The unrelenting movement against the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 (CAA) reveals that the wounds of the past remain unhealed. While the CAA is an attempt at settling, to quote Sanjib Baruah, the “unfinished business” of partition, it has flared up what the indigenous people of the Northeast dread the most- the fear of being reduced to a minority. That fear is often labelled as a mere myth by some and the persistence of that myth is often ascribed to the Assamese middle class’s political agenda. However, in the case of the CAA protests, the spontaneity and intensity and consistency of the current movement signal a contrary view. It is in this light that Assam’s politics can be explained in terms of a ‘politics of resentment’, a term given by the political scientist Francis Fukuyama, in his own analyses of identity politics.This resentment is against the Centre which continues to belittle the identity concerns of the indigenous people. The former and now scrapped IMDT Act and the current CAA, in their own ways, can be seen as the materialization of such an apathetic attitude of the centre towards Assam.
Assam’s politics centres on immigration and its threat to the identity of its people. This threat in today’s context could be argued either for or against, real or perceived, but it is crucial to acknowledge that it’s evident as every time such a perception comes around, there is a spontaneity and potency of resistance. Can we label it as mass hysteria, as a lot of mainland liberals have come to make sense of it? Or is it a Sorelian myth, designed and concocted to drive the masses into action towards a deliberate political end? The secular discourse of the mainland gives us a few revelations. But before that, it is important to note how the differential politics of Assam and the other Northeastern states á la rest of India, has always baffled mainland political analysts.
A big chasm of in-difference?
Assamese nationalism has, apart from its more militarist ways, continuously expressed its resentment in legal and constitutional language- what should be the status of ‘illegal immigrants’ in a sovereign country? But the centre’s answer to such a question has often ignored the genuine concerns of the state. The conflict between the Centre and Northeast is rightly highlighted by Sanjib Baruah- when it comes to India’s policy (on immigration) there is an implicit acceptance of the rights of Hindu political refugees from East Bengal (now Bangladesh) to settle anywhere in India, on the other hand when it comes to the Northeast, there is a reluctance to make any distinction between Muslim economic migrants and Hindu political refugees. It is this conflicting pan Indian and sub-national opinion over the immigration issue that is one of the primary reasons for the current protests in the region and its difference from the protests in the mainland.
The CAA further heightens, what the anthropologist, Arjun Appadurai found in analyzing multi-ethnic societies, the “Uncertainties”. He argued that the forms of such uncertainty are various. One kind of uncertainty is a direct reflection of census concerns- How many persons of this and that sort really exist in a given territory? Another kind of uncertainty is about what some of these mega identities really mean? Further uncertainty is about whether a particular person is really what they claim to be or have historically been? Finally these various forms of uncertainties create intolerable anxiety in the relationship of many individuals to state-provided goods- since these entitlements are directly tied to who “you” are ,and thus to who “they” are. Appadurai argues that when one or more forms of such identities come into play, violence is the obvious outcome.
Coming back to present-day Assam, the state government led by the BJP came to power by co-opting indigenous or regional political parties, promising to preserve, protect and promote jati mati aru bheti , where jati is loosely translatable to the Assamese (sub) nation, mati is homeland and bheti is the hearth. Doing a complete turn-around, at least that is how it appears to most people of Assam, bypassing the fact that it had always been a core electoral promise in the BJP manifesto, it now claims that the Act will not be detrimental to Assam. However, it is not difficult to see that the CAA is nothing but a continuation of Delhi’s authoritarian attitude towards Assam. The Act aims to fulfil BJP’s idea of a Hindu Rashtra at the cost of one of its constituent regions. In this process, there is a denial of identity concerns of the people of Northeast/Assam and it is not a new phenomenon. In an attempt to assuage the current volatile political atmosphere, the BJP led state government has used various tactics- military, political and economic. The well-known journalist, Subir Bhaumik, has argued that the four principles of realpolitik statecraft propounded by Kautilya- Sham, Dam, Danda, Bhed have all been used in varying proportions, to control and contain the violent movements in the Northeast. Thus, the means adopted by the present government to suppress the movement is not unknown in the past. In fact, Assam has been reduced to a pawn in the political game of pan Indian parties. From the two major national parties’ own brand of politics (critiqued whether as minority or majoritarian) politics, the germane concerns of the Northeast have been sidelined, time and again. Unfortunately in this political game, it has often found a regional ally.
