The Citizenship Amendment Act and the Northeast exceptionalism
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
THE PASSAGE OF the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) sparked spontaneous protests across the North-eastern states, particularly in Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura. Nagaland, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh were exempted from the CAA by virtue of having the Inner Line Permit (ILP) while Manipur was promised the ILP regime and was granted the same in great haste, recently. This left Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura, three states sharing the longest borders with Bangladesh.
Bangladesh and India share a 4,156-km-long international border, the fifth-longest land border in the world. Of this, 262 km is with Assam, 856 km with Tripura, 180 km with Mizoram, 443 km with Meghalaya and 2,217 km with West Bengal. This happened on account of the post-Partition division of the province of Bengal. Since East Bengal had a Muslim majority population, it was ceded to Pakistan and became East Pakistan. During the 1971 war, when India involved itself in the liberation and creation of Bangladesh, waves of Hindu migrants entered India and settled in Assam. At the time, Meghalaya was part of the United Khasi and Jaintia Hills of Assam. Bengali refugees fleeing persecution from the Pakistani army were settled in what is now called the Relief and Rehabilitation Colony (RR Colony) in Shillong, the present capital of Meghalaya which became a state in 1972.
Illegal migration from Bangladesh is unstoppable and Northeast India is its natural destination. Assam has borne the brunt of this migration, coined as ‘the Silent War’. It led to the Assam Movement that lasted six years and ended with the Assam Accord in 1985. Over 855 people died during this period and the education of many suffered under this prolonged agitation. Life was greatly disrupted. The passage of the CAA has revived these old wounds. The day the CAA was passed, Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura erupted in massive spontaneous protests, not fuelled by any political party as alleged. Very old women, who could hardly walk, came out to show their resentment against an Act they believe has the potential to upset the demographic balance of Assam. Assam has seen migration first from East Bengal, then East Pakistan and later Bangladesh—and people continue to cross over in the darkness of night by bribing the Border Guards Bangladesh (formerly the Bangladesh Rifles) or the Border Security Force of India. That truckloads of cattle continue to be smuggled across the porous borders should tell us that crossing over is not really difficult. A visit to Bholaganj, in the East Khasi Hills, Meghalaya, would reveal that the border fencing is a farce. The barbed wire fences along long stretches of the border collapsed during the floods and have not been repaired. In fact, the areas around Bholaganj resemble a Bangladeshi settlement. It is this encroachment that troubles the people of Meghalaya and in which politicians fish for votes by creating a fear psychosis that Khasis of Meghalaya would become a minority in their homeland. Nothing provokes as much anger and resentment in Meghalaya as the prospect of becoming another Tripura.
In 1979, Meghalaya saw a communal conflict where Bengali-speaking people were targeted. After that, fomenting trouble became regular, especially close to the Durga Puja celebrations. This scared non-Tribals as they would be the soft targets every time. The fear psychosis continues. Even today, in the context of the CAA protests, groups of miscreants go on a rampage and burn vehicles or destroy public property and attack small vendors. For non-Tribals at the receiving end of such hate crimes, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) became the muscular defender of their rights as Indian citizens. Hence, it was not surprising that many supported the CAA which, for them, is a protective mechanism.
In Assam, the movement that ended with the Assam Accord signed between the leaders of the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and the Rajiv Gandhi Government has had its share of disillusionment. The premise for that agitation was to identify and deport all foreign nationals, taking March 1971 as the cutoff year. On October 15th, 1983, the Government passed an ordinance to set up tribunals ‘for determination of the question whether a person is or is not an illegal migrant’. On December 12th, 1983, the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act (IMDT Act) was introduced and passed in Parliament. It applied only to the state of Assam. In other states, detection of foreigners was done under the Foreigners Act, 1946. Ironically, there was no member in Lok Sabha from Assam’s Brahmaputra Valley when the Act was passed, since elections could not be held in the state in 1980.
Under the IMDT Act, the onus of proving one’s nationality or otherwise lay on the complainant whereas, under the Foreigners Act, the onus is on the accused. The IMDT Act, therefore, made it very difficult for any illegal migrant to be detected, much less deported, since the tedious process of following up complaints was the responsibility of the police. In other words, illegal immigrants from Bangladesh escaped the provisions of the IMDT Act for the simple reason that each time they were reported to the Assam police, they shifted to another location, becoming untraceable. Also, unlike the Foreigners Act, the IMDT Act didn’t arm the state police with powers of search and seizure. According to this Act, an illegal migrant is a person who: entered India on or after March 25th, 1971; was a foreigner; and entered India without being in possession of a valid passport or other travel documents or any other legal authority. According to Clauses 4 and 9 of the IMDT Act, those who came before March 25th, 1971, would not come under the purview of the Act as such cases had been ‘left for negotiations’. In 2005, the IMDT Act was struck down and the Supreme Court ordered that all cases pending before the IMDT tribunals be dealt with by tribunals under the Foreigners Act.
For a region that has just come out of conflicts driven by secessionist and other separatist ideas since independence, the CAA has just rekindled old questions
Several attempts were made by the AASU to push for the National Register of Citizens (NRC) of 1951 to be updated in Assam but their efforts were rebuffed. In 2013, a petitioner, Assam Public Works, petitioned the Supreme Court. That was when the apex court ordered that the NRC be updated for Assam. It took several years and missed deadlines before the final NRC was completed on August 31st, 2019. As many as 1.9 million people did not make it to the list for want of legacy documents. What’s interesting is that the state government and the Centre then declared the whole exercise practically null and void. It cost the exchequer almost Rs 1,220 crore, took 34 years and with over 855 lives lost. There are many reasons why the NRC was rejected. Figures floating around put the number of illegal migrants at 6 million, most of them Bangladeshi Muslims. But at 1.9 million, with many of them Hindu Bengalis and the BJP’s potential vote bank, there was no way they would or could be deported. For the AASU, however, every illegal migrant must be deported irrespective of religion. Hence, the strong reaction to the CAA which seeks to give citizenship to persecuted Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Parsis, Buddhists and Jains from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. There could not have been a more blatant use of religion for votes as has been done with the CAA. And the AASU, already at the end of its tether, would not accept it. Samujjal Bhattacharya, who had given his youth and adulthood to lead and mentor the AASU, is an amiable man: “We cannot allow CAA under any circumstances. They cannot play with the future of the indigenous people of Assam. We will fight CAA tooth and nail.” The ongoing strikes and rallies actually speak volumes about the goodwill that the AASU still commands among the masses.
