On 9 December, the Lok Sabha passed the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019 which mandates that Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians—except Muslims—from Afghanistan, Pakistan or Bangladesh who enter India, would not be treated as illegal immigrants. Since the bill was passed, the country has been in turmoil with protests happening across the country against the legislation. The discussions on the matter, however, have largely remained on the lines of the Hindu-Muslim religious binary, and have sidelined the indigenous voices from the northeast, as well as the growing concerns of Adivasi regions in peninsular India.
Religion has rarely been a matter of conflict or contestation in Adivasi areas. These areas have fought for the freedom and autonomy of their languages, culture, belief systems—since British colonial rule. In its policy to safeguard these areas, the colonial government created “excluded” and “partially excluded” areas. After independence, these areas were retained in the Indian constitution as the Fifth and Sixth Schedules. (There are ten states under the Fifth Schedule—Article 244(1)—and four states under the Sixth Schedule—Article 244 (2). The areas under the Fifth Schedule are called “Scheduled Areas”, and those under the Sixth Schedule are called “Tribal Areas.”)
The indigenous people of Jharkhand struggled for 72 years from 1928 to 2000 to turn it into a reality. But today, who are those who have pushed Jharkhandi identity, its languages and cultures, its rich resources and its once prosperous people, to the margins?
The general law of the state does not apply to these regions, unless it’s approved by the President of India or the governors of the states. The provisions under these schedules aim to provide constitutional safeguards to Adivasi land, languages, and culture. These safeguards—on paper— restrict the free settlement of non-tribals and prohibit tribal land transfer to non-tribals. However there have been gross violations of these in the past. While the responsibility of scheduled areas has been vested on state governors, they have failed to fulfill them efficiently.
To reiterate, laws made by the Indian parliament or state assemblies are not directly applicable in these areas. They are only implemented with exceptions and modifications to existing laws. The respective state governors have to make special regulations to ensure peaceful and good governance and the well being of the tribals—based on the recommendations of the tribal council and written consent of the President of India. Only after the approval of the President, can the governor implement these regulations in schedule areas. Similarly, in the sixth schedule, governors can take decisions, on whether the laws made by parliament or state assembly, are to be applicable or not. None of these aspects have been part of media discussions on the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens. Several states in the country have violated these regulations and one should ask—are they prepared to correct their mistakes?
In the matter of the CAA and NRC, even before the protests began in mainland India, people in the northeast have been resisting, not for religious reasons, but against the possibility that their autonomy, language and culture will be at threat. They are concerned that the constitutionally guaranteed benefits under the Sixth Schedule may be affected in the future.
The Assam government has adopted the NRC and wants to prove that Muslims are infiltrators. Though, they soon realised that, of the nineteen lakh people under the NRC, fourteen lakh are Hindus, and quickly turned towards the CAA lamenting that they are concerned about the suffering of religious minorities (except Muslims) in neighbouring countries. The government, however, does not even know the number of people facing religious persecution and has no confirmed figures. The Indian government has also not been in any talks with other countries in this regard. What the CAA will essentially do is, it would legitimise and ensure a place for the fourteen lakh Hindus—who are outside of the NRC.
The provision of the Inner Line Permit exists in a few districts of Assam and other northeastern states, and so the Indian government argues that they won’t be affected by the Act. However, if the ILP has already existed in the region, how have lakhs of people already illegally entered Assam and other states? In 1979, the Assam Students’ Union fought a six year long violent struggle against illegal immigration and the resistance stopped only after an agreement called the “Assam Accord” was signed by the Assam government in 1985. But today, Assam is burning, as it resists yet again.
Adivasis have been suffering the consequences of settlers’ domination for long. They understand very well that when non-tribals from other states settle into Adivasi areas, they try to impose their culture, religion and gods on the indigenous people.
