The Northeast, particularly Assam, has reacted with agitation to the passage through Parliament of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, which makes illegal migrants who are Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan eligible for citizenship. The fear that the CAB will result in an influx of migrants from across the borders and alter the demography of Assam has provoked people to take to the streets. Many have defied the curfew to burn vehicles and target public buildings. Transport links to the region, and within it, have been disrupted and the government has shut down the internet. This situation threatens to undo the gains of the relative peace that the region has enjoyed in the past two decades. It could destabilise New Delhi’s Act East policy. Political players in the region and at the Centre must urgently come together and work to allay public fears and ensure calm.
The CAB, and the National Register of Citizens process before it, have stoked tensions that had flared in the region, especially in Assam, in the 1970s and ‘80s. The fear of demographic change has been the trigger for subnationalist movements, including the Assam agitation, in the 1970s, as well as the insurgencies in Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura and Meghalaya. It stemmed from the colonial era settlement policies for exploitation of the region’s resources and was sharpened by the fallout of Partition, which the region experienced twice, in 1947 and 1971, which saw an unsettling of populations, particularly in parts of Assam and Tripura. But these scars had started to heal over time, and a tenuous peace had set in. The NRC, which the BJP aggressively promoted in Assam, and now threatens to extend nation-wide, along with the CAB, have revived these fault lines. If the NRC process revived the “outsider” debate, the CAB pits Assamese against Bengali. Exemptions related to the Inner Line Permit (ILP) to allay the fears of Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya, and the Schedule 6 areas, may have temporarily helped to avert a consolidated opposition to the CAB in the region. However, fears have been exacerbated in the Brahmaputra and Barak Valleys in Assam and Tripura that these places will have to bear the weight of the probable inward migration of Hindus from Bangladesh.
The onus is now on the Modi government to reach out to the restive groups and take the necessary steps to address and alleviate their fears. Electoral exigencies and ideological shibboleths cannot be the decisive factors in shaping the policy for the Northeast. Its repercussions will reflect in India’s relations with its neighbours apart from shaping domestic politics.