Far from Delhi, the government’s new citizenship laws have lit fresh fires in Meghalaya. Since Friday, three people have been killed, several more stabbed and shops set ablaze. Internet services have been shut down in six districts of Khasi and Jaintia Hills, and night curfews imposed in Shillong and surrounding areas.
It is a picture of chaos that has become familiar over the past few months, replicated in province after province: Assam, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi. In North Eastern states, it threatens to demolish fragile compacts between communities, built after decades of violence.
The Citizenship Amendment Act has triggered multiple anxieties. In most parts of the country, it has given rise to fears that the Act, coupled with the proposed countrywide National Register of Citizens, will become a tool to harass Indian Muslims. In states like Meghalaya, it has reignited fears about local tribal communities being overrun by people defined as outsiders. The Act makes undocumented non-Muslim migrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan eligible for Indian citizenship.
In states like Meghalaya, it is believed that the act would regularise hundreds of non-tribal residents branded “illegal migrants and trigger a fresh flow of so-called outsiders.
The government’s last minute attempts at damage control did not work. Areas under the Sixth Schedule – most of Meghalaya, apart from Shillong, is covered by the provision – were exempt from the Act. The Sixth Schedule ensures certain Constitutional protections and autonomies to areas with large tribal populations. Assam, where large swathes fall outside the Sixth Schedule, erupted in deadly violence soon after the law was passed. In Meghalaya, a substantial section of civil society believed the exemptions would not stave off an “influx”.
But the state saw protests which segued into demands for the Inner Line Permit. The legacy of a colonial era law, the permit is a travel document required by anyone from other parts of the country entering places designated “protected areas”. This week’s violence reportedly broke out after a meeting on the Act and the permit led to clashes, killing a member of the Khasi Students’ Union, a powerful civil society group.
If the Centre’s experiments with citizenship has opened up communal faultlines in other parts of the country, it has cut to the heart of ethnic faultlines in North Eastern states. Protests demanding the Inner Line Permit in Meghalaya have killed before. The region also has a longer history of ethnic violence, starting with the “Bongal Kheda” movement of the 1960s, where hundreds of non-tribal residents were driven out of their homes. Later, movements for self-determination spawned multiple militancies.
After years of bloodshed, the state was restored to relative peace and the influence of militant groups waned. If ethnic resentments did not quite go away, the state’s various communities evolved a functional relationship.
The latest episode of ethnic violence illustrates how that hard-won peace may be shattered as old insecurities are revived. Already, a militant group that had faded into the background has issued an ultimatum that members of a non-tribal community should leave certain areas of Meghalaya within a month. The state government has appealed to the local press not to publish the statement as it would promote “enmity between different groups”.
But the real source of division lies deeper – in the Centre’s citizenship laws. This may be a good time for it to contemplate the social and human costs of implementing such a law.