As Assam draws close to the publication of the final draft of its much-awaited National Register of Citizens on July 30, other states in the North East are also bracing for possible repercussions.
The stated aim of the exercise to update the citizenry list for the first time since 1951 is to identify “genuine citizens” living in Assam and identify illegal immigrants. According to the terms of inclusion, those who cannot prove that they or their ancestors entered the country before midnight on March 24, 1971, will be deemed an illegal immigrant.
The fear of “influx”, or the entry of people who do not belong to indigenous communities, is a sensitive political issue across the North East. Several neighbouring states have stepped up security at inter-state borders with Assam, fearing an exodus of people who fail to find their names in the updated list. All the other six states in the North East share borders with Assam.
Meghalaya: ‘Aware and concerned’
Conrad K Sangma, chief minister of Meghalaya, where the alleged influx of illegal migrants is also a sensitive subject, said his government was “aware and concerned” about the possible flow of NRC-rejects in the wake of the publication of the final draft. “I already asked the home department to look into this and they are looking into [it],” said Sangma over the phone from Shillong. “We are trying to best to not let what is happening in our neighbouring state affect us.”
Meghalaya Home Minister James Sangma said the state was “watching and monitoring” the situation. He insisted that he did not want to speculate about the possibility of a “mass exodus.” “But rest assured, we have put in place mechanisms to prevent mass entry of people if it were to happen,” he said.
The state’s civil society groups have also raised the alarm. The Khasi Students’ Union said it was “understandable that lakhs and maybe more than that will lose the benefits of the Assam government and they will try to sneak into other North Eastern states”.
“The union has issued instructions to all traditional institutions, village heads and its branches to be vigilant in order to deter [the possible entry of those who did not make to the Assam list],” said the union’s general secretary, Donald V Thabah.
Meghalaya, the union suspects, could be a convenient refuge for such individuals as it shares an almost 900-km border with Assam and does not have special entry requirements, such as the inner line permit needed for entry into other tribal states in the region. The Inner Line Permit is an official document required by outsiders to travel into places declared “protected areas”. Originally introduced by the British in several parts of the North East and aimed at protecting “indigenous cultures”, the system still exists in Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and most of Nagaland.
Manipur: On alert
Manipur, which also recently passed a contentious inner line permit bill, was also on guard. The state’s director general of police, LM Khaute, said his department had been alert since the exercise to update the National Register of Citizens was initiated in Assam. “Now, at the border area, particularly in Jiribam district, we have stepped up security,” said the officer.
Meitei activist Arjun Telheiba, who led the inner line permit demand in the state, said it was “natural that if some of the illegal migrants from Assam are coming to Manipur, they have to be deported”.
Nagaland: Mulling its own National Register of Citizens
Nagaland has also deployed forces along the 434-km border that it shares with Assam. “The police are manning all entry and exits points,” said Themjen Toy, the state’s chief secretary. “We have also told our agencies, including village councils and district administrations, to be wary of such people.”
Toy claimed the state government was also actively mulling a similar counting exercise in Nagaland. “We are waiting for the Assam results, whether such an exercise has been beneficial for the state,” he explained. “Assam has put in a lot of effort, but ultimately it is the result that matters, so after consulting with them we will take a call.”
The Naga Students Federation, the apex students’ body in the state, said it was satisfied with the state government’s directions so far with regard to the possible influx of people from Assam. “But sooner rather than later, the government has to come up with a policy to deal with illegal migration,” said the federation’s president, Kesosul Christopher Ltu.
Arunachal and Mizoram: Protected by the inner line permit
The Arunachal Pradesh administration sees “no challenge” in the wake of the publication of the final draft in Assam. “In the form of the inner line permit, a mechanism is already there,” said a spokesperson for chief minister Pema Khandu. “All entry of outsiders to the state is tightly regulated, so there is not much to worry about. Besides, it is a small state and in every area people know each other, so any suspicious stranger is likely to be reported to the police who will then take action.”
But the state’s most influential civil society outfit, the All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union, has taken a more hardline stance. Insisting that the state already housed many “illegal migrants”, it has affirmed that it would only allow those migrant workers from Assam whose names featured on the National Register of Citizens.
Mizoram, another state protected by the inner line permit, also claimed to have not taken the matter too seriously. “So far as that subject is concerned, we are not that much concerned,” said Lalbiakzama, additional secretary in Mizoram’s home department.
Tripura: ‘No impact’
Tripura, the only other non-tribal majority state in the region apart from Assam, has not made any special arrangements either. “There’s no impact of the NRC [National Register for Citizens] here,” said Sanjay Mishra, the officer on special duty to Chief Minister Biplab Deb.
Assam started updating its citizens’ list, the National Register of Citizens, in 2015. A truncated first draft of the register was released on January 1. It stated that 1.9 crore of the 3.29 crore individuals who had applied to be listed in the register were citizens.
After the publication of the final draft, people who do not find themselves on it will get a one-month window to file claims and objections, besides an option to seek subsequent judicial remedy.