As many parts of India is undergoing an intense phase of protest in the wake and aftermath of the passing of Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), 2019, Northeast India has been in the eye of the storm. With reports of multiple deaths and injuries, detention of multitudes and the occurrence of vandalism in places, a whole new generation in the region has been introduced to curfews in their towns and army flag marches in their streets. For the older generation, it meant revisiting the traumas of yesteryear, the collective memories of conflict that had been a force formative in the very making of the region. Echoing slogans, the likes of ‘will give blood, but not our soil’, that ringed through the tumultuous resource centric social movements during the decades of 1960-80 in the region, new writings on the wall such as ‘will give blood, but not our land’, have begun to emerge.
The opposition to CAA stemmed initially from the Northeastern states of India (when there was an abortive attempt in May 2018 to introduce the bill to Parliament in the form of Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 by the previous Union government. This time in 2019 too, the protests started from Northeast India when the government announced its intent to move the bill to Parliament in early part of December 2019. Only once the Bill was passed into an Act, the protest spread to many other parts of India. It is of utmost importance to understand that much of the opposition emanating from Northeast India against the new act of 2019 is grounded around substantially different factors than those causing a stir in the rest of India. For most opposing groups in India, the issue is one of ‘protecting secularism’ and ‘undifferentiated citizenship rights’ in India. As the critiques point out by making special provisions for citizenship on the grounds of religious persecution, for the first time the act has introduced religion as a new principle into the citizenship law. The act sets to extend citizenship to persons belonging to six minority communities—Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians—in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, who have entered into India on or before 31 December, 2014. The act also reduces the aggregate period of residential qualification for citizenship for those eligible from 11 years to six years of residency in India in the case of the aforementioned non-Muslim migrants from these three countries.
What is not equally understood, however, is that for the people out in the streets in Northeast India, beyond and besides the ‘secularist concern’, the thrust of the critique stems from the perception of the Act as one posing an imminent threat to the multitude of ‘indigenous identities’ in the region. For the people opposition to the Act has been seen as a measure of prevention against the potential inundation by ‘settler’ migrant cultures. Towards this protection, arguments for ‘differentiated citizenship’ – the granting of special group-based constitutional rights to national minorities and ethnic groups – have been forwarded time to time in the region. This is why the exercise of updating the National Register of Citizen (NRC) based on the first census of independent India in 1951 was seen as a ‘historical necessity’ and a fulfilment of a ‘legitimate demand’ by many in the region. In recent times, Assam has gone through an unprecedented bureaucratic exercise of identifying ‘citizens’ to prepare a ‘National’ Register of Citizens (NRC) for Assam, producing the largest database for pre-1971 documents anywhere in the country. What is being considered problematic to many in Assam is the fact that in its immediate scope of the new Act translates into a selective faith-based amnesty for a large segment of the 1.9 million people not included in the NRC in Assam. As per different sources, a large part of the people excluded in the final NRC in Assam are Bengali Hindus, most of whom now likely to have become eligible for citizenship under the new Act. Therefore, the Act is seen to have nullified the NRC exercise in effect.
However, even when the protestors in Northeast India have pitched their opposition around the idea of protection of ‘indigenous identities’, rest of India seems to solely focus on the ‘communalising’ effects of the Act. This explains that in most parts of India, NRC and CAA has been clubbed together as testaments of communal politics targeting the ‘Muslims’, not understanding the local and historical contexts to it.