It is this continuation of Delhi’s authoritarian and apathetic attitude towards Assam, under different regimes, that is the main reason behind the persistence of the old wounds, the old fears and the old grievances. These will never die down unless a political solution is reached. Such a solution should be based on a change in the relationship between the Centre and its peripheries, by vesting certain exceptional power to the state, which is not uncommon under India’s asymmetric federal structure.
What lies beyond the Secular protests?
The CAA protests in the Northeast and the ‘mainland’ have once again brought out the sharp lines underlying the Indian Union’s and its people’s relationship with the people of Northeast India. It cannot be denied that the picture is one of people’s unities at the outset: Assam, Tripura, Meghalaya, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, and Kerala etc., as far as the protests are concerned. But the uncomfortable truth, especially for the mainland liberal, is in the fact that if Muslims are tomorrow included within the ambit of the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019, the protests in Assam or Tripura would go on unabated. In the very unlikely scenario of such an occurrence, the protests would in fact even magnify, and it will be the Northeastern states alone in the protesting field. Such a dissonance brought on by the peculiar historical context of Northeast India harking back to the colonial era, with Assam coming under the Raj as late as 1826, hangs like an albatross around the neck of every well-meaning, but confounded/ignorant, mainland liberal Indian. This in fact is the casualty of locating the CAA protests (and the NRC-NPR combination) in the Northeast, something that should not be lost sight of.
In the case of Assam, the Act has virtually meant the undoing of the Assam Accord of 1985, which is sort of a public contract between the people of Assam and the Centre, promising to solve the nationality question of Assam permanently. The deviatory and mixed statements of the ministers at the Assam state government, currently ruled by BJP led coalition, have complicated matters. It also needs to be noted that sections of intelligentsia of the Assamese people, and other indigenous and non-indigenous but permanent residents of Assam, have called the Act, to quote the editor of an Assamese daily, ‘an eternal license for the Hindus of Bangladesh to claim entry into Assam, irrespective of them facing persecution, or date of arrival (post-2014).’ This is because as the Act now stands, only an affidavit is required to be produced before the authorities for the foreign national to become a prospective citizen. A person fleeing religious persecution from Bangladesh, for all practical reasons, cannot be held accountable to produce documents to prove that s/he had arrived in Assam not later than 2014.
The historical colonial and post-colonial experience of the northeast and its impact on the demography, identity politics and conflicts in the region, is an important factor in understanding the anxiety, brought to the fore once again, by the protests against the Act. The threat posed by the CAA, whether real or imagined, can be seen as the threat perception of a cultural genocide, facing the indigenous or national minorities of the region. In this context, the words of Polish jurist Raphael Lemkin, writing in the wake of the outbreak of the Second World War, seem pertinent as far as the threat perception is concerned. He argued that genocide could also be cultural in its form, not necessarily physically eliminating a national group. He talks about the imposition of the language, culture and laws by one national group over another (usually conquered). Although, the fears of the inhabitants of Assam (especially the ethnic Assamese and the indigenous peoples) could be better explained as a fear of getting assimilated into a more potent cultural nationalism (Bengali, in this case), the fear of ‘imposition’ of Bengali language is also present.
The protests in the northeast have been made invisible, and worse, appropriated in the pan-Indian discourse. This discourse is progressive and anti-communal in standing up to the un-constitutional elements of the majoritarian saffron onslaught. However, when juxtaposed alongside the militarised and exceptional state that Northeast India has been accorded in its post-colonial experience, it falls along expected lines. Two instances could perhaps throw some light on this, from both sides of the right-left spectrum.
In the op-ed page of The Telegraph on 9th January, 2020, a well-known columnist and BJP MP wrote that the CAA protests had started on the 13th of December 2019 from Kolkata, before spreading to the rest of the country. The resistance against the Citizenship Amendment Bill, when it was in the former version of CAB 2016 started in the Northeast and Assam in particular, first in the realm of civil society groups and intelligentsia. The columnist could have at least taken note of the details about where the protests against the CAB 2019 began, well before it was turned into CAA 2019.
The second instance is from a reputed left-leaning political fortnightly of India. The issue, of course, is dedicated to the CAA protests. Its front page is titled “Secular Upsurge and Brutal Response”. This is fairly a pan-Indian view of the CAA protests which intentionally or un-intentionally renders the concerns of the Northeastern states invisible. However, the same issue also carries an article on the protests in the Northeast mentioning the indigenous concerns of the region, but it is again in the margins, arguably because, the lines in the magazine’s front page has mentioned ‘newfound unity of the secular Indians.’ The message-driven home from such generalisations should not be seen in terms of the Northeast’s lack of secularism, but rather the discourse of footnoting or end-noting ( or ignoring altogether) concerns of this region– be it the Citizenship Amendment Bill, smart cities, big dams and a host of other phenomena as the experience of this part of India shows.