To understand the Northeast—a geographical construct for seven dynamic states, each populated by a variety of ethnic communities, each valuing its culture, tradition, food habits, clan and kinship ties, etcetera—one may read BG Verghese’s India’s Northeast Resurgent, which explains much of the conundrum that the region is. With 238 ethnic groups, each possessive of their culture and juxtaposed against the idea of the ‘nation’, one which is imagined as a huge country with a majority Hindu population, the complexities are difficult to negotiate. The tribes are largely Christian and insular. The pressure to find work pushes them out of their comfort zones. Indeed, the world outside their cocoon is not full of promises but a place one must venture into for a ‘job’ since the cocoon can only nurture them for a limited period. Politicians have capitalised on this complexity by promoting identity politics which narrows down the prism of governance to ‘conserving the identity and customary practices of the group which are under threat from the world outside the cocoon’. That is enough to win votes: people don’t ask for more; and development does not fetch votes in the Northeast. Votes are cast for candidates’ ability to create emotive narratives and that always boils down to the fear of the ‘outsider’. The CAA is seen as a threat to the life inside the cocoon that now fears being blown apart by an alien religion. This is how ethnocentrism survives and is perpetuated. But it is also true that India’s Northeast is a country, nay, several countries, whose destinies are entwined with that of the Indian nation that is still sought to be understood and reinterpreted.
BENEDICT ANDERSON, IN Imagined Communities (1983), says that in an age when it is common for progressive cosmopolitan intellectuals to insist on the near pathological character of nationalism, its roots in fear and hatred of the ‘Other’ and its affinities with racism, it is useful to remind ourselves that nations can also inspire love and often self-sacrificing love. Anderson avers that the cultural products of nationalism—poetry, prose, fiction, music—exhibit this love. But this love also co-exists with fear and loathing of the ‘Other’. It is in this conflicting cosmos that the Northeast and its people reside, continually negotiating traits about ‘India’ that they admire and certain other cultural aspects they ridicule and would rather not imbibe. Indeed, Northeast India, only 8 per cent of the country’s geographical area, with a population of a little over 45 million, just 3.76 per cent of India’s population, is very little understood. For this region, to be faced with the possibility of having to allow aliens from other countries to settle in their territories is a devastating thought, even if those persecuted could be fellow Christians or Buddhists and not necessarily Hindu.
For instance, the people of Arunachal Pradesh resist allowing citizenship for Chakmas who live on the fringes of the state as refugees. The people of Mizoram have been resisting settlement of Brus and Reangs from the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh. Brus and Reangs now live in refugee camps in Tripura. And Tripura itself is a state where the indigenous people are reduced to a mere 31 per cent of the population, having been overrun by waves of illegal migration from East Pakistan and Bangladesh. Pradyot Debbarma, of the former royal house of Tripura, has filed a case in the Supreme Court asking that an NRC be carried out in his state since it is his firm belief that the present Chief Minister of Tripura is a Bangladeshi national—as are allegedly the Advocate General and other leading figures who run the state administration. He has also challenged the CAA in the apex court.
The CAA is seen as a threat to the life inside the cocoon that now fears being blown apart by an alien religion. This is how ethnocentrism survives and is perpetuated
The protests in other parts of India are different from those in the Northeast. The Northeast protesters have decided that their respective states have borne the brunt of migration, and they don’t care what religion the migrants belong to, but that their states should be exempted from the CAA. In Meghalaya and Assam, the Sixth Schedule Areas have been exempted from the CAA. But in Shillong, there is a 10-sq-km area under the Shillong municipality and the cantonment called the European Ward where the CAA would be applicable. Hence, the state government is now demanding the ILP. The argument is that if the new citizens are settled in the European Ward, it is inevitable that the population would spill over to the Scheduled Areas, as is already happening. This is what people fear the most.
Interestingly, what surprises the BJP about the protests is that the amendment to the citizenship law was in its 2019 election manifesto. Then why did the people in Assam vote BJP and why did the people in the other Tribal states vote for parties that are constituents of the National Democratic Alliance, such as the National People’s Party in Meghalaya or the Nagaland Democratic People’s Party in Nagaland? The same goes for Mizoram and Tripura. How did the BJP’s masterstroke of using religion to cultivate vote bank politics succeed in the Northeast? This is difficult to figure out.
For a region that has just come out of conflicts driven by secessionist and other separatist ideas since Independence, the CAA has just rekindled old questions—whether ‘India’ really understands the Northeast and whether ‘India’ cares what happens to this region connected to the country by a 20-km-long chicken’s neck. That sense of alienation has been revived and it will take some reassurance before the dust settles down. It is intuitive that Prime Minister Narendra Modi makes repeated claims that under his Government the Northeast has received special attention. Perhaps it has. Many of the long-pending projects have been completed. Guwahati was to be the venue for a conclave on the Act East policy where Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would have been present. The meet has been deferred, even as the people of the Northeast try to figure out their roles in the policy. Right now, the region is on the boil and Act East is a far cry from the current state of affairs.