CAB protests: Will NESO chief join mainstream politics as Northeast boils?

Samuel B Jyrwa, North East Students Organisation (NESO) president. Illustration: Binay Sinha
The North-eastern states have erupted in protests this week after both Houses of Parliament cleared the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Bill.  Ripples of anger have spread across a population — as is often the case in a region where the ruling National Democratic Alliance now has a lion’s share of the MPs (18 out of 25) — by students. This is more so in the absence of influential politicians in the Opposition who can give a voice to their concerns.

The protests have been largely scattered and leaderless, with a native population which harbours a perennial fear of foreign immigrants taking over their land spontaneously pouring into the streets. Among the many players, the North East Students Organisation (NESO) has emerged as one of the principal players behind the agitation, which it initiated when the Bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha in July 2016.

And the person helming the umbrella outfit is its chairman, Samuel B Jyrwa.

A graduate in economics from St Anthony’s College in Shillong, Meghalaya, Jyrwa, 45, has been associated with student politics for nearly three decades. He was with the powerful Khasi Students Union (KSU), where he was president from 2002 to 2012. Initially, he served as the publicity secretary of NESO. In 2012, he was chosen chairman of NESO. Jyrwa is a contractor for private construction firms. He married after his exit from the KSU and has a three-year-old daughter. The KSU came into being in 1978, so as he grew up in a family of government employees — his father was in the accountant general’s office, and his mother was in the health department — he was witness to the influence of student-led politics for the Khasi community. “Right from our childhood, we have seen how the KSU has been trying to protect our people,” he says.

One of the major concerns for the student body has been the influx of people from Bangladesh. It also focuses on include student welfare, educational infrastructure and community health. Since the 1980s, the KSU has also been actively opposed to proposed uranium mining in the Khasi Hills — an issue that melds fears of negative health impacts as well as opening the door for migrant workers from outside the state.

The North East Students’ Coordination Committee, which was formed at the turn of the 1990s, was rechristened as NESO in 1993. It is a coordinating body of all the apex student outfits in the states of north east except for Sikkim. Of its eight members, two are from Meghalaya including the Garo Students Union. The rest include the Naga Students Federation, the All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union, the All Manipur Students’ Union, the Twipra Students’ Federation and Mizo Zirlai Pawl. Each of these “component organisations” nominates one person to represent them in NESO.

“NESO is working through component organisations on the ground. We have been able to evolve a united voice against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill even though the government of India has tried to divide the northeastern people by exempting Sixth Schedule areas and states which require the ILP [inner line permit], and bringing Manipur under the ILP system,” Jyrwa says.

After the Bill was referred to a joint parliamentary committee that was formed in 2016, leaders of All Assam Students’ Union as well as NESO met with it in subsequent years. The committee submitted a report in Parliament this January. The north-east flared up in protests, although not as intense and widespread as the current agitations. The Bill lapsed after failing to get approval in the Rajya Sabha.

NESO had led protests in January, and it has been holding public meetings to stress that the Bill is against the interests of the people. The Bill makes illegal migrants, who are Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, who entered India on or before December 31, 2014, eligible for Indian citizenship. “People from other countries might come tomorrow, but they can easily say that they came 10 years ago. For someone who has no document, how do you determine whether he migrated today or 20 years ago?” asks Jyrwa.

As the protests turn violent, he rues the lack of all-round backing from the region’s representatives in Parliament over the Bill. “It’s very sad that our political representatives toe the line of their alliances. Those who are its allies vote with the government, irrespective of whether it affects their lives and their people’s future or not. This is how people are getting provoked to come out on the streets. “Their mind is already made up. They want to push the agenda of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which is to Hinduise the whole of India including the north-east,” he says, adding that NESO will move the Supreme Court as “it is our last hope to get justice.”

Is this a sign that Jyrwa, who joined student politics in 1991 as an eleventh grader, will join mainstream politics? As he explains it, “Student organisations in the northeast are not aligned to political parties directly, unlike in the rest of India, but they are based on ethnicities.” He admits that some student leaders may have made the transition to join active politics, but denies giving it a serious thought himself so far. But he is quick to add: “If the situation demands that we join politics, we’ll see.”

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