Citizenship Amendment Act imposes a homeland for Hindus on a culturally diverse region and Assam's youth will have none of it

Assam is burning. And students from across the state are leading protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act. So are the youths across North East India. For nearly a week, they have taken on rubber bullets, lathi charges and also police firing to stand against the CAA that could potentially, systematically dilute economic resources, living space and cultural identity of Assam; and of the tribal dominated, diverse North East region. All Assam Students Union (AASU) leads a collective of student bodies in Assam.

For many witnessing scenes of protests, curfew and flag marches in Guwahati and across northeastern cities and towns, this situation has become confusing. Why are students, led by AASU, protesting so vehemently against an Act that naturally progresses from the NRC, which they have supported right from the start?

The answer to this lies in haphazard implementation, and the postmodern history of the region, particularly Assam, as it shares a border with Bangladesh. Historian Arupjyoti Saikia explains, "This is the complex history of the production of the idea of citizenship in a frontier region of India. This region has a deeply fraught past collectively shaped by the history of regional economic inequalities, political and economic history of India's partition, and a shared ecological landscape of the Brahmaputra basin covering both Assam and Bangladesh and none of these did simply find place in this evolving narrative of making of citizenship".

Saikia's reference to the deeply fraught past is of historical dominance of Bengali culture and language as imposed by colonial British rule. In recent memory, the Assam Andolan (1979 - 1985) saw a rejection of illegal immigrants from East Pakistan, bringing life to a standstill in the state for this period. It also saw violent clashes with the Bengali speaking natives who happen to be Hindus and have been residing in Assam for centuries.

 Citizenship Amendment Act imposes a homeland for Hindus on a culturally diverse region and Assams youth will have none of it

Assamese students protest against the Citizenship Amendment Bill. PTI

These clashes were over language, leading to Bangla being the official language of the Barak Valley; and Assamese being the official language of the larger Brahmaputra Valley. The Andolan or movement concluded with the signing of the Assam Accord (August 1985) whereby AASU was a signatory. This accord pledged to protect rights of indigenous people of Assam first and the concept of the NRC was born then. The idea behind the National Registry of Citizenship was to identify and deport the illegal immigrant, most having come from East Pakistan, former Bangladesh around 1971.

The Citizenship Amendment Act moves this timeline to include Hindu immigrants identified by the NRC to 2014. Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative  director and seasoned journalist Sanjoy Hazarika explains this further: "The NRC and the CAA are like twins conjoined at the hip. One undoes what the other does. So the NRC, which had support in Assam and the North East, went through a complicated process and interventions from the Supreme Court. There was course correction of this process and then the final list put the number of excluded people at 19 Lakhs. That may not be the final NRC but this is what we have now. Of these 19 lakhs, a large majority is Hindus of Bengali origin that has obviously come from East Pakistan and Bangladesh. Now the CAA says that everyone is legitimate except the Muslims. That's the contradiction, which changes the goal post from 1971 to 2014. That's 43 years! For Assam that is the crucial connection, which is why it becomes a special case for the state."

The CAA essentially draws distinction based on religion when the real issue that AASU and the Assamese have fought over is illegal immigration. If one has to resettle Bengali immigrants than why not settle all? Why just Hindus? Apart from also ignoring challenges of re-settlement of smaller communities like the Chakmas living in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, the NRC has not served the purpose of identifying illegal immigrants as per a narrative structured by past politics.

Saikia says," NRC was premised on the possibility of the idea of a legal-bureaucratic mechanism to identify and count the alleged illegal migrants from Bangladesh and deport them to their original homeland…. Behind this also worked a narrative of continuous flow of people across the border from Bangladesh who could, apparently, jeopardies the rights of the local population. Such a narrative was further emboldened by occasional masterstroke by top political functionaries. When the NRC process began, which was nevertheless a merciless cultural, political and bureaucratic exercise, there were layers of hope: while many began to experience the troubled time ahead of them, a section of society presumed that their homeland would be now free from the alleged illegal immigrants from Bangladesh….Though this did not happen exactly, large majority thought this exercise still be considered a step forward to achieve their desired goal….A section of the society also began to dismiss the NRC for not matching their desired political dream. It is too early to predict to indicate which of these two narratives will be acceptable to general populace,".

Adding further confusion to this is the Inner line Permit. A special clause which restricts purchase of land in tribal dominated states of NE India and certain districts of Assam, it complicates access to these underdeveloped regions without a special document for Indians. Hazarika adds, "You can protect the smaller states (within the North East) with the supposed limits of the ILP (Inner Line Permit) but that also throws up new challenges for people from the rest of the country. They know that to go to Manipur they will need a permit before they get there. There are other questions too. With such rules in place how will investors invest? How will people from the region who live outside the NE and have families there travel back home? Ad-hocism has been the bane of all governments (on this issue). "

The current BJP-AGP state government in Assam rode on a populist wave that assumed over 60 lakh illegals of Muslim origin living in the state. Hence the NRC got widespread support. Over 12,000 crores, efforts of 52,000 overworked government employees and a decade later, the NRC disappointed by throwing up just 19 lakhs as illegals, and a chunk of these being Bengalis of Hindu origin. Legitimizing the Hindu therefore, fit in with the BJP manifesto but other stakeholders in this process of resettlement were not asked.

Hazorika explains, "BJP has taken its manifesto very seriously but it has done so without a process of adequate consultation. This manifesto has not been a secret and the BJP is not really deviating from it. But such arbitrariness leads to reactions especially in sensitive regions. Ours is not a small country. There are many different perspectives. I also think that the reaction from Assam was not expected."

Now, as protests roil the state of Assam, reports of atrocities from the ground have begun to come in. Internet is shut down, and despite removals of curfew, tensions on ground are high. Assam's student community has widespread support from fellow North Easterns and expatriates, but by imposing the CAA from a higher up authority, the BJP government has again proven that alienating the state's people is not a concern.

Saikia captures the prevalent mindset when he says, "There is little doubt that despite its political career in the pre-British era, Assam had deep engagement with other regions of India intellectually, culturally and economically. The British era had intensified and redefined these connections but also heralded an era of economic impoverishment. This political and economic framework of rule of this region was not corrected during the first 30 years of India's independence. A massive political unrest during 1979-85 only moderately changed this attitude of the Indian government but this was short-lived. Post-1990s, the benefits of India's liberalisation largely could not deeply impact the region's economic structure….In the last few years, ignoring these fault lines, an attempt was made to make Assamese nationalism a part of nationalism produced in the Hindi heartland. There were only few takers. But many continued to hope against hope waiting for something dramatic to happen to their general economic lots. The CAB was seen as the final nail in the coffin and simply galvanized these fault lines".

As a student of history, the author can spot a likening to the CAA being forced upon the North East and the concept of 'lebensraum' (living space) that played a decisive part in framing ultra right wing and Nazi ideology. A perceived homeland for Hindus is being brought upon a region that prides itself on diversity and linguistic identity. Given these circumstances once can only expect unrest to balloon.

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Updated Date: Dec 16, 2019 07:30:57 IST