The Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 (CAA) has done for the BJP what 68 years of attempts by various incarnations of the NRC — especially 1951 and 2019 — failed to achieve: To prepare a blueprint for a national register of Indian citizens to suit its cultural and political projects. By conspicuously excluding Muslims from the list of six “persecuted minorities” of the three neighbouring states of Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan who entered India on or before December 31, 2014, the BJP has aggressively pushed its longstanding commitment to correct a perceived historical wrong committed by Partition and to establish India as a homogenous Hindu homeland.
Using the CAA as a legislative sleight of hand, the BJP is set to legitimise one of its pet political projects in Assam: Overnight ghettoisation of over four million Muslims reportedly excluded in the final NRC list.
In selectively excluding Muslims, the BJP naively assumes that it will draw support from the Assamese people who bore the brunt of “illegal migrants” (read Bangladeshi Muslim migrants). However, by pushing the baseline of acquiring citizenship to December 31, 2014, the BJP has opened up multiple battlefronts in the Northeast.
The anxiety and insecurity unleashed by this is not surprising given the longstanding regional movements to resist the entry of migrant “outsiders” — the Chakmas in Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram, Brus in Mizoram, and Bengalis in Tripura. The BJP’s political managers apparently failed to take seriously this historical complexity when they exacted support from its otherwise reluctant allies like the AGP in Assam, NPP in Meghalaya, and NDPP in Nagaland by inserting an exemption clause for areas covered either under the Sixth Schedule or Inner Line Permit (ILP). The violent protests in Meghalaya and Tripura notwithstanding, their exemption from the purview of the CAA caught the BJP unawares. While Manipur, which was once the locus of protest, maintained a conspicuous silence thanks to its new-found cover under ILP, protests began to emerge in the ILP states of Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland.
The well-informed segments in these states are conscious about the facile protective mechanism provided by the Sixth Schedule and ILP. Back in the 1990s, sociologist M N Karna has shown how ineffectual the Sixth Schedule is in regulating actual ownership and transfer of tribal lands. It is the fear of tribal land alienation and insecurity about their identity, culture and resources at the hands of migrant “outsiders” and the complicity of tribal elites, a possibility reinforced and made more imminent by the CAA, which propelled violent protests, especially in Meghalaya and Tripura.
Given that states do not have the power to control inter-state migration, a state like Mizoram which has unsettled problem with the Bru and Chakma migrants, is beginning to realise the mistake made by their MP who timidly underscored the need to frame an anti-minority protection law while the supporting the CAA. Not only has the CAA reinforced the Meitei demand for being listed as a Scheduled Tribe, it has also given momentum to the call for pan-Manipur legislation like the Manipur People’s Protection Bill, 2018 which is yet to receive the presidential assent. This and intermittent attempts to extend land reforms laws to the hill areas are seen as clear majoritarian signals to obliterate historical protective discrimination enjoyed by the hill people.
In what is largely seen as a replay of the Assam Agitation of 1979-85, widespread popular and violent protests led by the All Assam Students Union (AASU) and various tribe/ethnic organisations have broken out, leading to an extended imposition of curfews and internet shutdown in 10 districts from December 11 until the Gauhati High Court asked the state to restore internet service on December 17. As the famous Jai Ai Axom slogan resonates the air, protesters wearing gamocha (the cultural symbol of Assamese subnationalism) targetted Sarbananda Sonowal and Himanta Biswa Sarma. Protesters believe that Sonowal, once hailed as a Jatiyo Nayok (national hero), and the AGP sacrificed Assamese jaati (national) interest at the altar of their ambition for power and pelf. Extending the baseline of acquiring citizenship to December 2014 is also seen as a direct assault on clause 5 of the Assam Accord, 1985, which had fixed the cut-off as March 25, 1971.
A perceptive reading of Assamese subnationalism and Assam’s changing historical and political geography show that the CAA entails complex and multilayered issues. For one thing, the globalisation of the tea and oil trade in Assam and the expansion of the British bureaucracy since the latter half of the 19th century drew migrants to the state from across the Subcontinent. As these migrant “outsiders” occupy prime economic, administrative and political positions, they unleash a deep sense of insecurity and anxiety in the minds of local khilonjias (loosely translated as indigenous Assamese). Also, Assamese subnationalism is defined by certain distinctive regional markers which refuse to be subsumed within an overarching Hindu nationalist project. This explains why the Assam Agitation (1979-85) and subsequent subnationalist mobilisations are centered around opposition to illegal immigrants and migrant “outsiders” — cutting across religious lines — who allegedly have circumscribed khilonjias’ access to jobs, identity, culture, land and resources.
In as much as Assam and other parts of the Northeast oppose the CAA and the larger danger of a homogenising Hindu nationalist project, the onus is on regional political elites and the societies at large to accommodate their internal social and cultural diversities. Recent episodes of violent protests in various parts of northeast India and beyond are a stark reminder of the risk of allowing states to be laboratories of a deeply assimilationist, divisive and homogenous project under the garb of the CAA.
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 19, 2019 under the title ‘Not about Hindu and Muslim’. The writer is professor of political science, University of Hyderabad
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