Many leaders of tribes and ethnic groups in North East India fear that Article 371 of the Indian Constitution would not be able to protect the tribal culture from massive immigration from Bangladesh if the Citizenship Amendment Bill is enacted. They say that not only Article 371 but also other legal and constitutional provisions to protect local tribal culture too may fall apart if the bill is passed in Parliament.
The reaction from tribes and ethnic groups comes after Home Minister Amit Shah in his recent visit to North East India said that even if the bill becomes a law there would be no change in the status of the states where Article 371 is in force or in the areas which enjoy special provisions for protection of tribal culture.
"Even though Article 371 is in force in many states of the North East like Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland, illegal immigration from Bangladesh still continue and the indigenous cultures of these states are under grave threat because of it. If the Government of India initiates the policy of granting citizenship to illegal immigrants on the basis of their religion, it would be difficult to stop migration to these states," said Samuel Jewara, chairman of the North East Students' Organisation, a body that led the anti-citizenship bill movement when the government tabled the bill in Parliament on February 2019.
The bill which intends to provide Indian citizenship to Hindu, Jain, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist and Parsi illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan was passed in the Lok Sabha but was not tabled in the Rajya Sabha due to vehement protest in North East India, where the BJP is in power.
Jewara also cited the example of the population of Chakma refugees from Bangladesh in Arunachal Pradesh which has grown into a lakh now in a state which earlier had merely 13,82,611 people living there as per the 2011 census. Significantly, Article 371H provides special powers to the Governor of Arunachal Pradesh apart from which the Inner Line Permit system is also in force in the protected state.
As per the Inner Line Permit system, even Indians wishing to visit Arunachal Pradesh require special permission from the state government to enter the state.
In his recent visit to Assam, Shah maintained that the Article 371 would not be tampered with although the Citizenship Amendment Bill will be re-introduced in Parliament.
"I would like to clarify that Article 370 and 371 have no relation with each other. Article 370 was a temporary provision and 371 is a special provision and it is a right of the people of North East India. No law including Citizenship Amendment Bill would have overriding effect on Article 371 or any other law which are already in force in the region for the protection of tribal and cultural identity," the Union home minister said.
Significantly, apart from Article 371, there are several laws in different parts of the region which restrict sale and purchase of land to anyone other than specified under the concerned laws. In many areas under Sixth Schedule, sale of land to persons who do not belong to certain tribe is prohibited.
While interpreting the BJP president's statement, senior Assam minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said in a press conference that even if a person acquires citizenship under the proposed amendment in the citizenship law he or she would not acquire right to buy land in the states like Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram without the permission of the local governments. Similarly, no land or home can be bought by new citizens in Meghalaya, Sixth Scheduled areas and tribal belts and blocks.
The Constitution of India makes special provisions for the administration of the tribal-dominated areas in four stated viz. Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura under its Sixth Schedule where the purchase of land by non-tribals is restricted.
But Sarma's interpretation has not relieved many tribal leaders as many Sixth Schedule areas too suffer from massive encroachment of land.
Aditya Khakhlari, a tribal leader in Assam says that encroachment in the tribal areas has been a major cause of conflict in the region hence there is no reason why tribes living in the Sixth Schedule areas should not be worried.
"In the Bodoland Territorial Council which is a Sixth Schedule area, the encroachment of tribal lands is a major cause of concern. If the influx from Bangladesh is encouraged by offering citizenship than the pressure on the existing land would only increase," Khakhlari said.
Significantly, the Kokrajhar riots in a Sixth Scheduled area which continued for almost two years was seen as caused by the illegal occupation of tribal lands by the immigrant population.
He also added that there are vast tracts of lands which are actually tribal-dominated but do not fall into any reserved category, which may see massive encroachment if the bill is passed.
"Only in Assam, there are six autonomous council areas which will get affected by immigration. These autonomous council areas do not fall in any reserve categories," Khakhlari said.