People in many parts of Northeast India, especially Assam, have spoken loudly against the citizenship amendment bill through widespread public protests. But there is strong support for the bill in certain Bengali-speaking clusters — notably the state of Tripura and the Barak Valley of Assam. These are areas with large numbers of people directly impacted by the partitioned geography of Sylhet, including many Hindus that are unauthorised immigrants under current law.
The ostensible purpose of the bill is to shelter persecuted religious minorities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians are groups that the proposed law identifies as religious minorities. Muslim groups like Ahmadis — certainly a persecuted religious minority in Pakistan — are conspicuously absent. In Assam, it muddles the NRC (National Register of Citizens) process since unauthorised Hindu immigrants from Bangladesh who came before December 31, 2014 — according to the bill — would no longer be considered illegal migrants; they would become eligible to apply for Indian citizenship.
If the bill becomes law, it will be a major step in moving India’s citizenship regime from being based on birth in a territory (jus soli) to one based on blood and ancestry (jus sanguinis). It will even incorporate into our citizenship laws the idea of Hindu immigration as homecoming. The bill formalises a position long taken by Hindu nationalists.
One can be sympathetic to the plight of those persecuted for their faith in neighbouring countries and still be alarmed by this effort to dramatically change India’s citizenship regime. Aren’t there other ways for India to support persecuted religious minorities in neighbouring countries? It is extraordinary that the dissent against the bill has not been more widespread.
But how has Northeast India managed to strike this powerful dissenting note? The region’s courage to be parochial — to borrow an expression used by Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh — deserves more attention and appreciation. Kavanagh once said that, “it requires a great deal of courage to be parochial”. Parochialism for him was the opposite of provincialism. The provincial, he wrote, “has no mind of his own; he does not trust what his eyes see until he has heard what the metropolis… has to say on any subject”. The parochial mentality, in contrast, has no doubts about the authenticity of the local and a sense of belonging to it. Kavanagh wrote this with artistic and literary creativity in mind. But the idea applies to political expressions and actions as well.
The crucial historical fact about Northeast India that the rest of India has repeatedly failed to come to grips with is that both migration from eastern Bengal and opposition to it began before 1947. Local resistance had forced changes in the colonial-era settlement policy well before the Partition; and it even defined the battlelines of the Partition somewhat differently from other parts of India.
Settling the so-called wastelands of the colonial frontier province of Assam was a major priority for British colonial administrators. Since the population density of the region — like that of many other frontier regions of Asia — was low and the local peasantry was not attracted to wage labour in plantations, it became possible to produce tea on an industrial scale in Assam only by recruiting workers from other parts of India. Colonial administrators, however, had a far more expansive view of Assam’s “wastelands” than just the lands where tea could grow. They saw the low-lying areas of the floodplains of the Brahmaputra — used in pre-colonial times for seasonal cultivation and not for year-round cultivation and settlement — also as a vast potential revenue-earner. Their reclamation began in the early 20th century when the demand for raw jute went up in Bengal’s jute industry and Muslim migrants from densely populated deltaic eastern Bengal were then encouraged to settle those lands. They began coming on their own once social networks connected the two regions.
But many other groups of people migrated to Assam during the colonial period. Prominent among them were educated Hindu Bengalis who were drawn by the opportunities opened up by the extension of colonial rule to this frontier region. Thanks to Bengal’s longer experience of colonialism — and exposure to English — they had the skills to occupy many new middle-class positions in the colonial bureaucracy. Sylhet being a district of Assam facilitated their recruitment. Through much of the colonial period, Sylhetis were disproportionately represented in the colonial bureaucracy of Assam. The net effect of this pattern of recruitment was to give Assam’s colonial experience a demographic layering with a political edge that was not unlike that of Myanmar and some other Southeast Asian countries.
Mandy Sadan, a historian of Burma, describes the experience of colonial rule in parts of Southeast Asia as one of “being governed from a western metropole but with the daily experience of the social, political and economic colonisation… by people (predominantly men) of Asian origin, who were the agents of that colonisation or else were seeking to take advantage of it”. If for Burmese subjects of the British Empire the complex encounter with South Asian migrants was a “vital part of being colonised”, in French colonial Indochina, particularly Cambodia and Laos, it was Vietnamese bureaucrats who were the “local face of French colonisation”. The sentences could be easily re-written to apply to Assam.
Assam has stubbornly resisted being regarded by its rulers as a land without people, or with very few people. Settlement frontiers after all are man-made. It is unequal political power, and often conquest, that turns territories inhabited by some people into frontiers for other people. For more than a century, efforts to reclaim the land and the past and to assert the historical presence of collectivities against the discourse of power have been a persistent theme in the politics of Assam.
The BJP did well in Northeast India not because of Hindutva, but for its promise of a Khilonjia Sarkar — a government made up of locals that works in their interest — the implicit contrast being one that would be beholden to “immigrant” power, that is those of east Bengali descent whether Hindu or Muslim.
Not surprisingly, the ruling party’s push for the citizenship amendment bill is seen as an act of betrayal — not just breaking a promise but doing the opposite of what it had promised at election time.
(The writer is professor of political studies, Bard College, New York)