A vexed history of citizenship in the ‘zone of exceptions’
For the most of its modern history Northeast India has been experiencing a crisis in citizenship. A sensitivity about the long arch of history that has informed the formation of the region as “the residual fallout of colonial politics and administration” (Phanjoubam 2009: 158), or as “a freak child of partition” (Van Schendel, 2018:273), is helpful in understanding this perception of crisis. Containing a little less than four percent of the country’s total population and approximately eight percent of the total land area, the eight north easternmost states in India, collectively referred to as India’s Northeast or Northeast Indian region assumes significance due to its geo-political location (at the tri-junction of South, East and South East Asia), ecological resources (a rich bio diversity zone with abundance of water, mineral, forest resources) and cultural diversities (hosting eclectic ethnic minority identities resulting in competing territorial nationalisms). A long history of colonial interventions followed by post-colonial conflict has shaped up the very foundation of the region, specially influencing the different ways the region has been historically imagined and continues to be imagined. Political scientist Sanjib Baruah describes a condition of ‘durable disorder’ where insurgency and counter-insurgency operations have caused human and material losses, eroded the region’s democratic fabric, and institutionalised authoritarianism (Baruah, 2005). The debates and deliberations around the issue of CAA need to be understood with the baggage of these complex constitutional and federal negotiations coated with a chequered history of social movements and accords. India’s Northeast is considered as one of ‘South Asia’s hottest trouble spots’ as it has been the hotbed of movements of various kinds that range from those seeking more autonomy within the constitutional arrangements to those seeking separation and secession on the basis of the rights to self determination. The movements across the ideological spectrum are moored around common theme of a sense of deprivation and their constant negotiation with the Indian state have given rise to a range of legal and constitutional experiments.
The scope of the act and the dissatisfaction in the Northeast
The CAB, 2016 that was aborted after being placed only in one house of Parliament in 2018, was to be enforceable in the entire country while the CAB 2019 has left out the areas mentioned in the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution and also those requiring Inner Line Permit (ILP), a permit that allows an outsider to visit these protected areas for a specific period of time but does not allow them to settle there. A permit system introduced by the British in 1873, when they implemented the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation. Nagaland, Mizoram and most parts of Meghalaya are covered under the ILP regime. Manipur is also set to come under the ILP regime. Sikkim is in a state of ambiguity as to whether the special Article 371F of the Indian Constitution, which accords Sikkim the status of special state, completely shields it from the ambit of the CAA, 2019. What has added to the sense of vulnerability here is the recent example of the abrogation of the special Article 370 applicable to the state of Jammu and Kashmir.
This leaves those areas of Tripura, Assam and Meghalaya that are not protected under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution as well as Inner Line Permit regime open to implementation of the CAA. However, besides these areas turning into the epic centre of protest,civil society groups in the region, led in particular by student organisations and artistes, have come out in denouncement. The region has repeatedly come to a standstill responding to the calls given out by the Northeast Students Organisation (NESO) for Northeast wide strikes and shutdowns (bandh).
What have these designs of differential treatments within the region achieved?
One, it has added to the sense of vulnerability and abandonment to those areas within Northeast, which are not under any ‘protective regime’. Two, it has also opened up the debate about the real efficacy about such system of ‘asymmetrical federalism’ where special territorial rights are granted, but cannot be ‘guaranteed’ in practice. As in effect only the non-tribal areas of Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura will fall within the ambit of the act, this also has the potential to reactivate the binaries between ‘tribals and-non tribals’. As it has often been criticized, provisions like the Sixth Schedule have been used as tools of post colonial state making, whereas it has protected and divided the region simultaneously.
The objection in Assam: a breach of a constitutional commitment
It has been pointed out that when it comes to the issue of citizenship, exception has been the rule for Assam. When the cut off year for the rest of India for determining citizenship claims is 1951, for Assam it was fixed as 1971. This was in recognition of Assam’s vulnerable geo-political location as the ‘natural’ preferred shelter ground of the highly populous as well as porous historical neighbourhood. Thus, in November 1986, Parliament amended the Citizenship Act, 1955 by adding Section 6A, which introduced a sixth category of citizenship in India along with five existing norms of birth, descent, registration, naturalisation, and by incorporation of foreign territory into India. Thus a sixth and differentiated system to determine ‘foreigner’ was evolved for Assam categorising them on the basis of the date of their entry into the state. The 20-year exception rule, 1971 as the cut off year for Assam and 1951 for the rest of India, was a compromise formula in many senses between the narrative of a dominance seeking Assamese nationalism and a policy of the Indian state seeking order and status quo. The exception rule has often provoked resentments resulting in petitions as well as movements challenging it, calling for all India 1951 baseline year for Assam too. But the cut off year of 1971 being a cornerstone of the Assam Accord has garnered wider social sanction in the Brahmaputra Valley. Herein lies the critical importance of the Assam Accord. Born out of a thousand deaths due to years long inter-ethnic, intra-ethnic as well as state led violence, a consensus was arrived at in 1985 in the form of the Assam Accord. It was seen as measure to settle the complex balance between the binaries of ‘indigenous/ outsider’, ‘citizen/ migrant’, ‘alien/ refuge’ so on. The current sense of dismay in Assam is primarily due to what people perceive as the BJP’s backtracking on pre-poll stances like securing an “immigrant free Assam” and “protecting the indigenous” by putting the state under the purview of the CAA without any exemptions. This is precisely why the repeated assurances by the home minister about bringing “safeguards to the indigenous of Assam” in the context of the CAA has not found many takers in the state. While the government is promising to implement Clause 6 of the Assam Accord, which assures protection to the cultural-economic identities of the Assamese, in the same breath, it seems to be denouncing the essence of the Accord by not respecting the cut-off year of 1971.