If the government wants to bring religiously persecuted people to India, it is free to do so. But why not settle them in developed areas, whose model it showcases to the entire country? It is no secret that there has been mass settlement of non-tribals in Adivasi/Tribal areas in violation of the Constitution. Even before independence, the policy of settling non-tribals in these areas was adopted by the British colonial government. The mass migration of non-tribals (of all religions and not just Muslims) from other states into the Fifth and Sixth Schedule areas has resulted in increased vulnerability for Adivasis/Tribals with weakened political power and representation, rampant land alienation and unemployment, threat to language and culture and the violation of their basic human rights. Under such conditions, should self-preserving Adivasi/Tribal people welcome and accommodate refugees?
The Adivasi areas have been ravaged in the name of “development.” The source of their livelihood—forests, rivers, hills—have been polluted and destroyed; they are being evicted from their forests; their farmlands have been turned into mines. Adivasis remain the largest group of Indian society to be displaced by these activities, numbering lakhs. Who wants to leave their ancestral land and home? No one does. But in the absence of livelihood opportunities and unemployment, Adivasi men and women have become refugees in their own country and are working in large numbers as wage labourers and domestic workers in big cities and towns. State governments receive millions of rupees for the development of Adivasis, but where are these large sums being diverted? Why has the government failed to hear and deal with the suffering of its own people—a situation created by the government itself?
The certificate declaring the Schedule Tribe status of Adivasis in the Fifth Schedule areas is issued on the basis of their land-settlement documents. When they migrate to other cities and states, they are not recognised as Schedule Tribes and are denied this certification of their identity. They face exploitation and humiliation in non-native states; their language and their appearance are mocked and at times they are abused and assaulted for their ‘tribal’ appearance. In the larger conscience of the nation, Adivasis and their territories are deemed inferior and marginal.
Adivasis have been suffering the consequences of settlers’ domination for long. They understand very well that when non-tribals from other states settle into Adivasi areas, they try to impose their culture, religion and gods on the indigenous people. The incidents of crime, corruption, rapes and so on have intensified after such cultural infiltration. The settlers come into Adivasi areas in the name of making livelihood, and right in front of their eyes, they take complete control of the lands-rivers-forests, language-culture, livelihood and employment of Indigenous people.
In the matter of the CAA and NRC, even before the protests began in mainland India, people in the northeast have been resisting, not for religious reasons, but against the possibility that their autonomy, language and culture will be at threat.
The Indian constitution gives the freedom to each citizen to settle, move and work anywhere; however, it does not give the freedom to violate others’ rights, illegally occupy indigenous peoples’ land and appropriate their resources and employment opportunities or engage in violence and criminal activities. Adivasis of this country were ensured a place in independent India through the provisions under the Fifth and Sixth Schedule. These provisions are meant to restrict uncontrolled settlement of outsiders into these areas, but they have been consistently ignored.
Under these circumstances, the state governments should be asked—why should people have to look for their livelihood outside of their states? Everyone deserves the choice to live a peaceful and dignified life with their families and work in their native home. Why are state governments not able to provide opportunities to their own people? Why are rich resources of Adivasi areas looted and sold to other countries?
The tribal majority northeastern states have fought a long struggle to live freely in their native land, with their way of life, languages, and culture. Even the Adivasis of peninsular India have been struggling with similar issues since colonial period. Why is this struggle still going on?
The Jharkhand movement was a result of similar demands. The indigenous people of Jharkhand struggled for 72 years from 1928 to 2000 to turn it into a reality. But today, who are those who have pushed Jharkhandi identity, its languages and cultures, its rich resources and its once prosperous people, to the margins? Why are the people of Orissa, Chhattisgarh and other states—with large Adivasi populations—still resisting and struggling with similar concerns?
Those who have been suffering and bearing the brunt of their own country’s system and oppressive society, and resisting for generations: should their problems not be solved? The Fifth and Sixth Schedule of the Indian constitution are meant to strengthen the decentralisation of governance. The violation of provisions under these schedules must stop and the ongoing discussion on CAA and NRC must take into account the historical experiences of millions of indigenous-Adivasi people and their ancestral territories.
A Hindi version of the article was earlier published in The Wire.