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Frustrations Flare in India’s Northeast Over Citizenship Bill

Protests, internet blackouts, and curfews in India’s Northeast followed passage of the Citizenship Amendment Bill. 

By Nicholas Muller for
Frustrations Flare in India’s Northeast Over Citizenship Bill

Graffiti in Guwahati, Assam against the Citizenship Amendment Bill passed in the Indian Parliament last week.

Credit: Nicholas Muller
Frustrations Flare in India’s Northeast Over Citizenship Bill

The first day of the strike against the Citizenship Amendment Bill in Imphal, Manipur.

Credit: Nicholas Muller
Frustrations Flare in India’s Northeast Over Citizenship Bill

Military checkpoints as night falls on the first day of protest in Imphal, Manipur. Subsequent protests followed throughout the Indian Northeast.

Credit: Nicholas Muller
Frustrations Flare in India’s Northeast Over Citizenship Bill

Two women in the Dimapur railway station at the edge of Assam line up for food after transport links in and out of Assam were suspended indefinitely.

Credit: Nicholas Muller
Frustrations Flare in India’s Northeast Over Citizenship Bill

Newspapers hang on one of the central streets in Guwahati, Assam. They have become even more essential for local people to understand what is going on after the internet was cut off.

Credit: Nicholas Muller
Frustrations Flare in India’s Northeast Over Citizenship Bill

Thousands of people have been stranded at the railway station in Guwahati, Assam after ground transport links were suspended indefinitely. Many have resorted to sleeping on the train platforms.

Credit: Nicholas Muller
Frustrations Flare in India’s Northeast Over Citizenship Bill

All trains have been cancelled eastward from Guwahati throwing the area into chaos and uncertainty for passengers trying to return home.

Credit: Nicholas Muller
Frustrations Flare in India’s Northeast Over Citizenship Bill

Several military platoons were deployed to Assam to quell protests and have also resorted to sleeping in the railway station.

Credit: Nicholas Muller
Frustrations Flare in India’s Northeast Over Citizenship Bill

A banner hangs supporting the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (Bill) in Guwahati, Assam.

Credit: Nicholas Muller
Frustrations Flare in India’s Northeast Over Citizenship Bill

Children play cricket on a side street next to the railway station as they wait to go back home.

Credit: Nicholas Muller
Frustrations Flare in India’s Northeast Over Citizenship Bill

Military and police deployed to Guwahati patrol one of the main streets of the city on Saturday.

Credit: Nicholas Muller
Frustrations Flare in India’s Northeast Over Citizenship Bill

An officer takes a break from patrol duty for a shave on one of Guwahati’s main streets.

Credit: Nicholas Muller
Frustrations Flare in India’s Northeast Over Citizenship Bill

An area of Guwahati with several mosques. The Muslim community in Assam sees the CAB legislation as directly targeting them.

Credit: Nicholas Muller
Frustrations Flare in India’s Northeast Over Citizenship Bill

A man selling bananas reads the local paper in Guwahati, Assam. Internet cuts in the state have left people reliant on information from local press.

Credit: Nicholas Muller
Frustrations Flare in India’s Northeast Over Citizenship Bill

A mural painted on a wall in Guwahati, Assam for the planned Japanese prime minister’s visit. Due to the unrest, the summit was cancelled.

Credit: Nicholas Muller

Zointo from Arunachal Pradesh has been stuck in Guwahati for days. All ground transport links to and from Assam remain paralyzed, leaving thousands stranded in the city.  Thousands have been left stuck at railway stations in Guwahati and Dibrugarh in the state of Assam and in adjacent Dimapur, Nagaland. 

The crippling of transport networks is expected to continue through the week. Meanwhile, curfews have only been lifted for some areas today and internet services remain cut off.

“The train has been stuck for days and I have no idea how I’ll get back home. This is the first time we have experienced something like this. It happened so suddenly, ” Zointo says. 

Since last Tuesday’s passing of the controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill in India’s parliament, student-led protests have been met with a stiff military and police response on the streets of Assam and throughout the Northeast. An internet shutdown has continued to remain in effect for the state, and in Tripura and Meghalaya. 

Critics of the cutoff have said that banning the internet only complicates the problem and will further inflame tensions in the state. 

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted, “I want to assure my brothers and sisters of Assam that they have nothing to worry after the passing of #CAB. I want to assure them- no one can take away your rights, unique identity and beautiful culture. It will continue to flourish and grow.”

The Indian National Congress responded, “Our brothers & sisters in Assam cannot read your ‘reassuring’ message Modiji, in case you’ve forgotten, their internet has been cut off.”

Traveling by rail from Chandigarh, Zointo and thousands like him have been stuck in Assam without any way to get home. Those who can afford to pay for inflated hotel prices wait there while the rest sleep at the train station in any open space and on the platforms themselves. Those with the means to leave have bought plane tickets at steep mark-ups, or even paid for helicopter services to get back home. 