Appropriating the NRC is another syndrome of the Centre’s (not the people) purely utilitarian commitments to the fears of the Northeast. The NRC process in Assam was nothing short of a nightmare, especially for the intersectional poor and Bengali, Hindu or Muslim alike. Institutional biases along ethnic lines and traditional insider/outsider binaries were rampant in the procedures, along with the arbitrariness with which objections were filed and the Foreigner’s Tribunals functioned. Arundhati Roy had emphatically noted the exercise as a kind of ‘occupation by documentation.’ The horrors of the NRC now loom large on the horizon of north, west, east and peninsular India, and the irony is there for all to see. Because what is equally true and sobering is the fact that this very exercise in Assam is a product of the historically grounded fears of losing land, language, political power and culture to the outsider (and not just the foreigner). Some indigenous communities might also see it not just as a product, but also a compromise.
The moral arguments on the desirability of the NRC in Assam– especially at this juncture when both voluntary assimilation/integration of the non-‘tribal’, non-ethnic Assamese, and the time passed since 1971 (or 1985, as the vantage point might be) are substantial—notwithstanding, an attempt has been made by the BJP government to drive cheap, electoral mileage out of their appropriation of the NRC. In the process, un-wittingly, it has also de-legitimised, once more, the unique historical context of politics in Assam. The de-legitimation of the Assam NRC (for which substantial and real grounds exist in its sheer in-humanity) is only a façade, because the black and white secularists (for whom indigenous rights in the margins do not really figure) of the ‘mainland’ and the Hindutva fanatics have in their own ways played a role in invisiblising and appropriating the particular concerns of the Northeastern states. The BJP has in fact gone one notch further to weaponise the NRC, and by extension, the history of the Northeast where concerns went beyond the Hindu/Muslim binaries.
Today when one reads the writings of Parag Kumar Das, the late Assamese firebrand human rights activist and journalist, the 1990s seem like a not too un-familiar shadow of the present times. Among the many writings of Parag Kumar Das which were branded by the government of the day as seditious and anti-India, one hard-hitting piece compares the relationship between the Indian State and the ‘small sub-national polities’ in terms of an unholy marriage. The essence is of a sadistic husband who has trapped his wife in wedlock, by blocking all exits (legal recourse) out of the wedlock. Moving out of the Indian State as the righteous political fate of Assam is a long-settled question now, finding rare support only among a very small militaristic fringe today. But the historical grievances, the fear of continuous immigration being one, still have a lot of currency in the region, and these have come to the fore once again with the CAB and CAA protests. For instance, in January 2019, an influential public intellectual had warned the Indian Union invoking secession from the nation-state if such legislation is forced upon Assam.
This is especially true in the case of the Indian State and the response it has had to Assam’s resistances, whether these resistances were constitutional or extra-constitutional. Political impasses in the Northeast were met with short-sighted policy responses by the Indian State, and these were often militarist and coercive. The impression given was that of a set of solutions for a bag of symptoms, which the numerous self-determination movements or political assertions in this region represented. Apart from treating these political troubles under the optics of law and order, doling out of ethnic homelands became a favoured strategy to arrest or prevent the activities of the ‘hostiles’, as the insurgencies were called by the ‘national media’. Although this has meant the placating of some insurgencies or sub-national political assertions, it also complicated the fate and insecurities of the multi-ethnic pluralities of the region. That is why it is important to understand the chasms between the discourse of citizenship in the Indian mainland and its Northeastern appendage in a historical context. Saffron politics is just one more new perversion, in the motley of grievances that the Northeastern states have garnered throughout its post-colonial experience within the Indian nation.
What needs to be acknowledged?
It is worth recounting what the scholar of comparative literature, Dorothy M. Figueira, said regarding the importance of history- “the present is fractured, it consists of competing pasts”. The different reactions against the CAA in the mainland and northeast India spring from their divergent historical experiences – thus explaining the chasm in the movement. The Central government’s argument that the act is passed by Parliament and hence applicable to all the states, barring the few in where the provisions of Inner Line Permit and Sixth Schedule are present, repudiates the historical experiences of Northeast/Assam. Unfortunately, it also highlights the psychological distance that still exists between northeast and mainland India despite geographical integration and a well-entrenched administrative network. The larger question is- will the voice of Assam, Tripura and other northeastern states be heard?
