The hill state of Arunachal Pradesh has erupted into violent protests over the state government’s proposal to grant permanent resident certificate (PRC) to six non-Arunachal Pradesh Scheduled Tribe communities living in the state.
Those living outside the North-East could be forgiven for romanticising Arunachal Pradesh as nothing more than a distant land of mystic mountains and music – the Ziro Music festival, launched half a decade ago, is one of India’s most favoured outdoor cultural events. The state and its people hardly find a mention in the national discourse other than the occasional India-China diplomatic spats, with Beijing often provoking New Delhi by granting stapled visas to Indians from Arunachal Pradesh.
The past few days have seen the otherwise peaceful state embroiled in violent protests over PRC to the non-Arunachal ST groups living in Namsai and Changlang districts of Arunachal Pradesh along the border with Assam. The six communities are Deori, Mishing, Moran, Gorkha, Adivasi, and Sonowal Kachari. Some of these communities enjoy Scheduled Tribe status in Assam.
Those opposing the move are angry that granting PRC to ‘outsiders’ would give domicile status to non-Arunachali STs. A widely accepted definition of domicile means the place in which a person lives permanently, has a permanent legal address or treats as his permanent home. To acquire PRC, a person has to furnish proof of continuous residence in the state/UT for a specified minimum period, or of holding land in the state/UT, depending on the rules in the respective states/UT. Interestingly, Arunachal Pradesh, like Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Nagaland, enjoy the ‘special status’ that prohibits outsiders from buying land or property.
In Arunachal, PRC is issued specifically to the state’s Scheduled Tribes. The certificate is mandatory as proof of residence to get domicile or resident quotas in educational institutions, government jobs and other employment opportunities where local residents are preferred.
PRC to the six groups would mean recognising them as Arunachal Pradesh ST. This would ultimately eat into the rights and privileges of the indigenous Arunachali tribes.
Following last week’s violence, at least three people have been killed and several others injured while an agitated mob burnt the residence of deputy chief minister Chowna Mein on February 24. A person also reportedly died in firing by security forces after a group of people tried to attack chief minister Pema Khandu’s residence. The protests also hit the first International Film Festival in Itanagar that was called off following violence and vandalism at the venue. With the situation seemingly spiraling out of control, the state administration has clamped a curfew and suspended internet services until the situation improves. Although no fresh incident was reported on February 25, the Centre has rushed around 1,000 paramilitary personnel to the state.
The Chief Minister has clarified that the state government was not bringing the bill on PRC but only tabling the report of a panel.
On February 25, the CM said his government’s stance on the PRC was clear, but despite that there were incidents of violence. “I have given directives and a detailed investigation is essential. I have formed a commissioner-level investigating committee. It is necessary for the truth to come before public,” he told a news agency.
While Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh has appealed to the people to maintain peace, his junior counterpart Kiren Rijiju — the face of the Bharatiya Janata Party in North-East India and an MP from Arunachal East — clarified that the state government was not bringing the bill on PRC but only tabling a report of the Joint High Power Committee on PRC.
“It means the state government has not accepted it. In fact, Congress is fighting for PRC but instigating people wrongly,” he tweeted. But, despite the promises, the protests continued. Some protesters even demanded the resignation of the CM and his deputy. Those observing the situation closely believe that the state could be staring at a President’s Rule, if the situation doesn’t improve soon.
Politics of ‘outsider’
Discontentment over granting PRC has been simmering in the state since December, when the government first announced that people from six communities residing in the two districts prior to 1968 would be eligible for permanent resident certificates. Fresh incidents of violence were reported on February 22 following a strike call against the government’s move to table the recommendation.
While Rijiju accused the Congress of instigating the protesters, the timing of the protests is crucial, considering the state will go to Assembly polls soon (the term of the current legislative assembly will come to an end on June 1) alongside the Lok Sabha elections. (Arunachal sends two MPs to Parliament.)
But many feel Rijiju blaming the Congress of stoking violence ahead of the polls is disingenuous given the political history of the state that has been riddled with instability and mass defections. In the 2014 Assembly elections, even though the Congress won 42 of the 60 seats, a series of unexplained political U-turns and defections saw the BJP gaining a ‘backdoor entry’ into the state and forming its government. Interestingly, the defections have now brought the Congress’s tally down to five MLAs, while the BJP has 48 legislators in the state Assembly. Arunachal Pradesh, like most north-eastern states, has a history of aligning with the political party in power at the Centre.
Also, the fact that the protests over PRC come close on the heels of mass agitations against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, across the north-east once again highlights the constant fear and suspicion of outsiders usurping the rights of the local people, not to mention political parties whipping up tribal sentiments.
Fear of the ‘outsider’
The entire region witnessed a spate of violent protests against the contentious Citizenship Bill after it was passed in the Lok Sabha on January 8.
The bill intends to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955, to grant Indian citizenship to Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, Sikhs and Christians from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan on the grounds of religious persecution, even if they entered the country without valid documents till December 31, 2014.
The bill evoked strong opposition from the indigenous people of the north-east, especially Assam, fearing that Hindus from Bangladesh residing in the region would be granted citizenship. Those against the bill argue that the presence of an overwhelming number of suspected Bangladeshis will threaten the cultural and political authority of the indigenous people of the region in the longer run.
After the Rajya Sabha was adjourned sine die on February 13, without taking up the Citizenship Bill for discussion and passage in the House, it will now have to be reintroduced in the new Lok Sabha.
Who is more indigenous?
The ‘outsider’ factor has always played a key role in the politics of the region. If it was the fear of suspected Bangladeshis overshadowing the indigenous population in Assam, the recent development in Arunachal Pradesh is led by apprehensions that granting PRC to the six groups will lead to gradually recognising them as Arunachal Pradesh ST, which would cut into the rights and privileges of the indigenous Arunachali tribes.
It is perhaps not difficult to see why people fear so. In a land full of diversity – there are around 26 different tribes in Arunachal Pradesh – the dearth of resources and opportunities make everyone a competitor against the other, everyone a more natural claimant than the other, everyone more ‘indigenous’ than the other.