The updating of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam seems to have given a fresh impetus to political forces in the Northeast that pursue a politics of spectre-mongering and exclusion of those they deem as “outsiders”. Reports of attempts to check the movement of people and vehicles — in Meghalaya, for instance — a week after the completion of the NRC process, indicate the rise of a sentiment across the region that privileges “indigenous” people over “outsiders” and “migrants”. This can lead to a climate of uncertainty in which ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities fear that they will be targeted. State governments must be vigilant against activities that seek to further a majoritarian sentiment and spread fear among minorities.
The NRC is a still-unfolding administrative exercise rooted in Assam’s political, social and economic history. It needs to be managed carefully and must strictly adhere to its mandate. Any attempt to manipulate it for sectarian purposes and electoral gains could upset the delicate social equations in the region. The Northeast sits on many faultlines and it is not in the nation’s interest to sharpen these. Long years of tumultuous social, economic and political changes in the region have resulted in migrations from its neighbourhood. The region benefited from this entry of both capital and labour. It is impossible to reverse the flow of history and either re-imagine or reconstitute the region as an exclusive space for “indigenous” people. The fear of regional cultural and linguistic traditions being overwhelmed by migrants has been exaggerated by groups that have built a political narrative around it to further their own interests. Moreover, culture and language do not exist in silos — they become richer and more complex under new influences and traditions.
The British administrators had introduced measures like the Inner Line Permit (ILP) to protect their commercial interests and they saw the Northeast as a frontier region. In recent years, the Central government has re-imagined the region as a gateway to Southeast Asia. The Look East and now Act East policy has the potential to end the region’s economic isolation and turn it into a production hub and a transit point. This will, however, need the region to shed its fear and suspicion of “outsiders” and confidently negotiate new forces of capital and labour. Instead of stoking nativist sentiments, the political mainstream must take the lead and prepare the ground so that the region’s geographical location becomes an advantage.