitor and record them”.
The Norwegian Refugee Council’s profile of internal displacement in India in 2000-01 is illustrative of the wide divergence that exists between various available estimates of IDPs in northeast India while also pointing to the absence of data in some cases. The available estimates of the number of IDPs in the state of Assam in 2000-01, for instance, varied between 87,000 persons to more than 200,000. The estimates for Riangs displaced from Mizoram and living in refugee camps in Tripura varied between 31,000 and 41,000. The profile cites one estimate that at least 80,000 Bengalis have been uprooted in Tripura since 1993. In Manipur, conflicts between tribal groups have led to the displacement (at least temporarily) of as many as 13,000 Kukis, Paites and Nagas since 1992, but there were no estimates of the number of IDPs in Manipur. In Arunachal Pradesh, as many as 3000 Chakmas had become internally displaced, but the number of those who have left the area was unknown. The US Committee for Refugees in its report for 2000 estimated that there were 157,000 displaced persons in northeast India.
These estimates, even if not precise, underscore the magnitude of the IDP crisis in northeast India. It is important to delve into the historical conditions and the institutional context in which the typical ethno-political conflicts of the region take place and examine why these conflicts have proven to be conducive to ethnic violence and displacement.
In the 20th century, tribal societies in the Northeast went through a process of transition, from shifting cultivation to settled agriculture, from clan control of land to its commodification, and urbanisation and cultural change associated with a continuing process of ‘modernisation’. The new economic niches created in this process of social transformation attracted large-scale migration to this sparsely populated frontier area of the Subcontinent. Today, except for Assam and Tripura, all the other states show growth rates that are above the national average during the 1991-2001 decade. However, in the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland as well as in Assam’s two autonomous districts (Karbi Anglong and North Cachar hills), STs as a proportion of the total population are on the decline. At the moment though, except for Karbi Anglong district, the majority status of STs is not immediately under threat. This trend of population growth is, of course, the rationale for freezing the present balance of ST representation in the states assemblies. The protective discrimination regime, outlined earlier, arose partly as a response to these demographic trends.
Too often, the demographic change in the region has been seen only from the perspective of what scholars of migration call ‘push factors’. But it is important to bring in the ‘pull factors’ as well – the economic transformation and process of class differentiation in these states that have provided significant economic opportunities to new immigrants – some of which may be hidden from the gaze of law. In one area of Karbi Anglong, for example, while ownership rights are in the name of tribals, ‘Bihari’, Bengali and Nepali denizens, more adept at the state-encouraged settled cultivation than the STs who are traditionally shifting cultivators, are the real owners. Indian security forces, ostensibly there to deal with the security threat posed by insurgencies, are appropriated by the denizens because of shared ethnic ties, and are often the agency for this.
There are informal ways in which denizens acquire de facto property rights that are likely to become de jure rights in future. In Meghalaya, for instance, some powerful individuals having captured what is formally clan-controlled land now exercise substantial control over both urban and agricultural land, sometimes up to thousand acres – something that would never have been allowed by custom. Chiefs and headmen have been issuing land deeds to non-Khasis and Khasis alike for a fixed rent. The breakdown of customary modes of land control has meant the introduction of absentee landlordism, realisation of rent from land, sharecropping, land mortgage and even landlessness. Such land grab has also been made possible by official development policies that have encouraged plantation crops such as tea, coffee and rubber.
Since the protective discrimination regime in place restricts what denizens can legally do, numerous informal arrangements have emerged in the ownership and control of agricultural land and in business practices. And as exemplified above, those informal niches are sometimes positions of advantage vis-à-vis a person belonging to an ST and at other times the ST person may not be at a position of advantage. The normalisation of the idea of exclusive homelands for ethnically defined groups generates a kind of politics that is in dissonance with the existing political economy of the region. The emerging pattern of class differentiation taking place within the framework of the protective discrimination regime of these transitional economies is complex, with some settlers exploiting indigenous tribal people and others occupying the most marginal of economic niches. And, while the regime has enabled some tribal people to do well, it has not stopped the proletarianisation of others.
