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Members of the All Assam Students’ Union at a protest rally against the implementation of the Citizenship Amendment Bill, in Guwahati on 8 December

The new fault lines in the North-East

  • Starting with Assam, the Citizenship Amendment Bill will upset two decades of relative peace in the region
  • The North-East is home to almost 238 indigenous tribes that are not Hindu by faith. Their fears are about ‘outsiders’, irrespective of religion.

SHILLONG : On the night of 9 December, as Parliament sat down to discuss sweeping changes to the country’s citizenship law, thousands of university students were marching on the streets of Guwahati. It was a repeat of similar protests which rocked Assam just a few months ago. The slogans were the same: Joi Aai Axom. The concern was the same—the rights of the Khilonjiya, a difficult to translate Assamese word which can at best be described as “indigenous".

Even before the Lok Sabha cleared the contentious Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) by midnight on Monday, protests had broken out in other neighbouring states. Tripura became a phone and internet dark spot post 2pm on Tuesday. In the borderlands on India’s north-eastern edge, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) renewed attempts to redefine citizenship has only reopened an age-old, volatile question: who belongs and who doesn’t?

That the protest is loudest and most visible in Assam is no surprise. The people of Assam feel cornered after home minister Amit Shah said CAB will not be implemented in states where the Inner Line Permit (ILP) or the Sixth Schedule (which grants a degree of autonomy to tribal councils) operates. Assam has a few districts where the Sixth Schedule is in place. It is not an ILP state. Hence, it will become the only state in the North-East where illegal Hindu migrants from Bangladesh could potentially be settled.

Shah has quietly assured Manipuris that the state will be granted an ILP system. Naturally, the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and several other citizens’ bodies feel cornered. AASU adviser, the formidable Samujjal Bhattacharya, who was also the union’s president for many years, says that the Assam Accord had agreed on 1971 as the cut-off year for granting citizenship to illegal migrants in Assam. “Now, the BJP has shifted the goal post to 2014, thereby giving citizenship to lakhs of people in Assam alone," he says.

The North-East is a melting pot of races and home to almost 238 indigenous tribes that are not Hindu by faith. The region consists of many “nations" that have somehow been integrated with India. While large sections of the people of the North-East are of Tibeto-Burman origin, the Khasi-Jaintia group is Austro-Asiatic, and the Mon-Khmer group is more akin to their brethren from Cambodia in habits and language.

Centuries of interaction have dimmed the stark cultural differences but have not obliterated them completely. While the tribes are largely agreeable about coexistence with those from the sister states of the region, they become highly suspicious about any attempt to open up the region to the “outsider".

And that tag is all that matters in the North-East; the religion of the “outsider" hardly matters. Arunachal Pradesh, for example, is not intent on giving citizenship status to Buddhist Chakmas. The Mizos don’t want the Brus and Reangs (all three tribes are from the Chittagong hill tracts of Bangladesh).

Within this volatile environment of contested identities, CAB will only introduce new fault lines and worsen existing ones. What will happen to the past two decades of relative peace in the North-East? And will the new national law end up fuelling a slew of sub-nationalisms in these states, with the issue of refugees becoming a permanent poll issue?

Air of suspicion

The anti-CAB protests are only likely to get more vociferous as the perception that the BJP will dig in its heels further solidifies. After all, it is a manifesto promise made by the party during the 2019 national polls. Since the number of BJP parliamentarians went up in the Lok Sabha, the party may have reasonably calculated that people might support the passage of the bill.

It would, after all, be prudent to assume that the voters in Assam who elected BJP MPs also voted for CAB. But this seems to be a misstep. The Barak Valley in Assam, which is largely Bengali populated, votes very differently from the Brahmaputra Valley inhabited by indigenous Assamese-speaking people.

The feeling among indigenous Assamese, who have invested decades of their life into the Assam Movement, is that the BJP has ignored the Assam Accord which puts 1971 as the cut-off year for detection and deportation of foreign nationals. CAB takes 2014—a difference of 43 years—as the cut-off year for granting Indian citizenship to Hindus, Sikhs, Parsis, Christians and Buddhist who are persecuted in their own countries, namely Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.

Bhattacharya’s contention is that Assam has already borne the burden of putting up with illegal migrants for decades. What angers him is that the BJP has very ingenuously tried to divide the people of the North-East by exempting CAB from states with ILP and the Sixth Schedule. The BJP believed this would break the back of anti-CAB protesters in the region. That way, it is easier for the ruling party to deal with Assam separately instead of a united North-East.

But the BJP seems to have miscalculated CAB’s impact. The tribals, who are mostly Christians, are suspicious of CAB. Despite the euphemism of bringing in people of other faiths, barring the Muslims, the bill is actually intended to accommodate the Hindus of Bangladesh. Whether the Hindus of Bangladesh are actually persecuted is also an unaddressed question. Last year, Bangladesh Prime Minster Sheikh Hasina had dismissed CAB as merely an electoral strategy of the BJP.