Buses and trains in the region were set on fire and two stations in Assam were burned, leading authorities to cut all transport links. Troops were then deployed in Assam and neighboring Tripura, which has resulted in at least six deaths since protests began last week. 

Protests and violence have subsequently spread beyond the Indian Northeast to West Bengal, New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Hyderabad. Protests resumed on Monday. 

Today, Modi wrote on Twitter that  “I want to unequivocally assure my fellow Indians that CAA does not affect any citizen of India of any religion. No Indian has anything to worry regarding this Act. This Act is only for those who have faced years of persecution outside and have no other place to go except India.”

The Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB), introduced by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, seeks to provide citizenship to non-Muslim “persecuted” religious minorities from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Critics have slammed the bill as overt discrimination targeted squarely at Muslims, as questionable constitutionally, and as an attack on India’s secular traditions. 

Approximately one-third of Assam’s population of 32 million is Muslim, second only to Indian-administered Kashmir. India’s Muslim population is the world’s second largest and has the world’s largest Muslim minority population.  Yet anti-Muslim rhetoric is on the rise.

The bill was one of Modi and the BJP’s campaign promises in his bid for a second term earlier this year. It follows the controversial measures of wiping out the statehood of Jammu and Kashmir at the beginning of August, and the NRC law in Assam, where millions have had to prove with physical documents that they were Indian citizens before the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. 1.9 million were unable to provide proper documents to prove they were Indian citizens. This count included many Hindus who were left off the list, to which BJP officials responded by calling the survey riddled with errors. BJP officials in Assam looked for a fix to solve the issue, offering exemptions to Hindus unable to produce proper citizenship documentation.

The CAB is seen as another way to solve the problem. The bill passed by Parliament last week allows any Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist, Christian, or Parsi to stay in India and attain citizenship regardless of their current immigration status if they came into India from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, or Pakistan before December 31, 2014. Muslims were excluded from the bill. 

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The common sentiment in India’s Northeast, particularly in Assam and Tripura, is that the CAB law would radically alter the religious and ethnic composition of their regions if Hindus from neighboring Bangladesh would be allowed to migrate there. Currently the Northeast is home to more than 230 indigenous groups.

The region has seen a backlash to the fear of “invasion” by Bengali-speaking Bangladeshi immigrants before. After the independence of Bangladesh in 1971, residents in Assam protested for six years in the 1980s against “foreigners.” Hundreds of people were murdered. The violence eventually ended in a 1985 agreement, which said that anyone who had entered Assam after March 24, 1971 without legal documents would be declared a foreigner and subsequently deported. Assamese protesters look at the new law as a backtrack on promises by the BJP to deport illegal immigrants; Bengali Hindus are upset because they have been caught up in the NRC survey as non-citizens; and Muslims view the law as explicitly targeting them.  

The NRC Bill

Spearheaded by Amit Shah, India’s home minister,  and the ruling BJP, the Hindu nationalists have promised to carry out the NRC nationally, leaving many Indian Muslims distressed about their future. In April, Shah called “illegal immigrants” “termites.” Modi has accused the opposition Congress party of spreading fear and said Indian citizens should not be alarmed by the new citizenship law, which focuses on migrants.

Nearly 2 million people were left off the list at the end of August, and are still at risk of losing their citizenship, being deported, or being sent into detention centers currently being built for those unable to provide the required documents. Many do not have the ability to prove they are citizens; some are illiterate and others do not have the means to obtain proper legal representation. This statewide survey was intended to identify undocumented Bangladeshi immigrants who had crossed into India, but many Indian citizens have also been affected by the law. 

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has said, “We are concerned that India’s new Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 is fundamentally discriminatory in nature. We hope the Supreme Court of #India will consider carefully the compatibility of the law with India’s international human rights obligations.” 

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom called for sanctions on India if the CAB passed, calling the bill a “dangerous turn in the wrong direction.” The  U.S., U.K., and France have issued travel advisories for their citizens traveling to India.

Last Thursday, Bangladeshi Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen cancelled a three-day visit to India. The next day, a planned summit in Guwahati, Assam set for December 15-17 between Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was cancelled in the wake of the massive protests.

The CAB law has not yet been finalized by Modi but is expected to be signed this week. Five states have publicly come out against the law, stating they would not implement it, including the Chief Minister of West Bengal Mamata Banerjee. Apart from Banerjee, chief ministers from Punjab, Kerala, Chhattisgarh, and Madhya Pradesh have also stated their refusal to implement the law. The Indian Union Muslim League has also called for the India’s Supreme Court to strike the CAB law down as unconstiutional. 

Nicholas Muller is an American photojournalist and writer.