The movement against the CAA is a movement for recognition- of historical uniqueness, culture, tradition, language of this region. In order to do that, the centre must understand the historical complexity of states like Assam and Tripura and other northeastern states. Most importantly the centre must realize and recognize that Assam’s problem of illegal immigration- that does not spring out of any communal politics or xenophobia and is as secular as it can be – is also a national problem since the status of illegal immigrants in a sovereign country must be well defined. The movement against the act provides an opportunity for the civil society organizations, intellectuals both east and west of the Chicken’s neck to initiate a healthy talk around the issue of immigration- and its demographic, cultural, economic and political aspects. A healthy discussion on this issue by taking into consideration the concerns of northeastern states is likely to generate conversations and the onus for that lies squarely with Delhi today.
In her recent book, Assam: The Accord, The Discord, Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty, claims that the urgency of pushing the citizenship cutoff date from 1971 to 2014 (in the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019) apart from violating the Assam Accord, also underlines the fact that undocumented immigration in Assam has continued. According to another scholar of the region, Nani Gopal Mahanta, South Asia is the only region in the world where we do not have a well documented or legalized citizenship policy towards each other. Such a scenario clearly makes the immigration issue in South Asia more complex. The reality of globalization further makes it difficult to control immigration since it makes the borders porous. In the light of these stark realities, the demand for constitutional protection of indigenous people and the rhetoric of detection, deletion (of names from voter’s list) and deportation of illegal immigrants finds legitimacy. However there is little doubt that deportation of post-1971 migrants in Assam is nearly impossible as there is no bilateral or multilateral agreement with our neighbouring countries, and Bangladesh has often denied the existence of Bangladeshi illegal immigrants in India. Under these circumstances, the problem is of reaching a permanent solution to this impasse in the Northeast. Any solution to the Assam issue must take into consideration three important aspects.
Firstly, there is the need to explore in an accommodative manner, the constitutional protections possible of all the indigenous peoples of Assam, keeping in mind its multi-ethnic, multi-cultural realities on the grounds.
Secondly, and this lies at the heart of the protests in Assam, the question of post-1971 illegal immigrants. The question of post-1971 immigrants finds no easy answer. For hardcore nationalist organizations like AASU, there is no giving in to ideas of the integration and assimilation of this batch of immigrants. Their stand is clear- either the state deports them or their burden be shared by other states too. The former option does not look viable as there is no formal treaty of deportation that India has with Bangladesh. Regarding the latter option, it is pertinent to cite again Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty, because she questions the practicality of the option. She asks- in a vote driven parliamentary democracy, how would the demand for caring and sharing be viewed by political players and existing voters in those receiving states?
And thirdly, recognizing the need to initiate a healthy debate on the lack of India’s immigration (or refugee) policy, with northeastern states as the prime stakeholders. But can immigration be ever stopped in toto? The answer is in the negative – and this applies both to legal and illegal immigration.
The movement against CAA in the northeast and mainland India provides the opportunity to initiate the talk on the need for an immigration policy. Immigration can be both legal and illegal, and can be due to many factors- political (persecution of minorities, flight from war), economic (employment opportunities), environmental and climatic (flood drought) etc. Thus, a homogenization of the issue is nothing but problematic. An immigration policy must be dynamic that takes into account all these factors. Most importantly, any policy on immigration must take into account the concern of states that share international border with other countries. In this case the northeastern states must be made prime stakeholders while making of an immigration policy.
Pisharoty, Sangeeta Barooah. 2019. Assam: The Accord, The Discord. Penguin Random House India.
Baruah, Sanjib. 1999. India Against Itself. Oxford University Press.
Column by Proxanta Rajguru titled Saranxo, in the Amar Axom on 11th December 2019
Lemkin, Raphael. 2002. Genocide. In A. L. Hinton (Ed.), Genocide: An Anthropological Reader (pp. 27-42). Malden: Blackwell Publishing.
Das, Parag Kumar. 1995. Nixiddho Kolom Aru Onanyo. Guwahati: Alibaat.
Appadurai, Arjun. 2006. Fear of Small Numbers : An essay on the geography of anger. Duke University Press
Fukuyama, Francis. 2018. Identity- Contemporary identity politics and the struggle for recognition. Profile Book Limited.
Figueira, Dorothy M. 2015. Aryan Jews Brahmins: Theorising Authority through myths of identity. Navayana.
Mahanta, Nani Gopal. 2013. Confronting the State: ULFA’s quest for sovereignty. SAGE Publication India Ltd.