Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 undermines the fundamental tenet of Indian democracy and links religion to citizenship. The law has drawn sharp criticism from human rights groups and governments. The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights called the Citizenship Act "fundamentally discriminatory".
The voices against the Citizenship Amendment Act are not only raised in the North East but also in Delhi, Mumbai and elsewhere. The whole country, except for the ruling party and their associates, has virtually been on the street protesting against this Act which is perceived to be communal and based on an idea of India that gives more prominence to Hindus.
The northeastern states of India, however, gauge the threat from the Act albeit, differently. People from the North East across communities, language and ethnic stocks consider the Act as an immediate threat to their cultural mosaic, ethnic richness and delicate socio-cultural intricacies. While acknowledging the urgent need to strengthen these voices, and to ensure a more coherent process of exchange and solidarity, it is the need of the hour to counter the prevalent discourse that focuses only on the discriminatory nature of the Act and not on the detrimental effect to the indigenous tribal communities of North East India.
Through CAA, the government not only seeks to change the character and definition of Indian citizenship, but it also seeks to counteract and violate the consensus evolved between communities in Assam through the Assam Accord of 1985.
At this juncture of unrest in India's mainland, the people from the North East are still struggling to get their voices heard, which has always been silenced structurally. The whole of the North East is deeply disturbed by the situation in the region after the passage of the bill. There have been many curfews, deaths, agitations and yet the voices have failed to receive the attention it deserved.
Further, when the Act says that the persecuted minorities will be given citizenship, it makes one wonder how the level of persecution would be measured. And how does one define persecution that dates back to 1947 and the parameter to measure it?
Author and human rights activist Sanjoy Hazarika rightly says, "The keyword persecution is not defined in any manner. No benchmarks are established. How can it be assumed without robust data that such a drop in migration has taken place only because of religious persecution?"(Economic Times, 18 December, 2019). The Act has left this to the discretion of the government, allowing anyone belonging to the communities barring Muslims to apply for citizenship.
Also, this Act will affect the bilateral relations between India and Bangladesh. The Act establishes that religious persecution happened in Bangladesh even when the Awami League-led government (perceived to be pro-India) was in power in 2014. This Act will not only destabilise the internal politics of the nation but will also prove detrimental to India's external interests.
Moreover, the Act openly nullifies the Assam Accord which was signed between the Government of India and the student leaders of the Assam movement in 1985, which set the cut-off date for citizenship in Assam on 24 March 1971. The Assam movement is characterised as the most stringent mass movement in post-independence Assam. This was the culmination of dissidence by the civil society against the enfranchisement of, who they believe were illegal immigrants. The movement was ostensibly an upsurge of the "people of Assam" against the outsider, citizens against non-citizens; indigenous against the foreigners.
Various sections of the population irrespective of their ethnic affiliations responded to the call and actively participated in the movement to drive out who they considered illegal immigrants. The Assam Movement started in 1979 and continued for six long years, finally coming to an end with the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985. In that sense, Assam remained in the grip of an organised mass agitation for a long duration of six years. The movement primarily revolved around the issue of illegal immigration of foreign nationals, their detection, and deportation.
The leadership of the movement also felt that in the wake of continuous immigration of undocumented foreign nationals, the distinct socio-cultural, economic and political identity of the “Axomiya” nationality was facing an identity crisis. Hence, the movement was designed to protect the distinct "Axomiya" identity. Joi Aai Asom (Glory to mother Assam) was the call that the leaders of the Assam Movement enunciated, imploring all, who identified themselves with the interest of Assam, to "save" it from the clutches of immigrants.
Every section of the population responded to the call; the Karbis, Dimasas, Ahoms, caste-Hindu Assamese, native (Khilonjiya) Muslim communities, Rabhas, Bodos and native Bengali speakers overwhelmingly participated in the movement. The Assam Accord, signed on 15 August 1985, included the promise by the Central government that it would ensure "constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards…to protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people" and the "all-round economic development of Assam".
On the question of "outsiders" in Assam, the Accord evolved a graded/differentiated system, categorising "the outsiders" based on the date of their entry into Assam. It legitimised the citizenship status of those who had entered Assam from the (then) East Pakistan before 1 January 1966. Those who had entered the state between 1 January 1966 and 24 March 1971 were to be legitimised in phases, i.e, they were to be disenfranchised for a period of 10 years from the date of identification, while others who had come after 24 March 1971 were to be deported as illegal migrants.
The NRC in Assam works on the principle of tracing citizenship to a legacy of descent in Assam going back to the 1951 NRC and to next signpost, 1971. The NRC is not only about integration and closure, or even the recognition of identity by descent or through the affirmation of legal residence in Assam. It is about a humongous bureaucratic exercise of identification and enumeration of citizens, of putting in place efficient and effective identification regimes and associated documentation practices, often associated with the exercise of state power, and state-formative practices.
