It’s not just Muslims, all Adivasis following indigenous belief systems are under threat!
On 12 December 2019, under the right-wing leadership of the Bhartiya Janta Party, the government of India enacted the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019. Since then, India’s northeastern states have erupted in protests and demonstrations, to the extent that the government has had to shut down the internet in several parts of the country and use violence to suppress the protesters. The protests have also been taking place in different parts of the country, where numerous sit-ins and demonstrations are being held to oppose the CAA, demanding its roll back along with the National Register of Citizens (NRC). On the late evening of 15th December, as the Delhi police barged into Jamia Milia Islamia University and Aligarh Muslim University, firing tear gas shells at students and assaulting them inside libraries and washrooms, the protests finally attained widespread social media traction and national news media coverage. It also sparked off student protests in various parts of the country, which led to public demonstrations being organised across India.
This article, however, does not concern itself with the ethical or constitutional validity of the CAA, for the author strongly believes that the Act goes against the very secular fabric of the country and could render large numbers of people from particular religions – stateless. Several articles have already been written detailing the ‘wrongs’ of the Act. Instead, this article, firstly explains how this Act could impact the Adivasis of Jharkhand, and secondly, drawing on reflections from previous protests in the state, comments on the nature of protests, to appeal to bystanders who are sceptical about them.
I would like to draw from Jawar Bheel’s article in Round Table India on the implication of the CAA on Adivasis. Jawar makes a very important point on the forcible ‘Hinduization’ of Adivasis, which needs to be highlighted and re-emphasized in current discourse. To elaborate, Adivasis in the central and eastern parts of India—constituting a little over 60% of the tribal population in India—aren’t a religiously monolithic category. For instance, in the 2011 Census data 46.4% of Adivasis in Jharkhand were followers of the Sarna religion that has been given the tag of ‘Other religion and persuasions’—besides the 0.3% Adivasis who were put under the category of ‘Religion not stated’—, which translates into more than 40 million Adivasis. In states like West Bengal, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the number of Adivasis under the category ‘Other religion and persuasions’ were 14.6%, 4.9%, 3.8% and 6.2% respectively (computed from Census data 2011); these figures indicate the followers of various indigenous belief systems numbering to millions whose religion has not been granted a separate religious code by the central government. In recent times in Jharkhand, there have been heavy protests for the demand of the same Sarna code, however, the government has so far refused to agree to such demands, arguing that all Adivasis belong to the Hindu fold, and that anyone outside the fold, especially Christians, should be stripped of their ST status.
The NRC, if implemented, would require Adivasis to register themselves with state authorities using legacy documents. As per the documentation requirement, and as in the case of the Assam NRC, the registering person would be required to prove relations with a legacy person with whom linkage is claimed. The documents required for legacy claims (in Jharkhand) could be anyone of the following: NRC 1951 documents, land and tenancy records, passport, LIC, bank/post-office accounts, government employment certificate, birth certificate, educational certificate and court records (the list excludes document requirements which are particular to Assam). In much of the Adivasi dominated areas of central and eastern parts, especially in remote regions, the only documents that Adivasis ‘may be’ be in possession of would be land and tenancy records; it is a big ‘maybe’. In many remote areas, where the colonial rule had failed to penetrate, the paperwork remains minimal to non-existent, and the boundaries are agreed upon through village assemblies or Gram Sabhas.
The most critical places would be forested areas, where millions of Adivasi inhabitants have already been deemed encroachers by the State and denied land entitlement, despite the passage of Forest Rights Act, 2006. Without any land documents, they are bound to be excluded from the NRC. The most worrisome of these would be the several Adivasi households who have faced the brunt of security forces, in the name of countering insurgency. For instance, almost a decade back in Jharkhand, in 2011-12, activist Gladson Dungdung and his team Jharkhand Human Rights Movement (JHRM) revealed several cases where security forces had destroyed houses of innocent Adivasis and burnt their land documents under the garb of fighting Maoists. All such people are bound to get excluded from the NRC list.
