In the eastern Arunachal Pradesh districts of Namsai, Lohit and Changlang, groups representing six minority communities have risen up in protest. Starting January 20, an “economic blockade” by one of these groups has hampered the movement of commercial vehicles and goods in and out of the state.

The All Moran Students’ Union, which called for the blockade, said it was to draw attention to the “long-pending issue” of permanent residence certificates for Ahom, Sonowal Kachari, Moran, Adivasi, Deori and Mising tribes. “Some 30,000 of us have been living here even before Arunachal Pradesh was carved out of Assam,” said Bidudhar Moran, a leader of the All Moran Students’ Union. “But for years now, we have been deprived of permanent resident status.”

The Ahoms, Sonowal Kacharis, Morans, Adivasis, Deoris and Misings are dominant groups in Upper Assam, the region bordering eastern Arunachal Pradesh.

What is a permanent residence certificate?

The permanent residence certificate, as the name indicates, is documentary proof of domicile issued by state governments. Legally, domicile is defined as the “place of living” or permanent residence.

Each state tends to have its own eligibility criteria. In Arunachal Pradesh, these certificates are usually issued only to the state’s Scheduled Tribes, with a few exceptions.

The document is needed to avail of domicile or resident quotas in educational institutions and government jobs, or in other jobs where local residents are preferred.

In Arunachal Pradesh, the certificate has another dimension to it. People not considered permanent residents require the inner line permit to enter the state. This is an official document required by outsiders to travel into certain places in the North East declared “protected areas”.

“The lack of PRC [permanent residence certificate] is the root cause of all our problems,” said Ratan Chetia, president of the United People’s Movement of Lekang, an umbrella body of the groups representing these six tribes. “We are being deprived of government jobs and schemes only because we do not have the PRC.”

An old demand

The granting of permanent residence certificates to these six communities is an old and politically charged subject in Arunachal Pradesh. In 2010, the state cabinet had passed an order approving permanent resident status for “non-Arunachalees” who had lived in the state from before 1968. The order was hastily revoked after it was met with strong opposition from the All Arunachal Students’ Union, the most powerful of the pressure groups in the state claiming to represent the interests of those defined as indigenous.

Soon after, a joint high power committee was formed by the state government to examine the matter. While the committee was supposed to submit its report within six months, it did so only in 2017. The BJP-led state government did not accept the report and formed yet another committee under the chairmanship of minister Nabam Rebia in 2018. The report of the new committee is pending. “The committee missed its deadline so we hit the streets in December,” said Moran.

The numbers game

As protests gathered momentum, Deputy Chief Minister Chowna Mein, who is also the legislator from Lekang constituency, made an announcement: the six communities would be granted permanent resident certificates by the state government as a “new year gift”.

Observers of the state’s politics say the declaration was made keeping in mind the Assembly elections in the state, due later this year. The six communities form the majority in Mein’s constituency. They are also a force to reckon with in the neighbouring Changlang district’s Bordumsa-Diyun constituency.

Close on the heels of his deputy’s statement, Chief Minister Pema Khandu also announcedhis government was looking into the matter of permanent resident certificates for the six communities.

‘Akin to violating the Inner Line Permit’

The announcements incensed the state’s pressure groups, who claim that granting outsiders permanent residence certificates would be akin to violating the inner line permit regime. “They say that they have been living here since a long time, but let us know the ground reality first and wait for the committee’s report,” said All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union convener Tatung Taga, referring to the high-power committee.

Byabang Noah of the Nyishi Ethnic Students’ Union, which represents the state’s dominant Nyishi tribe, echoed Tuga. “It will reduce the state’s indigenous population to a minority,” he said, “These are all big tribes from Assam,” he said. “Today they will get PRC [permanent resident certificates], tomorrow they will demand for ST [Scheduled Tribe] status, it will just open the floodgates for other communities to make similar demands too.”

Nani Bath, who teaches political science at Arunachal University, however, backed the groups’ demand, saying it was only fair that they be given permanent resident status. “Most of these tribes, except probably the Adivasis, have lived here for a long time,” he said.

A spokesperson for Khandu declined to comment, saying it was a “politically sensitive issue” and the government would wait for the high-power committee’s report before taking a stand on it. Rebia also refused to comment.