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Photo: PTI
Photo: PTI

Opinion | CAA, NRC and the Assamese alphabet soup of identities

Citizenship Act dissolves an agreed-to 1970s cut-off for residency in Assam

This week, we look at just how complicated matters are in Assam with the exercise of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the riotously controversial CAA, or Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019—while one proposes, the other disposes, as it were. And, specifically, in Assam’s south-eastern Bengali-majority Barak Valley region.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Assam was evidently all for NRC until August, when closure of the initial NRC count led to the announcement that among the 1.9 million netted by the exercise, were vast numbers of non-Muslims. CAA, which was passed from a bill into law by a BJP-led Parliament and presidency, seeks to provide citizenship to non-Muslims from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, with a five-year residency requirement. This dissolves an agreed-to 1970s cut-off for residency in Assam.

Much of Assam, as should now be abundantly clear to even the most aggressive and obtuse BJP functionary, vehemently opposes this. As CAA was passed by Parliament on 11 December and formally made into law two days later, Assamese protesters and passersby were shot dead by the state’s police, curfew imposed, and the internet curtailed. A mini-Kashmir fracas.

Temporary abatement of public anger should not be confused by local and central governments as a general acquiescence to CAA. While much of this state sees NRC as a tool to out illegal migrants from Bangladesh and elsewhere in India, it sees CAA as a tool that will legitimize the non-Muslim among them.

This fact won’t be diluted by announcements this past week from the BJP’s leadership that the party will stick with NRC and CAA, evidently an attempt to not appear weak during ongoing elections to Jharkhand’s assembly, and with elections due next year in Delhi and Bihar. Besides, of course, trying to regain face and credibility in Assam, where an ally, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), saw its offices trashed by Assamese protesters. Senior AGP and BJP officials and ministers were also heckled by the protesters.

It will, therefore, be interesting to see how Assam’s people and politicians deal with the situation and issues in Barak Valley, primarily the Bengali-majority districts of Cachar, Hailakandi and Karimganj.

Cachar is pro-NRC and certainly pro-CAA, with its largely Bengali-Hindu population secure in the belief that even if any are outed by NRC, then CAA offers a safety net. Nothing underscored this reality as well as incumbent Congress MP from Silchar, Sushmita Dev’s support for the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill’s first run in early 2019. (Dev lost to her BJP rival Rajdeep Roy in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Dev was essentially battling from a near-identical platform with the disadvantage of being perceived an underperformer.)

This is how it works. In Assam, it has for long been a combination of Axomiya, Bodos and other indigenous folk, against migrants—whether long-time Bengali residents, those of Santhal, Oraon and other tribes brought over from the Chhotanagpur region in colonial times to work in tea plantations, or those perceived to be Muslim migrants, illegal or otherwise, from Bangladesh. The flaring up of Assamese nationalism of the 1980s—and the subsequent Bodo nationalist movement—was predicated on such issues.

Within this complex construct, present-day Cachar, Hailakandi and Karimganj have a complex history. After its conquest of Assam in 1826 and later of Cachar, the East India Company merged them with the Bengal Presidency. After administrative reorganization in the wake of the 1857 mutiny, the largely Bengali speaking districts of Sylhet, Goalpara and Cachar were with some hill districts merged into the new Chief Commissioner’s Province of Assam.

In 1947, much of Muslim-majority Sylhet went over to Pakistan, except for the eastern extremity of Sylhet, in the Karimganj sub-division. This went with India. So too Cachar, which absorbed this cutaway Karimganj. All together a pre-existing Bengali-majority area—now in Assam.

This region has remained in staunch linguistic opposition to Assam—including a language agitation in the 1960s which earned it the right to use Bengali as a primary language. It has also remained a region of migration from Bangladesh. Muslim-heavy, Bengali-speaking Karimganj and Hailakandi were spun off as separate districts from Cachar in the 1980s.

Cachar remains largely Bengali-Hindu. And, naturally, the key catchment area for both NRC and CAA. As Assam festers on account of majoritarian religious politics married to majoritarian ethnic concerns, Cachar, in the same state, won’t. For now.

This column focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights and runs on Thursdays.

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