This is where the CAA would come into play. From the Adivasis who would initially be excluded from the NRC, those who belonged to religions included in the CAA—Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian—would still be eligible to seek citizenship under the current law. However, given that the Sarna religion of Adivasis does not exist on official papers, the fate of Sarna Adivasis excluded from the NRC remains unknown (or is perhaps in detention centers); unless they become willing to identify themselves as Hindus. I would not mention Christianity because in many of these states, anti-conversion laws specifically target missionary institutions for converting people. Whereas converting to Hinduism is called ‘returning back to the fold’ (which apparently is not conversion). This also puts people in the position of vulnerability vis-à-vis the state institutions with whom they have had unpleasant experiences (an understatement) in the past.
Take for example the Khunti district in Jharkhand, where the state government has filed sedition charges against more than 10,000 Adivasis. This also happens to be one of the three districts in Jharkhand where Sarna followers form the majority, and where people have been vehemently fighting for their constitutional rights guaranteed under the Fifth Schedule of the constitution. All of a sudden, the entire power dynamics of the region have tilted against the decentralized mechanism, whereby the law-upholding Adivasis and their right to self-determination through the Gram Sabhas are suddenly at the mercy of state officials, with every possibility of their exclusion from the NRC. If one believes these assumptions to be unfounded, the sheer number of existing sedition cases should be a telling tale about the ‘possibilities in Jharkhand’.
At this point, it is also important to address the clarification issued by the Government of India (which is apparently unsigned) to assuage the wide-spread fear against the CAA and NRC, remarking that the two should not be linked together. Essentially, the government has clarified that no legacy documents would be required, as was the case with Assam, and that common identity proofs like voter ID or driver’s license could also be used for registration (the list of documents required are yet to be officially determined). It also clarified that even if the person does not have any of the relevant documents, witness statements and community verification would be sufficient. On the question of how 19 lakhs individuals were left out of the NRC if the procedures were so simple, the government’s note cites the problem of the infiltration of Bangladeshis in Assam, which has been a persistent issue in the region.
However, before we take government’s clarification at face value, it’s imperative to critically evaluate the same. The simplistic statements on unlinking the two and stating that the NRC merely intends to register Indian citizens, seem deceptive when taking into consideration the repeated statements made by Home Minister Amit Shah, on weeding out infiltrators from neighboring countries through the NRC. In a rally in West Bengal, in October 2019, Shah made clear linkages between the NRC and the CAA, mentioning that the CAA would make sure that none of the non-Mulsim refugees are weeded out. In Jharkhand, during the election campaign in December 2019, Shah made repeated promises to drive out ‘infiltrators’. Linked with his message on the CAA, these infiltrators cannot belong to the religious communities of Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Christians and Parsis. Hence, religious communities excluded by default, like Muslims, Sarnas and other indigenous belief systems, remain vulnerable to being considered as infiltrators.
When the government claims that commonly used documents or no documents would be required to get oneself registered in the NRC, one needs to question the very need of NRC. Also pertinent is the question, on what basis would the government identify ‘infiltrators’? Doesn’t it sound familiar in the Adivasi context, where security forces blatantly accuse Adivasis of being Maoists? On the issue of 19 lakh people left out from Assam NRC, the government’s clarification only adds to the confusion. It is uncertain whether the government assumes ‘illegal immigration’ to be an issue only relevant to Assam.
This would fail to explain Shah’s forceful speeches during the election campaign in Jharkhand, where he promised to weed out undocumented Bangladeshi immigrants from the region. If it is indeed about deporting ‘illegal’ immigrants, the question of how to identify the same stays relevant; mere statements that Muslims (or indigenous communities) won’t be affected are not enough. The government’s clarifications only seem to be an eyewash in the face of growing nation-wide protests.
Holier than thou
This piece remains incomplete, without appealing to bystanders/observers who rarely fail to pass judgement on the nature of protests and demonstrations, without acknowledging the gravity of the dangers that protestors are vulnerable to. Many liberal bystanders and arm-chair activists (I use this word very selectively for those who are Facebook or Twitter activists by choice and not by force), who are supportive of the issues at large, quickly distance themselves once the situation gets out of hand. In the recent protest at Jamia Nagar and Seelampur in Delhi where violent clashes between protestors and security forces were reported, many netizens were quick to comment that they don’t support the damage to public property and that the guilty should be punished. These bystanders or observers fail to understand the volatile dynamics of a protest site, wherein often security forces deem initial violent outliers (who may or may not be state agents) as an inherent part of the protesting groups, and thereafter violently suppress the entire group, creating a cycle of violence and counter-violence. The focus in this entire turmoil, then, shifts to the consequent damage or violence, rather than the issue that was the reason for protest; thankfully, current protests across the country have maintained their focus against the CAA and NRC. This is a rarity.