The other side of the privatisation of clan-held lands is the emergence of a poorer group of people eking out a living by working as agricultural workers or sharecroppers or by whatever other means possible. To be sure, most of them are local tribals, who despite the protection given to them as members of STs, lack the social and political resources to benefit from the privatisation of clan-lands or to be able to hold on to lands allocated to them. But occupying these economic niches, are also a large number of denizens — Nepalis, Biharis and Bangladeshis among them – who are easier to ‘uproot’ should a dispute arise.
This is the context in which the idea of exclusive homelands – expressed in the institutional language of ‘autonomous district councils’ or ‘separate statehood’ – has shaped the imagination of tribal as well as non-tribal activists of the region. This particular configuration of institutional legacy, demographic trends, and political discourse in northeast India has wrought an extremely divisive politics of insiders and outsiders that has led to the incidence of displacement. While this combination of circumstances is unique to this part of India, the introduction of similar ideas of exclusive homelands in demographically mixed situations has produced similar conflicts — with the attendant risk of ethnic violence and internal displacement — in other parts of India as well.
A notable example is the new state of Jharkhand where, in 2002, a government proposal to link public employment to ‘ancestral roots’ through a ‘domicile policy’ led to a bandh (strike) and violence in which many died. Whether a particular regime of differentiated citizenship can achieve its intended goals must be a matter for investigation for the costs of sacrificing the basic principle of equal citizenship are high, and regimes of differentiated citizenship have intended as well as, importantly, unintended consequences.
Excluded areas to exclusive homelands
Attempts to deal with ‘aborigines’ by creating protected enclaves where they can be allowed to pursue their ‘customary practices’ including kinship and clan-based rules of land allocation go back to the earliest period of British colonial rule in India. It is worth remembering however, that the idea of protection came only after people by the early colonisers in the course of pacification campaigns against ‘savage tribes’ and, after it became clear that the initial onslaught of colonial transformation had led to the massive dispossession and displacement of many of these peoples who were organized in pre-capitalist social formulations. For many, whatever protection came along, was too little and too late.
As early as 1874, the Indian legislature had passed a scheduled districts act. The Government of India Act of 1919 empowered the governor general to declare any territory to be a backward track where laws passed by the Indian legislature would not apply. The Statutory Commission, which in 1930 had examined the political conditions in British India and proposed constitutional reforms, did not like the term ‘backward tracks’. It proposed a change of name from ‘backward tracks’ to ‘excluded areas’. The Government of India Act of 1935 therefore provided for ‘excluded’ and ‘partially excluded areas’ – so called because they were excluded from the operation of laws applicable in the rest of British-controlled India.
Some of the potential problems, especially the dangers to non-aboriginal people living in those areas were anticipated by the debates about these measures even in colonial times. One of the best-known critiques of colonial-era tribal policies is GS Ghurye’s 1943 book, The Aborigines — So Called – and their Future (Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics, Pune, India, Publication No 11). “The acknowledgement of the right of the so-called aborigines to follow their traditional pursuits, like the practice of shifting cultivation, without any reference to the needs of the general community”, wrote Ghurye in reference to the recommendations of the Statutory Commission, “was the most dangerous doctrine endorsed by the Commissioners”. The commissioners, he charged, had not considered the impact on non-aborigines living in those places and “much less did they give their thought to the proportions of such people in the various areas, unless we discover it in the distinction of the two categories of excluded areas made by them”.
If the distinction between excluded and partially excluded areas was indeed based on the proportions of non-aborigines living in those areas, he wrote in a later work, it was too broad a distinction to be useful. About the Government of India Act of 1935, Ghurye wrote that in its “eagerness to do something for the tribals”, the British parliament barely considered the condition of the non-tribal people in whose midst the protected aborigines live and on whom they depend to some extent for their livelihood. That these non-tribals too have rights, that their goodwill and cooperation, next only to the conscious and deliberate internal organisation of the tribals themselves, are the most essential factors for the welfare and future development of the so-called aborigines, failed to receive adequate consideration.
