Indian Nepalis alarmed by Citizenship Amendment Bill


After India recently amended its laws regarding citizenship, Nepalis living in Northeast India are terrified. Both of India’s Upper and Lower Houses of Parliament passed the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) which tightens laws regarding citizenship.

Assam’s National Register of Citizens (NRC), published on 31 August 2019, generated protests all over India because it was missing 1.9 million residents. About 100,000 Nepalis, whose ancestors have been living in the northeast Indian state for up to 200 years, were among those excluded from the list for technical reasons like marriage, migration, differences in last name, mistakes or lost documents. They are now terrified that they will not be counted as Indian citizens. They are listed as ‘D Voters’ meaning ‘Doubtful’ Voters.

In November, Indian Home Minister Amit Shah declared in parliament that the list would be expanded over the entire country, and his ruling BJP appears determined to implement NRC countrywide. It has amended the constitution and got CAB passed by both Houses which will make it easier to implement the NRC, which will ultimately affect the status of Indians of Nepali origin at present and future.

Since 1951, Assam has been the only Indian state to have created and updated its register of citizens. The NRC is said to be an attempt to discover ‘foreigners’ residing illegally in the state. The concept of the NRC came up in 1951, after India became independent and held its first census. Its purpose later was to differentiate between Assam natives and Bangladeshi refugees.

During British rule, many people from Bihar, Bengal and Nepal migrated to Assam to work on its tea estates and settle on empty land. After Partition and the breakup of Pakistan there was a large influx of as many as 1 million refugees from Bangladesh, first due to the language struggle and crackdowns by the Pakistan Army in 1971. After Bangladesh became independent some returned home, but many stayed on in Assam.

The Citizenship Amendment Bill makes it easier to implement the NRC across the country. Opposition parties are protesting strongly against it, and a dozen people have been killed in violent demonstrations across the country. The Indian National Congress and the Mamata Banerjee-led All India Trinamool Congress and the Marxist Communist Party are spearheading the protests, but many of the student demonstrations in universities have been spontaneous.

Protestors claim the bill undermines India’s democratic system and secularism. CAB has provisions to provide citizenship to Hindu, Christian, Sikh, Persian, Jain and Buddhist refugees who have fled persecution in the neighbouring countries of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, but denies Muslims the same facility. Many also fear that the bill endangers the identity, language and culture of the natives of Assam and neighbouring state, Tripura.

Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of West Bengal, has already declared that she will not let the NRC be implemented in West Bengal. People in northeast states including Assam, Tripura, Sikkim and Darjeeling, have held many protests against the bill.

Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland in Northeast India are exempted from the bill because they are restricted states, where even Indian visitors need permits to enter. That ‘Innerline Permit’ will also be implemented in Manipur eventually. But Sikkim falls under the new law, which has created confusion.

Sikkim was a sovereign country until 1975, becoming India’s 22nd state after annexation in 1975. Sikkim Chief Minister PS Gole has declared that the CAB and NRC will not be implemented in the state. Supported by Sikkim’s opposition parties, he has requested the Indian government to also exempt Sikkim.

In Darjeeling, the Vinay Tamang and Anit Thapa-led Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM), and the Dr Harkabahadur Chhetri-led Jana Andolan party have opposed the CAB, but the Gorkha Rashtriya Mukti Morcha and another faction of the GJM support both CAB and NRC.

When he presented the CAB in parliament, Home Minister Shah claimed that all those who were excluded from Assam’s NRC were infiltrators, not Indian citizens. The GJM’s Tamang issued a press statement refuting that allegation, and demanded that before the NRC is implemented Indian Nepalis  should be included in the list of ‘Original Inhabitants of India’ and be a protected community.

Nepalis have been living in Indian states like Darjeeling and Assam for more than 200 years, working on tea estates and farms. In fact, Nepali speakers are better settled in northeast India than many Bengali speakers, but many of the Nepalis do not yet have land deeds and it will be even more difficult for them to get the rights if the NRC is implemented.

The 1950 Nepal-India treaty gave Nepali and Indian citizens the right to freely come and go in each other’s countries, although India requires visas from Bangladeshis and Pakistanis. The issue of the identity of Indians of Nepali origin has fuelled an agitation for autonomy in the Darjeeling hills for many years. Subhas Ghising proposed that they be called ‘Gorkha’ to differentiate them from Nepali citizens. But this is not legally, or widely, accepted. There are no Nepali refugees in India.

During the election campaign, Home Minister Shah assured people that the NRC would not affect ‘Gorkhas’. But they are still confused regarding citizenship bill and register. The Nepalis of Assam, where the NRC has been implemented, are especially concerned about how to be counted as Indian citizens.