An ‘indigenous’ life world, not a ‘religious’ one
The related second argument coming out of the protest on the streets of the Northeast is that the Act goes against sensibilities of the doctrine of ‘indigenousness’. Behind these claims and counter claims, a complex politics of identity is at play, often anchored around the resourceful identity of language. Working on the twin matrix of identity-ness and resourceful-ness, language has historically trumped religion as a primary marker of identity in Assam. A vital aspect of the regional history due to which the Assam Accord too consciously refrained from making religion a criterion of identification when it comes to issues of migration and citizenship.
This foundation quickly lapses into the argument that with the ‘acceptance’ of Bengali Hindu migrants in Assam, there appears a real possibility that the Assamese speakers and the other ‘indigenous’ communities will be further turned into absolute minorities, linguistically and, by extension, politically.
To underline this argument, it is often pointed out that with subsequent census reports the number of Assamese speakers have been coming down by 9 percent. (to 47.8 percent (2001) from 57.8 percent (1991)), while during the same period the share of Bengali speakers have gone up by 6 percent (to 27.5 percent (2001) from 21.7 percent (1991)). Number of Hindus declined by 2.1 percent from 64.9 percent (2001) from 67.1 percent (1991) and further declined by 3.5 percent at 61.47 percent (2011 census). During the same period number of Muslims went up by 2.4 percent at 0.9 percent (2001) from 28.4 percent (1991) and a further jump by 3.5 percent at 34.22 percent (2011 census). Therefore, some deductions can be made that during 1991-2001 the rise of Bengali speakers as a linguistic group seems to be composed both by the growth of the Hindu Bengalis and Muslim Bengalis in Assam. Going by the dominant themes of linguistic identity politics in the state, this the growth trajectory that becomes a ground of political mobilisation in Assam. These statistics do not support the linear and straightforward relation between the growth of the ‘Muslims’ in Assam and the decline in the number of Assamese speakers, barring all other complexities, as has been projected by the ruling party in the state and the centre. The factors behind the gradual decline in the number of Assamese speakers and the rise of Bengali speakers are much complex and cannot be seen through the prism of ‘Hindu-Muslim’ binary. This would also refute the claim moved by political ideologues of the ruling dispensation that the acceptance and import of ‘Hindu Bengalis’ will restore the shifting balance of Assamese identity, which is under threat due to the ‘disproportionate growth of the Muslims in Assam', being propagated as the fundamental threat to ‘Assamese identity’. As discussed, ‘the indigenous’ of the region is primarily uneasy with the outsider/ foreigner and not with their Hindu-ness or the Muslim-ness per se. In this form of ‘secular’, the flow is constitutional and rupture is communal.
