Over the last few days, I’ve found myself repeatedly on the defensive—from accusations flying around about the xenophobic Northeast, that people there “just want to kick everybody out”.
Other “mainlanders” confess they are torn, wanting to understand and extend support but struggling to because they can’t align the protest there with their fight against anti-secularism.
For those of you who may still be confused, yes “mainland” India and Assam are protesting the CAA but not for the same reasons. The former are rightfully enraged over its dire implications for the Muslim community. The Assamese (not a monolithic ethnic block btw but an intricate, precarious web of over 200 tribes) are angered over how they feel it threatens their indigenous existences.
This fear doesn’t come out of nowhere. Over the decades, Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, given their proximity to Bangladesh, have seen a massive influx of migrants from across the border. In Tripura this has resulted in indigenous peoples making up only 30% of the state population, and their language Kok-Borok, being displaced to a “second” language.
Assam, which has so far accommodated over 50 lakh migrants, is concerned about drastic demographic shifts, and the impact it could have on their economy, their own indigenous cultures and languages/dialects. (Historically, linguistic undermining has already happened—with British colonial imposition of Bengali on Assam for over many decades, beginning 1836, when Assamese was outlawed from administrative, official, and educational spaces.)
The Assam Movement of the late 1970s, in which almost a thousand people lost their lives, was a fight against what was seen as a danger of being marginalised not just within the structure of the nation (which is already the case), but also within their own land. The Movement led to the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985, which legalised migrants (of any religion) who entered before 1971.
The CAA shifts the year to 2014 and violates the Accord entirely.
It’s said, of course, that the BJP, after recently conducting the NRC in Assam (on which they spent 1600 crore) found that large numbers falling out of it were Hindus, so they nullified it by the introduction of the CAA, thereby also pushing along their Hindu Rashtra agenda.
I too find the Assam Accord problematic, and the fact that detention centres are being built in Assam even more so.
But the nuance is this: that you can remain troubled by these aspects and *still* extend your empathy and support for a people who are repeatedly undermined in their attempts at self-determination.
In truth, to empathise is to see the faults of a movement and also acknowledge the context within which their fear and pain have arisen.
Faulty as these measures are, the Accord, NRC, they are an attempt to claim a semblance of localised self-determination. Also I’d like to imagine that had the CAA not been imposed the energy and effort spent opposing it could have been directed towards humanising the “illegal migrant” situation instead, to avoid the use of detention centres, for example, by helping to re-settle migrants, as India has done before with Tibetan refugees.
The resentment in the Northeast also comes from the centre historically having been all too keen to impose, viciously and violently, their political will upon a “small”, faraway people.
For decades, we experienced intense militarisation in the region. My growing up years—in Assam, in Shillong—were marked by the constant presence of the army. We were stopped for checks on the roads, our hometowns were turned into encounter zones. Endless curfew was imposed—with a slim window at 5pm for people to buy food. It was a mad, panicked rush, and I remember my grandmother rushing to the shops often to find everything out of stock.
I thought those times were finally over—that we could put the 90s behind us, and yet last week, for three days, during the protests, the airport and train stations closed, and there was no way for me to reach my parents in Shillong. If anything happened, god forbid, I could not go home. For any mainlander who has never known what that feels like—and may it remain that way—please be not quick to judge the griefs and outpourings and protests of a people who do.
Be gentle. Be patient. Read. Have many conversations. Listen to our stories. As I’ve said before, the CAA can be anti-secular as well as anti-indigenous. Empathy has this incredible ability to be expansive, to see how one thing can mean, at the same time, different things to different peoples. We have not had the same journey as yours, we carry separate historical weights. Acknowledge that. Be kind.