That some non-tribals may have indeed taken “unfair advantage of the simplicity and ignorance of the aborigines”, Ghurye argued, was no reason to write off their contribution to “socio-economic development”, and much less to treat all of them as a “right-less population”.
Nevertheless, the constitution of India of 1950, retained most of the provisions of the 1935 act, though the nomenclatures and some of the institutional forms were modified. Not surprisingly, Ghurye could reprint the same book with only a few changes and a new title in 1963. Most importantly, from our perspective, the constitution made a distinction between the tribal areas of Assam (five of the seven states of today’s northeast) and those in the rest of the country. While the tribal peoples of the rest of India came under the Fifth Schedule, the Sixth Schedule provided for the administration of the tribal areas of northeast India.
The chairman of the subcommittee of the constituent assembly that drafted the Sixth Schedule, later Assam’s chief minister, Gopinath Bordoloi, in presenting its proposals justified them by referring to the uncertain political conditions in the region at the time of independence. Bordoloi stressed the need for continued protection because of the doubts among the tribal people of what a postcolonial dispensation would bring; he spoke of the need to ‘integrate’ these peoples in a Gandhian way. The fear of being swamped by outsiders once the colonial era restrictions were suddenly removed was indeed a concern expressed by leaders of the tribal communities. That the Naga revolt broke out soon after independence – and continues till this day – indicates that the anxiety expressed by Bordoloi was far from theoretical.
The Sixth Schedule distinguished two sets of tribal areas of undivided Assam, which at the time was the entire Northeast barring Sikkim, using the administrative categories that were then in effect: a) the districts of the United Khasi and Jaintia Hills (excluding Shillong), Garo Hills, Lushai Hills, Naga Hills, North Cachar Hills and the Mikir Hills, and b) the North East Frontier Tracts and the Naga Tribal Area. The first set of areas today comprise the states of Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and parts of Assam, and the second category consists mostly of the state of Arunachal Pradesh and a part of the state of Nagaland. The Sixth Schedule institutions were meant for sets of areas, but the latter set of territories – which were mostly un-administered during colonial times – was considered to be not quite ready at that time for self-governing institutions. The administration of those areas was going to be carried out directly from Delhi – with the governor of Assam acting as the agent of the Indian president.
The Sixth Schedule provided for autonomous districts and autonomous regions within those districts with elected councils which enjoyed powers to levy some taxes, to constitute courts for the administration of justice involving tribals and law-making powers on subjects including land allotment, occupation or use of land, regulation of shifting cultivation, formation and administration of village and town committees, appointment of chiefs, inheritance of property, marriage and social customs.
However, the schedule was not intended to protect all the STs of northeast India. Only those that were considered to be relatively concentrated in the old excluded and partially excluded areas, and for which the constitution used the term tribal areas, came under the purview of the Sixth Schedule. The Bordoloi subcommittee did not consider the situation of other STs. Among them were groups such as Bodos, Misings and Tiwas that are described today as plains tribes to distinguish them from the hill tribes that came under the Sixth Schedule. In the Constituent Assembly, the special needs of the plains tribes were the responsibility of a separate subcommittee, which was in charge of minority rights. A Bodo politician, Rupnath Brahma, was a member of the Minority Rights subcommittee.
The process of formation of Autonomous District Councils, however, did not quite proceed the way constitution-makers had anticipated. The outbreak of the independentist Naga rebellion, for instance, meant that political conditions for holding elections to the Naga Hills District Council did not exist. Instead, in 1963, the state of Nagaland was created. The North East Frontier Tracts where the Sixth Schedule was eventually supposed to be in place also went through a different process of institutional change than the one anticipated prior to the Indo-China war of 1962. The area is now the state of Arunachal Pradesh, where tribals enjoy protection at the state level. Meanwhile, the Sixth Schedule has been extended to Tripura in response to tribal militancy, where the Tripura Tribal Areas District Council was formed.
