News and images coming from Assam submit a picture that unrest is yet again lurking at the doors after two decades of peace and stability. Deaths, mass protest, mainly by students, halting of normal life, disruption of public property, curfew, paramilitary forces’ flag march, internet blockade, tear gas, and a vivid sense of aggression in the youth signifies that the turmoil of the ‘80s and ‘90s are threatening to subsume Assam once again.
Northeast India homes 238 indigenous tribes that constitutes 26% of the region’s population. Economic backwardness, coupled with substantial racial profiling of the people, has never really helped integration of the region within the nation. Among the most detrimental impacts of the present Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 (CAB) is the perpetuation of the feeling of alienation in the region.
Northeast India has never been assured that the mainland understands its issues and concerns.
What the CAB does
The Bill was first introduced in Lok Sabha in 2016, but the first Narendra Modi government could not get the Bill passed in Rajya Sabha and it lapsed. Taking note of the protests, the revised version of the amendment has exempted certain areas in the region. While these exemptions have calmed down other areas of the northeast, massive protests are going on in Assam, particularly in the Brahmaputra valley and in Tripura.
CAB intends to grant citizenship to Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists, Jains, and Parsis, from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, who arrived in India before December 31, 2014. This enables Indian citizenship to lakhs of immigrants, who identify themselves with any of the given religions. Also, any immigrant from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh who belongs to the mentioned communities will not be deported or imprisoned even if they do not possess valid documents for their residency in India.
Earlier, the duration of the immigrants’ residency was 11 years. The amended bill has reduced it to five years. This means that immigrants from the three countries and from the mentioned religions, who have entered India before December 31, 2014, would not be treated as illegal immigrants.
Besides, the citizenship Act also makes amendments to provisions related to the Overseas Citizens of India (OCI) cardholders. As per CAB, a foreigner may register as an OCI under the 1955 Act if they are of Indian origin or the spouse of a person of Indian origin. CAB is essentially meant for the entire country; but why has the northeast, particularly Assam flared up and not the rest?
This has a long history of struggle, of violence and of loss.
This frontier region shares 4,500 km international borders with countries like Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, Nepal, and China, and is connected to the rest of the country only by a narrow 37 km long “chicken’s neck corridor”. CAB exempts certain areas in the northeast India from this provision. It would not apply to a few areas of Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram, and Tripura, which are included under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution (a provision that grants a certain degree of autonomy to tribal councils) and the area covered under the Inner Line Permit (IPL, a document that Indian citizens from other states require to enter Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and most of Nagaland.) This effectively means that Assam, which has only a few districts where the Sixth Schedule is in place and is not an ILP state, becomes the only state in the northeast where illegal Hindu migrants could potentially be settled. Though this provision covers refugees from three nations, the discontent amongst the people is that it will primarily benefit the illegal Bengali Hindu migrants from Bangladesh who have settled in “large numbers” across the northeast, particularly in Assam.
The issue of illegal immigrants is neither new nor trivial in Assam. The British colonial administration actively fostered immigration to sparsely populated Assam from other parts of India; English educated Bengalis to take up government jobs, and another set of immigrants mainly from Central India for working as labourers in the newly established tea industry.
The British in fact began to be called “Boga Bongali” (white Bengalis) by the people of Assam, expounding that there was hardly any difference between the British colonisers and the Indian Bengali population who they saw as dominating them in their own land.
Later, when modern education spread among the local youth, it ensued a challenge to the Bengali babus as they, too, vied for the same clerical jobs.
From the period of 1826 till 1872, Bengali was made the official language of the state, and was revoked after large scale protests by the Assamese intelligentsia. In 1937, during the Indian freedom movement, two leading Assamese intellectuals, Ambikagiri Roy Choudhury and Nilmoni Phukan, submitted a formal representation to Jawaharlal Nehru which stated that the Congress would get the whole-hearted support of the people of Assam only if it backed effective steps to fight the influx from Bengal; otherwise, they maintained, the Assamese intelligentsia might favour secession from India. This is the historical context.
The immigration (of both Hindu and Muslim Bengali speakers) however did not stop even after partition when Bengal was divided into West (India) and East (Pakistan) Bengal, for better economic shore. The flow reached its peak when around 8-9 million refugees were sheltered by India in 829 camps during the Bangladesh Independence war. Most of the refugees flowed and were sheltered in geographically proximate areas like Assam, Tripura, Meghalaya, and West Bengal, with the condition that they must go back.
India was a 24-year-old republic then and its economy was weak. It had to depend on the food aid from the US to feed its swarming millions. Therefore, hosting around 10 million additional people was no small task. However, there is no notable evidence that the refugees went back to their country of origin.
The status of north-eastern states of India has not been of progress and confidence before or after Independence. The demography of Tripura changing due to the immigration, sent panic waves to states like Meghalaya (which maintains a rigid policy against non-residents) and Assam.
In Assam, along with the Assamese students, many students from other communities worked hand in hand to pressurise the government to “detect, disenfranchise and deport” the illegal immigrants who, according to them, were the greatest obstacle to the prosperity of the indigenous people. This led to the six years long Assam Movement (1979-85). The Assam Accord signed to mark its end ensured the people of Assam could detect and deport illegal immigrants, thus safeguarding the political and demographic identity of the indigenous people. Updation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) was part of the accord.
To say that the process of updating the NRC in Assam during 2018-19 (last done in 1951) is accurate, will be incorrect. Names of several bonafide citizens have been found missing from the final draft. But that does not deplete the importance of the exercise. The fact that update of the register was much demanded and eagerly awaited by the people of Assam is evident from the fact that there has been no communal or other resistance before and after the publication. The NRC must be seen as a mandate of the people of Assam and the directive of the Supreme Court of India to complete a long pending task.
The difficulty of the established ideologies to evaluate this struggle of northeast India through any familiar lens makes the region combat its concerns alone. The protestors are not enthused by Hindu-Muslim rivalry, nor are they espousing any one language over another. This protest that is faceless, leaderless, organisation-less can best be described as a mass struggle of the common people to uphold the sovereignty and economy of the region against the onslaught of hegemonic federal government.
In other words, the northeast simultaneously rejects the idea of Hindu rashtra and Muslim appeasement. For this reason, perhaps, the people have not been able to garner much support or empathy from any ideology, political or intellectual. The people blame the Congress for allowing infiltration as they blame the BJP for trying to legitimise a section of them.
The Assam accord, with its promise to “safeguard Assamese culture”, had opened a pandora’s box and made several ethnic groups of the state insecure. The present Prime Minister and Home Minister in their attempt to pacify the protestors are repeatedly assuring the “Assamese” that their rights will be safeguarded by CAB. It is a perilous proposition. And I purport it emerges from ignorance about the region. Northeast, Assam included, is a land of several beautiful people who have maintained their cultural uniqueness across time. The Hindu-Muslim binary, one language one culture imagination does not stand here. It is high time mainland India takes interest and attempts to understand the region and the people that is India’s northeast.
Dr Bitasta Das is a faculty at the Centre for Society and Policy at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru. Views expressed are the author’s own.