Currently, there is a wide misunderstanding regarding the stand on NRC of Assam. A long history of struggle, blood and adjustment is reduced to one word as "xenophobic" or "Illiberal". The process of the updation of NRC in Assam was a result of the consensus arrived among all the sections of the indigenous groups irrespective of ethnicity, religion, caste and class. Granting of constitutional protection would create two sets of residents in the state and the ramifications that would trigger in the socio-political space of the state in the coming years is also a question that needs to be examined and understood.
It is also a concern that such a bureaucratic fiat should not act as a license for certain forces to unleash violence of any kind on the people whose names did not appear in the list.
Also, the citizenship bill that triggered the demand for protection of northeastern states under Inner Line Permit (ILP) is not a pragmatic solution to the problem of illegal immigration in the long run. ILP restricts the movement of Indian citizens affecting the economy of the region; also it has not deterred the undocumented migrants to settle and eventually posing a threat to the land and livelihood of the region.
This long-standing issue needs the political will to rise above standard practice of milking the conundrum and find a solution, both by the Central and state leaderships. Although cultural exchange and synthesis of various sub-groups have been gradually taking place in Assam leading to their claim of space within the umbrella of a composite identity, the lack of a political solution to the festering fear among the majority community will remain a hurdle to its progression. If unaddressed, it will continue to disrupt the social atmosphere of Assam and might take uglier forms.
The public administrators have repeatedly restated their assurance to make sure that the final NRC will be error-free. However, there are many people who did not find their names in the NRC but are indigenous to Assam. In addition to lack of awareness, loss of documents due to frequent natural calamities and prevalence of community ownership among the indigenous population contributed to their incapability in producing legitimate documents. However, there should be a necessary demand for redressing the statelessness of khilonjiya people along with the mechanism for countrywide distribution of the undocumented immigrants. Shaheen S Ahmed opines that “the debates and positioning of citizenship in Assam over the NRC seems to have initiated some amount of public discourse on the question of who is an indigenous inhabitant of Assam rather than on the question of who is an Assamese.”
There is enormous uncertainty about the fate of those whose names are not on it. As a state (Assam), who has willingly accepted 20 years of migrants from Bangladesh till 1971, it is important to bring to public attention the ways through which there can be certain rehabilitation process for the people who cannot find their names in NRC. It is often mentioned that these people will be deported, however, it is important to understand that deportation in today's world is not a unilateral matter; it has to follow international protocol.
Deportation is a cumbersome process and only "persons whose nationalities are confirmed by the Bangladesh authorities" can be repatriated, and the numbers are tiny. "The nationality of 32 Bangladeshi nationals who were in the detention centres/jails in Assam were confirmed by the Bangladesh authorities and they have been deported,” Sanjib Baruah wrote in The Indian Express.
Thus, it has to be an endeavour on the part of the government to enter into necessary discussions with the government of Bangladesh to rationalise the procedure of deportation. India and Bangladesh can sign bilateral agreements on readmission of nationals like Germany and Vietnam, Italy and Algeria, the United Kingdom and Algeria, Morocco and Spain and between the European Union and non-member countries in Eastern Europe and the Western Balkans.
However, the "neighbourhood policy" of the present regime in India makes it seem unlikely that there will be agreements on even bringing up the matter of deportation with Bangladesh. This ‘neighbourhood policy’ which focuses on controlling the increasing Chinese influence in the region has been fairly successful in Bangladesh. Thus, strategists in India believe, bringing up the deportation issue with Bangladesh might lead to imbalances in this delicate diplomatic relationship.
With deportation being off the table, at least for the time being, an old proposal of granting work permits to non-citizens is gaining currency yet again in Assam and neighbouring states of the North East. SanjoyHazarika in his book Rites of Passage envisioned a provision to "enable a formal temporary entry" for economic migrants into the North East. He envisaged a provisional entry for a fixed time to these migrants "without giving settlement or permanent rights" but with "basic human rights including access to legal redressal mechanisms, healthcare and education".
With the Parliament passing the Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2016 and president assenting to it making it Citizenship Amendment Act, it is assumed that those who are Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian would have a different fate from the rest since these groups "shall not be treated as illegal migrants" according to that law. However, it is important to understand the underlying nuances that the people whose names did not appear in the NRC tried to prove their Indian citizenship. Now to avail citizenship under CAA, they will have to prove that they have come from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Thus, there has been repeated demands across the society from the Central government to solve the border issues -- both land and maritime. Although in a globalised world, the fencing of borders may not be a pragmatic way of preventing infiltration, the corresponding factors facilitating undocumented infiltration, (that has been a source of instability in North East India) must be addressed. The fear and anxiety of the khilonjiya about losing their primacy in electoral politics, culture and the economy of the state is real and needs urgent redressal. If this can be done successfully, then a permanent solution to the problem can be found.
The authors are Doctoral Fellows at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
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Updated Date: Dec 26, 2019 15:00:58 IST