It is not accidental that Nagaland was created in 1963, a year after India’s war with China. The Chinese invasion exposed India’s vulnerabilities in the region. Already, the Naga independentist rebellion had begun to make officials of the postcolonial Indian state anxious. There were stirrings of unrest in other parts of the region as well. Beginning with the China war, the managers of the Indian state began to see the external and internal ‘enemies’ in this frontier region coming together and constituting a looming threat to national security. Extending the institutions of the state all the way into the international border – nationalising this frontier space – has been the thrust of Indian policy ever since. Over the next few years, the governmental structure of the region was fundamentally redesigned to create what I have called a cosmetically federal regional order. Thus, with the creation of Nagaland, statehood in northeast India became de-linked from questions of fiscal viability and of its implications for the constitutional architecture of the larger polity. Building on the elementary apparatus of state institutions created by the Sixth Schedule became a good way to ensure both the penetration of the state and the creation of local stakeholders in the pan-Indian dispensation.
Apart from consolidating the idea of exclusive homelands, organising the region into a number of mini states, all of them with the formal institutions of other Indian state governments, also had the effect of imposing a particular developmental paradigm. There is, after all, a standard vision of development which is contained in the routine practices of the bureaucracy of a ‘developmentalist state’ that allocates funds to departments such as public works, rural development and industries; and that vision only gets bolstered by the patronage politics of an electoral democracy. In the sparsely populated parts of this frontier region, these economic trends have invariably meant more immigration.
The most significant aspect of this new regional order, from the perspective of the theory and practice of citizenship, however, is that the vast majority of seats in the state legislatures of the mini states – indeed all but one seat in the case of three legislatures — are reserved for candidates belonging to the STs. The table below gives the number of reserved seats in the state legislatures of northeastern states and also gives the percentage of the ST population.
In the legislative assemblies of Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland all but one seat is reserved for STs. In Meghalaya, 55 of the 60 seats are reserved. Apart from the issue of the denizens not being able to contest elections, the principle of one-person, one-vote, one-value has had to be undermined in other ways as well in order to achieve such a weighted system of representation. Generally, the norm about ensuring the equality of the relative weight of each vote in a democracy requires that in electoral systems with single-member constituencies, the electorates in all districts be roughly of the same size. That could not be done if the legislative assemblies were to have such a weighted system of representation. As a result, Nagaland’s largest urban centre, Dimapur, for instance – which has a very high concentration of denizens – is divided into two constituencies and one of them is the sole unreserved (non-tribal) seat in the Nagaland assembly. This unreserved constituency has many times the number of voters of each of the other constituencies in the state.
Through another constitutional amendment the balance between reserved and unreserved seats in the assemblies of Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland has been frozen in order to ensure that delimitation of constituencies in light of demographic changes in future does not change the current balance.
Whatever the philosophical dilemmas these arrangements present to the theorist of citizenship, the emergence of elected state governments under the control of tribal politicians and of a visible well-to-do tribal elite in those states has captured the imagination of tribal as well as non-tribal ethnic activists in the region. There is a perception that the STs in the states with the most comprehensive protective discrimination regimes have done well economically and have been relatively successful in insulating themselves from being swamped by immigrants. While a homeland has become something to aspire for on the part of those ethnic groups (STs as well as others) who do not have one, ethnic activists of the existing homelands have become zealous defenders of what they see as their statutory entitlements. This was exemplified in the case of Khasi activists in Meghalaya.
