Protests against CAA in Northeast go beyond boundaries of communal structure and its unconstitutional nature; the core here is on safeguarding culture, ecology, identity & land
Sikkim has clearly made its stand by opposing the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAB) in both Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha on December 9 and 11, respectively. Both the MPs from Sikkim voted against the Bill, now an Act, thereby making it crystal clear that Sikkim and the Sikkimese people reject the Act.
The past few days saw the Union home ministry continuously claiming that there is no need to fear the implications of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) in Northeast India. In this regard, Sikkim and Sikkimese people adopted a docile attitude to the protest which has erupted all over the country. However, the debates in Parliament missed Sikkim when home minister Amit Shah was discussing about CAA being not implemented in the Northeast region, even though Sikkim is a part of the larger conglomeration of Northeast. This brought about a sense of fear and obscurity in the minds of the Sikkimese.
To make things clear, the new citizenship law gives citizenship to Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Parsis and Christians who faced religious persecution in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, and arrived in India on or before December 31, 2014. It exempts certain areas in Northeast from this provision, but Sikkim doesn’t find any particular mention here.
The background given to Sikkim being free from CAA is that Sikkim is protected by the Article 371(F) of the Indian Constitution and there is a clear mention that no other article can subdue Article 371(F). In understanding the important provision of 371 (F) dealing with Citizenship one has to understand that the Sikkimese people obtained Indian citizenship through incorporation of territory.
To put it otherwise, the Sikkimese became an Indian citizen bringing in their land and territory to India. As a result, Sikkim subjects can become an Indian citizen but Indian citizen cannot become a subject of Sikkim. The debate and court cases of fake Certificate of Identification (COI) and Domiciled Sikkimese in Sikkim which dates back to 2010s are precisely based on this basis. The argument is that many people have forged and made fake Sikkimese COI and are enjoying the benefits which were supposed to be given to genuine and bona fide COI holders. Therefore, the argument that Article 371 (F) is going to safeguard Sikkimese from CAA is nullified as even with 371 (F), there is an influx of people into the state.
The protest and anti-CAA movement in the Northeast go beyond the boundaries of communal structure and unconstitutional nature of the Act. For the Northeast, the core and basis of protest against the amended Citizenship Act delineate on safeguarding its culture, ecology, identity and land. The narrative on CAA and its implications to Sikkim are also in tune with other Northeastern states and their narratives. Sikkim and Sikkimese are against the influx of people and against the fake COI holders who are enjoying the benefits through illegal means.
The point here is that Sikkim looks at CAA beyond the communal lines. The protest against CAA in ‘mainland’ India has been on the basis that the CAA is unconstitutional and communal and that it excludes Muslims. However, the narratives from Sikkim and other Northeastern regions against the CAA has been that of identity, culture and indigenous people’s rights and that the influx of people which will marginalise them further. This goes beyond the fabric of communal tenets of the Citizenship Amendment Act.
Sikkim has seen a huge influx of people after Sikkim merged with India in 1975. Today, the indigenous Sikkimese, that is, the Lepcha, Bhutia, Limboo and Nepali of Sikkim origin are threatened due to the rising influx of people into the state which has a small inhabitable land. Article 371 (F) though legally is an over-arching provision which can override any provision or Acts of the Constitution with regards to the state of Sikkim. Yet, the article has failed to protect the interest of the Sikkimese fully at the practical level. Article 371 (F) has been diluted through the years and the parties with vested interests have taken advantage of the flaws in the law.
The concerned citizens of Sikkim have to bear in mind that CAA affects everyone as it will have ramifications on the socio-political development of the state. There are people with vested interest who want to snatch away Article 371 (F). The question which should be baffling us at the moment should be that. Will Article 371 (F) protect us from influx of people? No, the history of Sikkim says so. Today, Sikkimese, irrespective of caste, religion, creed are in minority. Even regions like the North District of Sikkim which has the provision of Restricted Area Permit (where people who are not from the area have to take a permit to travel to these places) are today suffering from influx of illegal migrants. The other regions of Sikkim are even worse off. The narratives of the region based on the local culture and identity are being deliberatively changed through the state agency such as the Indian Army and Paramilitary forces to suit the process of state building.
The Sikkim ruling government headed by Sikkim Krantikari Morcha (SKM) voted against the controversial citizenship act in Lok Sabha and similarly, Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF) which represents the state in Rajya Sabha voted against the Act. Their actions need praises, as, when all the Northeastern MPs voted in support the Bill, they stood their ground. However, Sikkimese in general, the politicians and leaders of Sikkim, in particular, should not live in delusion thinking that Article 371 (F) protects us all. This has to be understood in the larger frame of Bhartiya Janata Party’s (BJP) ultimate objective of bringing in place ‘Uniform Civil Code’ (One Nation, One Law). Why point these out, you may ask. It is because Sikkim has always been at the receiving end of the policies of the Indian government. Therefore, the narratives related to the socio-culture and identity of Sikkim as well as India’s Northeast is deliberately being targeted and, in the process, being changed for vested political interests.
(Kunga Tashi is an independent documentary photographer based out of Sikkim. His work focuses on the notions of identity, memories, and social issues related to youth and environment. Sangay lachenpa is a research scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi)