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CAA Has Demonstrated Again Why the One-Size-Fits-All Approach Does Not Work in Northeast

The violent deaths of two non-tribal residents at Ichamati township in East Khasi Hill District, Meghalaya, near the Indo-Bangladesh border on March 27 following an anti-CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019) rally organised by the local wing of the Khasi Students Union, KSU, should serve as a wakeup call as to how sensitive the issue of immigration is in the Northeast. It should also be a reminder that concerns here are not always congruent with those in the rest of the country, therefore one-size-fits-all policies can likely backfire. The two victims, Ishan Singh and Suji Dutta, were apparently stoned to death not long after the rally concluded.

The controversial CAA was pushed strongly in the runup to the last Parliamentary election in April-May 2019 by the ruling BJP and passed by Parliament on December 11 the same year only months after the party returned to power with a resounding mandate. On the eve of another election now, CAA has been notified for promulgation from March 11. Expectedly, the move is being met with celebrations as well as protests in different parts of the country, although it must be added that unlike the last time, this time around there is a sense of resignation amongst those opposed to the Act, and their protest is rather muted.

Judging by its timing, as well as the results of the last Lok Sabha election, this sharp and emotive divide seems calculated to benefit the ruling party in consolidating its nationalist Hindu vote base with an image of not hesitating from tough decisions. CAA amends the Citizenship Act, 1955, to make the route to Indian citizenship faster and easier for Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, but makes no mention of Muslim migrants. The act relaxes the 11-year residence requirement under Citizenship Act, 1955, to five years for migrants belonging to the specified category who entered the country before December 31, 2014, to become naturalised Indian citizens.

While the celebrations among migrants whose statelessness is promised a quicker and honourable resolution is natural, the objection to it is much more complex. As for instance, if the protest against CAA elsewhere in the country is largely about a perceived discrimination against Muslims migrants, thereby giving Indian citizenship a colour of religious nationalism, this cannot be said of the Northeast, in particular Assam and other states which were once part of it. Meghalaya is one of these. People here are less discriminate and want all immigrants out regardless of religion.

The angst over inflow of migrants is endemic in the Northeast. The popular explanation is, ethnic communities here, with exception of a few, are demographically tiny and vulnerable of being marginalised by influx of communities far superior in number. Few have empathised more with this predicament than Nari Rushtomji, a civil servant in the crucial years before and after Independence. In his Imperilled Frontiers: India’s North-Eastern Borderlands, while acknowledging the inevitability and universality of the march of development and population movements, he pleads that these changes be regulated to ensure these small communities are able to absorb the changes without detriment to their own social organisms. When this is not so, Rushtomji rightly predicted, the consequence will be social frictions.

In Assam this apprehension is most profound and complex. Though not in watertight compartments, the state is today geographically and linguistically divided between its Brahmaputra valley and Barak valley. Assamese speakers in the former valley are generally opposed to CAA, while Bengali Hindus in the latter welcome it. The 6-year “anti-foreigner” Assam Agitation which concluded with the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985, was a high point of this friction.

There have been other tragic flashpoints in its history. The Sylhet Referendum on the eve of Indian independence is one. When the Radcliff Line was being drawn to decide the extent of East Pakistan in this sector, the hope of Hindus in Sylhet province of being awarded to India was to be treated as part of Assam. However, Assamese leadership at the time, nurturing hurts of Bengali dominance during British days, refused this for Assam with Sylhet, would become Bengali majority.

History of colonial Assam, which then was almost the entire Northeast, should provide some answers. Assam was annexed by the British and merged with Bengal after the Treaty of Yandaboo 1826, signed between the British and the Burmese after the latter’s occupation of Assam and Manipur was militarily ended by the former. Assam then was backward and largely unfamiliar with British administration, therefore the latter brought in educated middleclass Hindu Bengalis well acquainted with the British system, largely from Sylhet district to run their bureaucracy.

This Bengali middleclass came to dominate Assam affairs, and treated the Assamese with a measure of condensation. In 1937 they even influenced the British to make Bengali the official language of Assam, arguing Assamese was a dialect of Bengali. The nascent Assamese middleclass then did little but the seeds for future conflicts were sown. As the Assamese middleclass strengthened, resistance grew. In 1873 they caused the Assamese language to be restored as the official language in five districts in the Brahmaputra valley. The following year Assam was also separated from Bengal to become a chief commissioner’s province.

There were also Bengali Muslim peasants flooding into Assam but this peasantry came with no superiority baggage and initially had no trouble integrating with the Assamese society, identifying themselves as Assamese speakers. But this was destined to change. As the Indian freedom struggle intensified and acquired the face of a rivalry of religious nationalisms between Muslims and Hindus, in Assam this manifested as a unique triangular fight – a clash of linguistic nationalism between Assamese and Bengali speakers, as well as of religious nationalism between Hindus and Muslims. The undercurrents of the former rivalry remain strong even today.

This long and bitter history of rivalry between many ethnic sub-nationalities cannot be easily dismissed as anachronistic. A deeper reconciliation would have to begin from an understanding of citizenship free of nationalistic colours with premium on consensual and need-based rights, first on the broader canvas of the nation, and then the regions as well. Failing this, the potential for periodic and ugly frictions, such as the one promising to explode again in the wake of CAA, will continue to fester.

This article was first published in The New Indian Express. The original can be read HERE

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