The ecological argument: of contentious demographics and resource claims
The protests are also anchored around the question of the issue of ecological capacities and resource burden on a fragile ecological zone. Citizenship is after all a status of entitlement and as such a bond of promise. As per government records, the flood prone area in Assam is four times the national mark, 39.58 percent against 10.2 percent for the whole of India. An official report of the State Water Resource Department states that 3,88,476 hectare of land was lost to erosion between 1954-2012 at an annual rate of 8,000 hectare. It means the displacement of 90,700 families living in 2,534 flood affected villages. Add to this the fact that Northeast India that boasts nearly 44 percent of the country’s forest cover has witnessed around 65 percent of the country’s forest loss during the period 2001 to 2012 as per the data of Global Forest Watch (GFW). Thus the argument goes that the ecological-social balance is just too critical for a state like Assam and region like Northeast India to bear additional burden of population in flow. The Northeast in this narrative is seen as a ‘resource frontier’ (Karlsson, 2011) where most of the conflicts are related to issues of resource access and control and the growing inability of the people to interact meaningfully with the ecological habitat. Besides, the very test of one being an ‘indigenous’ is increasingly seen as a capacity to lead a meaningful and dignified existence in one’s natural habitat. Communities in Northeast India too are getting involved in international indigenous people’s rights forums where a capacity to command one’s natural resources are considered a vital component of ones existence as an indigenous people.
Given the volatile identity discourse in the region, violent conflicts over the issue of ‘rightful ownership’ over natural resources are frequent. As the opponents of the CAA alleges, when Assam and the larger Northeast Indian region are undergoing an intense ecological crisis triggering conflicts, the talk of ‘low density’ spaces to settle the ‘refugees’ (as the Joint Parliamentary Committee on the CAB mentioned in their report), reveals a stark ignorance of such local realities of resource centric conflicts. Some would find this ‘ignorance’ reminiscent of colonialism when spaces like the Northeast India were constructed after the images ‘unruly frontiers’ signifying ‘empty spaces’ to be filled up as per the political exigencies of the day. Local histories, cultures and sensitivities would not matter much in such security centric imaginations.
Conclusion: Need for pragmatic politics and emphatic imaginations
India’s Northeast, a land of volatile identities having an uneasy experience with migration, is held together by a fragile consensus forged in the larger interest of peace and co-existence. The seams of these fault-lines pass by people’s lived realities, always at the risk of being burst open with an act of insensitivity. The enactment of the CAA is considered by many as one such act. The widespread protests against the new Act have also given many in the region a moment to introspect the place of regional identity and sub-national imaginations in the Indian federal system. This assumes significance at a time where a linear and singular ‘national’ imagination seems to be attempting to overpower others.
Petitions have been filed in the highest court of the land against the Act by many parties calling it unconstitutional for being violative of three primary articles of the constitution of India, besides others: a) Article 14 that provides for equality before the law within the territory of India, b) Article 15 that prohibits the discrimination by the state against any citizen on grounds of religion, caste, race, sex and place of birth and c) Article 29 that protects the interests of the minorities by making a provision that any citizen/ section of citizens having a distinct language, script or culture have the right to conserve the same. When it comes to citizenship laws, Assam previously has been an example of constitutional moralities striking a balance with geo-political as well as socio-political realities of a space. One hopes such wisdom will be exercised further in the interest of peace and the dignified existence of ‘peripheral’ nationalities within the Indian Union.
Disclaimer: This article was prepared with the support of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung India. The views and analysis contained in the publication are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung.
The Sixth Schedule of the Constitution of India allows for the formation of Autonomous District Councils to administer ‘tribal dominated areas’, which have been given autonomy within their respective states. Most of these autonomous district councils are located in North East India but two are in the Ladakh region of Northern India.
https://waterresources.assam.gov.in/portlets/flood-erosion-problems, accessed on 18/12/19
B.G. Karlsson, 2011. ‘Unruly Hills-Nature and Nation in India’s Northeast’,Berghan Books.
Pradip Phanjoubam, 2009. ‘Northeast Problems as a Subject and Object’ in Baruah, S. (ed), Beyond Counter-Insurgency: Breaking the Impasse in North-East India. OUP.
Sanjib Baruah, 2005. ‘Durable Disorder: Understanding the Politics of Northeast India’, OUP.
Willem van Schendel, 2018, ‘Afterword: contested, vertical, fragmenting: de-partitioning 'Northeast India' studies’ in Mélanie Vandenhelsken, Meenaxi Barkataki-Ruscheweyh, Bengt G. Karlsson (edited) ‘Geographies of Difference : Explorations in Northeast Indian Studies’. Taylor and Francis, London.