Returning to the controversy in Meghalaya over Khasi succession rules, the authority of the Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council to decide on Khasi succession rules is derived from the Sixth Schedule of the constitution. According to its sponsors, the goal of the Khasi Social Custom of Lineage Bill was to stop non-Khasis from adopting Khasi surnames to take advantage of opportunities reserved for STs. The activists opposed to the bill would hardly disagree with that goal. However, the attempt to codify ‘customary practice’ drew public attention to the liberal way in which the Khasis have traditionally incorporated outsiders into their fold. The practice by which children of a Khasi mother and a non-Khasi father can become a Khasi came up for special scrutiny.
The opponents of the bill argued that the system allows too many people to pass off as Khasi and take advantage of opportunities reserved for Khasis. Thus, the president of the Syngkhong, Keith Pariat was quoted in the press as saying that the matrilineal system no longer serves contemporary needs and that, if it was allowed to continue, the ‘pure Khasi tribe’ will become extinct in another 10 to 15 years. The bill, however, did not become law because it did not receive the governor’s assent – a constitutional requirement aimed at moderating the powers of state legislatures.
By raising questions about the way ‘outsiders’ have historically been incorporated into the Khasi fold, the controversy had the effect of putting under the cloud the rights —including rights to property ownership, public employment and to seek elected office —of significant numbers of people living in Meghalaya, some for generations. And since the proposed reforms would have denied those rights to people who had some claim to being a Khasi, the climate generated by the controversy could only have been worse for most denizens — such as residents of Meghalaya who have no claim to being Khasi or a member of one of the other STs.
Ethnic homelands: An anachronism
While the Northeast becomes increasingly polarised over the insider/outsider groups of high-stakes politics of the region, people from the Northeast may in fact be quietly be joining the Indian mainstream. Modern India, according to the jurist Professor Upendra Baxi, has achieved “national integration without achieving national integrity”. But, perhaps the postcolonial social transformation of northeast India, taking place under the protective cover of the Sixth Schedule, is slowly making the region a part of this grid of ‘unconstitutional national integration’ in somewhat unexpected ways.
The Bangladeshi and Nepali presence in the region points to a significant transnational dimension of this as well. At least a part of the demographic change in northeast India has to be explained by this migrating proletariat meeting the labour demands of the building boom in the region — made possibly partly by the state resources being pumped in and the substantial leakage of funds through corruption — and the class relations in the emerging forms of post-shifting cultivation agriculture. Their presence in these economic roles is certainly very visible to any visitor to northeast India today.
Slowly but steadily, the dispossessed tribal of northeast India is also sure to join this mass of humanity on the move. Thus, if the Bihari denizen in Karbi Anglong takes advantage of the misery of the poor Karbi to take effective control of his land, a tribal landlord in the Naga foothills, often empowered and enriched by positions in or connections to the state government of Nagaland, may be in a position of power and dominance vis-a-vis the Bengali denizen sharecropper informally leasing his land. Questions of social justice in northeast India are significantly more complex today than what the regime of protection was originally designed to accomplish.
How anachronistic the homeland idea has become in the context of the existing political economy of northeast India today is apparent in the demand for a homeland for the Bodos on the north bank of the Brahmaputra. Bodo speakers today number only 1.1 million or 11.5 percent in the area they want for their homeland. They have come in conflict with the Koch Rajbongshis, who if they ‘win’ ST status will become by far the predominant tribal group in the recently approved Bodo Territorial Council area. They have also come in conflict with the All Assam Students Union, which spearheaded the Assam movement of the 1970s-80s against ‘aliens’, and is now in discussion with the state and central government about ways to protect Assam’s ‘indigenous people’. Since the term ‘indigenous people’ in international human rights discourse is roughly synonymous with what in India are called scheduled tribes, the extension of the word ‘indigenous’ to include a non-tribal people – especially one that is itself at loggerheads with some of Assam’s STs – has aroused deep suspicion.