Whether it reaps electoral returns or not, there is little doubt that the ensuing tensions will leave the North-East devastated. Tripura is the red flag that reminds the people here how a tribal state could be transformed in just a few decades into a one where the indigenous people make up only 32% of the population. The state has been overrun by migrants, first from East Pakistan and later from Bangladesh. Now, the Bengali-speaking population is a majority in Tripura and runs the affairs of the state. Fears of a similar fate are real and widely held across all states in the region.

Rising calls for ILP

In Meghalaya, there is a large area (10x10 sq. km) within Shillong city called the European Ward, which is out of the purview of the Sixth Schedule. This is already overpopulated and some localities have become slums occupied by people of Bangladeshi-origin (visible from their language and profiles).

The anti-CAB protesters in the state know that 17 million Bangladeshi Hindus, who claim to be persecuted in their country, would want to settle in Meghalaya and the Barak Valley in Assam due to language and cultural proximity with the Bengalis, who already reside in these locations.

The government of Meghalaya has already come under pressure to push the Centre for ILP. To bring down tempers, the state has come up with the amended Meghalaya Residents Safety and Security Act, now pending with the governor. The Act requires a visitor, who desires to stay for more than 24 hours in the state, to fill an online application and get permission for entry. This is ILP by another name. This has irked hoteliers and tour operators because tourism is on the upswing and the Act, if passed, will kill tourism in Meghalaya.

On Tuesday, the Garo Hills of Meghalaya, which sent Agatha Sangma to Parliament, saw her effigy being burnt at several places. Sangma is from the National Peoples’ Party, a constituent of the National Democratic Alliance. She made a weak appeal to the home minister in Parliament on Monday that CAB should be exempted from Meghalaya, but still voted for the bill. Many of her colleagues from the multi-party North-East Democratic Alliance, helmed by the BJP, also voted in favour of the bill.

Political calculations

What most political observers fail to understand are the strategic calculations that the BJP might be making by antagonizing the people of Assam, in particular, who had voted the party to power in the state in 2016 and also sent a huge chunk of MPs from the party to the Lok Sabha. How much will the BJP gain from CAB? Is CAB intended to win elections in Assam or is the target actually West Bengal?

There is a substantial Hindu Bangladeshi population settled in West Bengal whose citizenship status is uncertain. By granting citizenship to a few lakh Hindus, the BJP will have a grateful citizenry as a permanent vote bank. This is also one way of countering Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress, which is overtly patronizing Muslims because they too form a formidable vote bank in the state. West Bengal sends 42 MPs to Parliament as against Assam’s 14. Interestingly both Assam and West Bengal are going for polls in 2021.

In Assam’s Barak Valley, whose landscape resembles Sylhet that is now in Bangladesh, the religious and cultural affinities with the people on the other side of the border are still very prominent. The borders are porous and easily penetrable. Kinship ties exist on both sides and the people yearn to reconnect. It is a better option for Bangladeshi Hindus to come to India.

It’s also important to remember the long-term complications due to climate change, which is projected to push large parts of Bangladesh into the sea. The hills of Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura beckon. CAB will be an added bonus for those who want to slip into the North-East under the cover of darkness.

That CAB will lead to further public unrest is a given and it is also likely that home minister Shah might resort to force to quell such unrest. The Armed Forces Special Powers Act is already applied to many states of the region. It should not be difficult to extend that Act wherever trouble is brewing.

In conclusion

To be fair to the BJP, CAB was never pushed through furtively. The party was upfront and put it in its manifesto. However, instruments like CAB lead to contestations that the country could well do without because the North-East is also a region which is only just emerging out of its many conflicts.

It would have been prudent for the Centre not to meddle in this region beyond a point. The fact is that the people of the North-East have not yet emotionally integrated with the rest of India to the point of giving up their rights as indigenous people. Issues like CAB and the National Register of Citizens have raked up the past, which most people of the north-eastern states had allowed to lie buried somewhere in their subconscious mind.

CAB will bring out all these differences to the fore and provide ammunition to groups that have always been antagonistic to the idea of one nation, one language, one religion, and a uniform civil code. And, for once, there will be many who will agree that the idea of uniformity in India is anathema.

India lends itself to multiple definitions. It is many nations due to geographical, racial and linguistic diversities. How can that multihued diversity be bottled up in the idea of one nation or one religion? Why is the India of today incubating ideas that have proved disastrous and resulted in the Balkanization of the erstwhile USSR? India is not China where 94 % of the population is of Han ancestry.

We are in dangerous territory. Those who rule this country must have both foresight and large-heartedness to accommodate differences—and care about the sentiments of the people of the North-East.

Patricia Mukhim is a journalist and editor of The Shillong Times.