#VeewonThokchom: Citizenship Bill is terrifying, we have to remain vigilant

Armstrong Chanambam | Feb 26, 2019 | 6 min read


A week ago, Veewon Thokchom, ex-president of Manipur Students’ Association Delhi (MSAD), did not know if he would see his family again — he was picked up from his rented home in the national capital last Thursday by eight plain-clothed men, who had no ID or arrest warrant to show his family members; it was only after his brother lodged a missing person complaint at the local police station that they found out that the student activist had been arrested on the charge of sedition, but allegedly without the authorities following due procedure.

Thokchom, who has been extremely vocal about his criticism of the government over its move to enact the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, had reportedly been arrested over a Facebook post he had shared during the height of protests in the Northeast against the contentious law.

Now out on bail, he spoke to Armstrong Chanambam about the Bill, Northeast, and racism. Edited excerpts: 


Word has it that during your stint as MSAD president the association mediated to resolve the months-long deadlock between Manipur University and the state government, which saw the arrest of many students and professors. How much of it is true and what was your role in it? 

MSAD didn’t mediate... We simply resisted the Hindutva politics infiltrating the university; we saw Professor A P Pandey, the vice-chancellor, as the reason behind the university’s systemic saffronisation. Our focus was on resisting these saffron forces, not just on removing an unpopular V-C. That episode gave us solid ground for the kind of resistance we needed to save the university.


Beginning with the arrest of several students demanding the removal of Manipur University's V-C, the Manipur government, in last one year, either detained or arrested many youth. Do you know why?

BJP’s ideology is to openly claim that a Hindu Rashtra is its main political project. The state government’s foundation is weak — it was formed with the support of an independent MLA and smaller parties like the NPP and others; that makes it insecure whenever there is any protest... It is not about arresting but creating a fear psychosis, so that those wanting to protest remain intimidated and silent. Also, CM N Biren’s government here is only collaborating with the Centre — everything happening in Manipur is known in Delhi — so we can’t completely blame the state. It’s up to the government to engage in a dialogue and show that it’s pro-people and pro-students.


You’ve also raised your voice against the arbitrary detention of TV journalist Kishorechandra Wangkhem under the National Security Act (NSA). Why do you think he’s still detained? 

Because the Act itself is such! Representing MSAD, I had argued that we have to look at his detention along with the response from the people of Manipur, because only a few responded. In fact, we were the only student union in Manipur and Delhi that actually protested his arrest. The reason is Manipuris have been living under the terrifying AFSPA (Armed Forces [Special Powers] Act); so for them, NSA, in comparison, is nothing. The latter’s implications are yet to register in their minds. Also, Kishorechandra is in jail for saying something on Facebook; so, naturally, people are afraid to voice their opinion.


What prompted you to bring members of various students’ organisations all the way from Manipur, to organise a protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, right in front of Parliament?

First of all, to clarify, I didn’t bring them; they had planned to come to Delhi. MSAD, as an organisation based in the national capital, took responsibility. We have been collaborating with progressive forces, barring political parties and including civil society organisations and students’ unions. They had planned a protest in Delhi, and we played host. As we know the ground reality and the kind of protests needed in Delhi, we only shared our ideas on what ought to be done and what not. In a first, we burnt effigies of the PM and Home minister. From then on, everyone became really worried about the kind of protest we would organise next. The Bill, which seeks to change the definition of illegal migrants, is terrifying... Everyone has seen the events unfolding in Tripura. It’s not like you wake up one day and find that everyone in your state is an outsider. It’s a gradual process, like slow poisoning. It’s not about population invasion; it’s about politics, economy, culture, religion, etc. If India is so concerned about persecuted minorities around the world or in neighbouring nations, then why leave out the Rohingyas? Everyone is rushing to take credit for the Bill in Parliament... Congress will get votes in the name of secularism and BJP will get vote banks, to which it will say it brought the Bill and, if elected, will do more. Even if the Congress comes to power at the Centre, this thing will come up again… We cannot blame the BJP alone. So, we have to remain vigilant.


Are you apprehensive about the Bill’s passing, considering BJP president Amit Shah pledged to do just that if his party is re-elected?

If the BJP does do that, we will resist. We have been fighting against every form of injustice in Manipur for many decades. Manipuris, for sure, won’t stay silent if such a thing comes to pass. Also, it will be a huge mistake on Centre’s part... If the government considers us as Indians, it should show that through its actions, not by discriminating against a section of the population through such laws or Acts.


What will you do if the Bill is passed?

Right now, I don’t know… if and when the time comes, the people of Manipur will decide as one. We must go by that collective voice, not by what I want or MSAD wants.


You are preparing for your UGC-NET and for admission into an MPhil programme. What do you aspire to be?

I want to be in academia, so that I can give ideas to people. I also want to be an activist, but not to do politics around the university or sit inside seminar rooms — that isn’t the right way to bring about change; I will go out and talk to people.


Is your opposition to the Bill conditioned by your bitter personal experiences with racism and the sense of alienation you feel in your own country?

No; had that been the case, people who have lived only in Manipur all their lives wouldn’t be resisting. I have studied in different parts of the country; they haven’t seen the verbal and physical racism I have experienced. So, opposing the Bill has nothing to do with racism. But having said that, India as a nation has to have a vibrant discourse on racism, because there are 45 million Mongoloid people in this country. So, there’s a clear racial divide… If you look closely, there are all these specific policies and arrangements for people who look different; for example, Centre itself has a lot of policies only for the Northeast. I think this is where racism starts.

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