More than any other case, the displacement of Santhals in Kokrajhar district in the late 1990s — victims of violence by Bodo militants — dramatised this incongruity. The Santhals in Assam are descendants of tea workers brought to Assam as indentured workers, many of them more than a century ago. Their displaced forefathers provided the muscle for the tea industry that marked the arrival of global capitalism in Assam in the 19th century. That such a group could be displaced for the second time in the course of an ‘indigenous’ group’s search for an ethnic homeland – no matter how tragic the story of injustice done to them — brings home the absurdity of the way insiders and outsiders are framed in the homeland discourse of northeast India. The discourse today has become a serious challenge to the foundational principles of citizenship. It cannot be expected to provide a framework for the struggles for social justice of today and of the future. misery
Minimally, what is needed is a framework that does not involve the state forever categorising groups of people in ethnic terms and making descendants of immigrants into perpetual outsiders. While mechanisms to control immigration are no doubt necessary, so are rules about absorbing the descendants of immigrants – no matter how restrictive. And at least a generation or two later, they have to become full citizens. This writer suggest that the notion of dual citizenship, not unknown in federal systems – citizenship both of India and of a state – might be able to provide such a framework. Such a regime of dual citizenship would be a variation in the theme of the differentiated citizenship regime that exists in northeast India. But its purpose would be to replace the ethnic principle with a civic principle and to give the right to define the rules of inclusion and exclusion to territorially defined political communities.
A quick review of the language in which the citizenship laws of countries are framed illustrates how the logic of the citizenship discourse necessarily differs from that of the discourse of homelands for ethnically defined groups. In principle, most countries recognise three ways of becoming a citizen: birth within the territory of a country (jus soli), descent from a citizen (jus sanguinis) and naturalisation. If jus sanguinis incorporates the principle of citizenship gained through blood ties to citizens, the other two principles can incorporate the ethnically or culturally different outsider. In contrast to that, the homeland discourse tends to define political communities in static and exclusively ethnic terms. Of course, in reality, countries vary enormously on how much of the jus soli principle is applied to the claims to citizenship of children of immigrants born in the country and on the degree of difficulties that are involved in obtaining citizenship through naturalisation. Indeed, in countries like Israel and Japan, jus sanguinis remains the predominant way of acquiring citizenship. Yet the openings for new members that exist in principle makes the discourse of citizenship different from the exclusionary logic of the discourse of exclusive homelands.
Certain recent developments in the citizenship policies in Europe help illustrate this point. Despite the political rhetoric against foreigners in Europe today, the trend in most European countries has been to extend the right of citizenship to second-generation immigrants. The labour demands during the latter half of the 20th century had induced a major part of Europe’s recent immigration. Originally, the migration was thought of as temporary, as illustrated by the notion of guest worker. However, as many temporary migrants became permanent settlers, countries have had to respond creatively to the reality of a growing number of foreign non-citizen residents living in their midst. Whatever their degree of economic and social integration, lack of citizenship had tended to separate immigrant groups from the broader community in significant ways and implicitly justified xenophobic and exclusionary rhetoric. Thus, it was hard not to see a direct connection between Germany’s inability to recognise Turks, Yugoslavs and other former guest workers as potential German citizens and the attacks of Turks as ‘foreigners’. Germany, of course, has since 2000 changed the laws of citizenship recognising the right of second-generation immigrants to citizenship.
Indeed except for Austria, Greece and Luxemburg, the other 12 European Union countries now give second-generation immigrants the right to citizenship. Of course, there are conditions attached including, in some cases, double jus soli – besides the applicant, a parent too has to be born in the country. The point is not however to debate the laws, but to draw attention through example to the fact that, unlike the homeland discourse, it is hard within the discourse of citizenship not to recognise the right to citizenship of second-generation immigrants. In that sense the citizenship discourse is qualitatively different from the homeland discourse of northeast India that makes denizens and perpetual foreigners out of ethnically defined outsiders and their descendants.
The obvious advantages of the framework of dual citizenship are that it can define political communities in civic terms; introduce a dynamic element of incorporating new members and thereby make a decisive break from the notion of ethnic homelands that is part of the legacy of colonial subject-hood. Dual citizenship would imply that elected state governments and legislatures could make rules by which an internal immigrant becomes a citizen of the state and a member of the political community embodied in that state.