A little over a year ago in Jharkhand, on the 6th of July 2018, similarly fierce protests (though limited in scale) had spread across the region, where Adivasis were strongly protesting against the land acquisition laws implemented by the state government. The opposition parties had called for state-wide ‘bandh’ and were largely supported by Adivasi communities. There were no particular protest sites in towns or cities, rather people were urged to come out on the streets in their own locality, thereby, significantly reducing the chances of administrative or police pressure focusing on one specific area. A group of youths in the Hesag neighborhood of Ranchi decided to march in support of the bandh and went from door to door, urging the locals to support the cause; as a result, hundreds came out on the street and staged a successful protest. What was interesting in this entire episode was the interaction between the protestors and state agents. During the protest, vehicular traffic was put on hold temporarily, which irked the police sub-inspector at the scene (he received repeated calls from his seniors to let the traffic through), who in turn threatened the protestors that if they did not let the traffic flow, he would have to ‘deal with them in his own way’. Amidst this heated debate, the Addition District Magistrate (ADM) came to the scene to speak to protestors, he remarked: “you have presented your issue and made a point, the government will take note, now you should call off the protest, as the purpose of the protest is over.” None of the protestors agreed with him. The sub-inspector then asked a few youth from the protesting group to control the situation, to which they replied that there was no leader of the group, and that everyone protesting has concerns of their own; a lady protesting said that everyone in the group was a leader. After almost three to four hours of intense protest and stand-offs with the police the protestors decided to retreat. It was at this moment that a few police constables at the scene (in riot gear) speaking amongst themselves (though loudly), laughingly said: “lets run after them.” They did and were joined by several of their colleagues. The scene quickly turned volatile where everyone started to run in any direction they could and the police chased after them with batons. The day ended with a renewed call to protest against any future oppressive measures.
The reason I narrate this past episode is to highlight two important things. Firstly, the administrative or security outlook about protests is merely that of people making a statement about their issues, which should have no reason to escalate. This is different from the understanding of the protestors. Who including me, came out on the streets, concerned about our land and our future. We were not supporting or expressing solidarity about an issue but were rather, fighting for our own homes. The CAA protests also need to be understood in a similar vein, where people are agitated because their very lives are at stake; the fear of being excluded from the NRC, the fear of being put in detention camps is very real (as has already been observed in Assam). This is not to belittle or dismiss the solidarity of others, for their futures too are at risk in an environment of hate and fear. But for the excluded community from the CAA, to not oppose the act through any means possible is simply not an option. The second drawing from the Jharkhand episode is on the issue of volatility at a protest site. I can tell this with utmost certainty, with the little I have observed and engaged with, that people don’t come to a protest with pre-planned goals of damaging public goods or hurling stones at security forces. And this is because the repercussions of police brutality are too well known for certain marginalised communities.
A few fringe elements, who many a time turn out to be state agents, engage in damaging goods and properties, for reasons that are not related to the issues of protest; perhaps to tarnish the image of protestors. On a few occasions, when protestors become emotional about issues, at the most a verbal confrontation with security forces is the most likely outcome. The conscious knowledge of the power gap between security forces and protestors makes it impossible for the latter to initiate violence that would only cause them more harm However, this cognitive risk assessment goes away, when security forces deliberately and violently target protestors with no provocation; to oppose, then, is to defend the self. Other instances could be similar, like the case in Jharkhand where a single constable’s suggestion to chase after protestors, seemingly for ‘fun’, had the potential to erupt into violence.
A note to observers and bystanders: if you’re not personally affected by the concerns of the protesting people, your critical judgement only reeks of your privilege – the privilege of being able to stay away. And those who are too concerned about damaged public goods, you need more in-person observations of how things unfold at protest sites.
To conclude, this piece makes a call to Adivasis (especially from the central and eastern parts of India) who have stayed silent on the issue so far. Amit Shah’s constant mention of the NRC in the Jharkhand election campaign have hitherto gone almost unopposed. Adivasi communities in central and eastern parts need to stand together, irrespective of their religious differences, to oppose a communally driven and discriminatory Act.
Note: The author thanks Jawar Bheel for his piece in Round Table India, and his help in tracing the statistical data on Scheduled Tribes from Census 2011.