The Ichamati-Bholaganj saga

Since February this year after an activist of the Khasi Students’ Union (KSU) was murdered things have been on the boil in Ichamati-Bholaganj. The fact of the matter is that the area has a substantial non-tribal population whose ancestors have settled there much before East Pakistan was created. Now that the international boundaries are well demarcated Ichamati-Bholaganj are like an extension of Bangladesh with a large chunk of Bengali speaking non-tribal settlers and some Garo residents. Identity politics that has been the driving force behind every election since Meghalaya was created demands that the tribals establish that they are a majority in every District, Sub-division and Block.  The Indo-Bangladesh border in Ichamati-Bholaganj is as porous as it can get with the fences having come down during the floods, so illegal migration from across the Bangladesh border cannot be ruled out. But unless an individual is identified as an illegal settler for want of the necessary documents to prove his/her citizenship, no government in any country can evict such individuals and term them as “illegal migrants.”

Ever since the NDA Government mooted the idea of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) which bestows citizenship on any person belonging to the Hindu, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist faith who has lived in India until March 2014, there have been voices of dissent in the entire North Eastern region. The strongest opposition came from the North East Students’ Organisation (NESO). The students’ bodies of each state too joined the protest. But the NDA went ahead and passed the CAA but not after granting the Inner Line Permit protocol to Manipur. Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland already have the ILP and these states are exempted from the purview of the CAA. That leaves Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura out in the cold. Tripura in any case has a majority non-tribal population even while the tribes are reduced to 31.05%. And this is a flashpoint that tribal majority states like Meghalaya fear.  In December 2019 the Meghalaya Assembly was virtually coerced by pressure groups to pass a resolution to push the central government to grant Inner Line Permit regime to Meghalaya too. Since then, there has been an undercurrent of animosity towards the non-tribal settlers in Meghalaya even though many of them are permanent residents having settled here since the British period and even before that, having come here for trading purposes.

Another sore point about Ichamati-Bholaganj are the subversive attempts by certain elements to deprive the genuine non-tribal residents from carrying out their trade by depriving them of the trading license which is a  mandatory document issued by the Khasi Hills District Council (KHDC) for any non-tribal starting a business in Meghalaya or working here. The KHDC has been sitting on hundreds of such applications for months and years together without giving any reason for not issuing such licenses. To say the least, this is unconstitutional and requires state action. Now that the residents of Ichamati-Bholaganj have sought the intervention of Governor Satyapal Malik it remains to be seen whether action on this burning issue is forthcoming.

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