Furthermore, under a strong dual citizenship regime, even national citizenship could become a concurrent subject requiring for instance, that international treaties affecting the flow of people from outside the country into India – for instance the treaties affecting the rights of ethnic Nepalis or Bangladeshis in India – would need the concurrence of state governments. Making such treaty a part of state level political debates could give such treaties the popular legitimacy that they appear to lack in northeast India. Giving state legislatures a formal say in controlling the flow of people into the region – restrictions that exist today, but primarily through non-transparent colonial-era bureaucratic practices like the inner line or as an indirect effect of the protections given to STs — will give legitimacy to the internal immigration into the region that is only likely to increase in coming years.
Indian public opinion, however, is unlikely to be friendly to the idea of dual citizenship, which is been announced recently as a sop for the West-based non-resident Indian. Indeed, in the 1999 debate that followed the autonomy resolution of the Jammu and Kashmir assembly, commentators specifically pointed at the dangers of the dual citizenship idea. Columnist Arvind Lavakare, for instance, recently argued that if a state had such power, it would “discriminate in favour of its citizens in matters such as the right to hold public office, to vote, to obtain employment or to secure licenses for practicing law or medicine”. He gave the example of Jammu and Kashmir, where the right to acquire immovable property is restricted to the state’s permanent residents to illustrate how “politically explosive” the idea of dual citizenship can be. “With that solitary exception [sic]”, he noted with satisfaction, an exception that could be removed by abrogating Article 370 of the constitution, “the Indian federation has largely achieved, and seeks to maintain, uniformity in basic civil and criminal laws”. Like many Indian commentators, Lavakare is oblivious of the Northeast and of Article 371 (which immediately follows the much-reviled article on Jammu and Kashmir), that gives some of the northeastern states their special forms of autonomy.
The choice in the Northeast today is not between a new set of restrictions that dual citizenship would introduce for the first time and a uniform national citizenship where all Indian citizens have unrestricted rights to movement, residency and property ownership. What exists on the ground is a set of rules that distinguishes between citizens and denizens, rules that have fuelled an increasingly exclusionary politics of homelands and have been prone to generating ethnic violence and recurrent episodes of displacement. Dual citizenship in such a situation would be able to introduce for the first time a regime of civic citizenship that will be in line with the actually existing political economy of the region.
Such a citizenship regime will also be consistent with the traditional liberal incorporative ethos of the region. In the controversy over the Khasi Social Custom of Lineage Bill, the matrilineal system of succession that Khasi activists would like to ‘modernise’ has a remarkably liberal and progressive conception of group membership. While descent is traced along the female line, that does not stop children of non-Khasi women married to Khasi men from being absorbed into Khasi society. Children of such marriages typically adopted the non-Khasi mother’s given name or occupation as a clan name and over time such names became recognised as Khasi clan names. Indeed, there are many Khasi clans today that trace their ancestry to non-Khasi women who were wives or concubines of Khasi men, abducted from the plains in the course of trading expeditions and wars. This also does not discriminate against children married out of wedlock.
As Khasi sociologist, Tiplut Nongbri, points out in a recent paper on Khasi women and matriliny: while the Khasi rules of descent may render “the ethnic boundary of the Khasi highly porous, it makes the addition of new members into the society relatively easy and adds to the vibrancy of the system”. Dual citizenship will only return the Northeast to the spirit of such progressive traditions of incorporating new members – so dramatically different from the caste sensibilities of mainstream India — and make a clean break from the colonial constructions of ethnic subject-hood that have generated today’s lethal politics of homelands.
~ Sanjib Baruah teaches political studies at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. His article on the Naga peace process ‘Confronting Constructionism: Ending India’s Naga War’ will appear in the Journal of Peace Research, May 2003.