Updated: February 6, 2020 10:01:41 am
The Supreme Court of India, by deciding to hear the cases of Assam and Tripura against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act separately, appears to has acknowledged what mainland India — with its habitual disconnect with the Northeast’s core problems — fails to see: That it is not only the communal nature of the new law that troubles these states. That as the movement against the CAA, which germinated in Assam, snowballed into a pan-India phenomenon, the narrative about existential threat to the ethnic communities of Assam in particular and the Northeast in general, went unnoticed. And this remains largely unregistered in the pan-Indian as well as the international consciousness.
In Assam, the outrage against the state and central government is not merely because the CAA is communal, and discriminates against one particular religious community; but primarily because it negates all that was promised after the six-year-long Assam Movement from 1979 for the protection of the ethnic communities of the state, whose identity is entwined with the language, culture and land of Assam. An identity now endangered by illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The Assam Movement was triggered when, ahead of the 1980 general elections, the then chief election commissioner, S L Shakdhar, issued a circular legitimising illegal voters as bona fide citizens on the orders of Indira Gandhi, making a mockery of the People’s Representation Act and aborting the revision process of the electoral rolls. This same Shakdhar, in 1978, had spoken of attempts by political parties to include the names of foreigners in electoral rolls without “questioning and determining their citizenship status”.
Reading Bodo: One language, three scripts, and a focus area in Accord
Indira Gandhi was merely continuing the policies of Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel regarding immigrants in Assam. Unlike Gandhiji, both Nehru and Patel were impervious to the legitimate fears of the people of Assam — of being reduced to a minority in their own state, their political rights clipped like the Tripuris next door because of the changing demographic profile. Gandhiji foresaw the calamitous fallout and even urged the Assamese leadership to sit in satyagraha against the Congress itself if necessary. The truth was that, although Assam had become a part of the Indian Union, the central leadership, since the beginning felt no obligation to engage with the problems of Assam as Indian problems. This is unsurprising: Indigenous people across the world are victims of colonial policies which disregard their basic rights and thrust upon them policies that take away their land, resources as well as their political power, forcing them to be subsumed in colonial society and culture.
The Assam Movement ended in 1985 with the signing of the Assam Accord, which promised to safeguard the interests of the people of Assam. Yet, the promises as per the Accord regarding the detection, deportation and deletion of names of illegal immigrants who entered after 1971, sealing of the Indo-Bangladesh border, and ensuring full political rights of the Assamese have not been addressed. Instead, the central government is offering citizenship to all Hindu illegal immigrants till 2014 when over 50 lakh illegal immigrants are already squeezing the local inhabitants’ space. The unkindest cut of all is that the state government, whose subservience to the Centre is total, comprises leaders who led the Assam Movement, then promising total implementation of the Assam Accord in their manifesto. It is pertinent to also recall how in 1836, Bengali was made the official language of Assam. With the support of American baptist missionaries, Assamese intellectuals had to fight to restore Assamese as the official language in 1872.
The new law shows no respect for the sense of “identity” of the Assamese. For “identity is shaped by participation in ‘cultural communities’ which need appropriate institutional protection” and that “groups. need to have rights in order to foster individuals’ well-being” (MacCormick, Kymlicka). The protest against the CAA in Assam continues because the people of Assam see it as part of a design to systematically dispossess them of their land, culture, language and, therefore, identity, by allowing the demographic balance to be disturbed recklessly. Their cry echoes the cry of indigenes the world over for survival.
This article first appeared in the print edition on February 6, 2020 under the title “Rage and reason”. The writer is president, Policy Group For Peoples’ Rights (PGPR), Dibrugarh, Assam, and convenor, INTACH, Dibrugarh chapter.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines