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FOCUS: Assam’s complicated tryst with CAA

  • While protests against CAA in the rest of India are against the politics of religious nationalism, in Assam the resistance is more to do with ethno-linguistic identity
  • The North-East is a vastly diverse region, with hundreds of different communities inhabiting its seven states, but the long politics of ethnic insider and outsider is a common thread that runs through them all

Guwahati has seen multiple protests through the month against the citizenship amendment law
Guwahati has seen multiple protests through the month against the citizenship amendment law (Photo: Reuters)

Hundreds of thousands of people around the country have been protesting against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC). Hundreds of thousands more who may not have hit the streets have been expressing their objections through Facebook and Twitter. One man, who doesn’t have a Twitter account—at least in his own name—took to television to express his angst, as he does every day for a living. His name is Arnab Goswami, and he is a television news anchor.

Goswami, who usually takes on all those who criticize the government, had a different take when the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill was approved by the Union cabinet on 12 December. That evening, he began to criticize—doubtless to the astonishment of many of his viewers—the government itself, and even the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The government, he said, was doing “Nagpur appeasement", in a reference to the RSS. Where Hindu migrants went, he added, was “none of our concern…let them go to Malaysia, let them go to Jordan, let them go to Vatican City, I couldn’t give a damn".

He explained his reason. It is because, he said, he is an Assamese from Assam.

This pivot was symptomatic of a turn back to ethnic politics in the North-East. The region is vastly diverse, with hundreds of different communities inhabiting its seven states (excluding Sikkim, which is an outlier), but the long politics of ethnic insider and outsider is a common thread that runs through them all. People from communities that are majorities elsewhere in India, such as Bengali and Nepali speakers, have lived there for decades as members of oft-persecuted minorities.

A procession by the Assam Association of the Deaf
A procession by the Assam Association of the Deaf (Photo: PTI)

The picture, however, is not that simple. The integration into India of several of the territories of the North-East, and of the local communities there that see themselves as indigenous, was, and in some measure still is, contested. Since 1947, separatist ethnic insurgencies of varying intensities seeking independence from India have raged at different times across virtually every state. Most of those had wound down by the early 2000s. A change of government in Bangladesh in 2008 landed the top leaders of several of the remaining insurgent groups in the hands of Indian intelligence agencies. Since then, the region had made what appeared to be a decisive turn towards peace and progress.

Indeed, the talk was of the North-East being the fulcrum of India’s Act East policy, and Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Shinzo Abe of Japan were scheduled to meet in Guwahati, Assam, days after the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill was passed by Parliament. The protesters ripped off and burnt down hoardings near the secretariat in Assam’s capital on the first day of major protests when the Bill was tabled in the Rajya Sabha on 11 December. Abe subsequently postponed his visit until further notice.

The blowback in Assam, in particular, is because of a long and complicated history of protests against immigrants from East Bengal, dating back to well before Partition. Many politicians, including the current chief minister of Assam, Sarbananda Sonowal, and his colleague Himanta Biswa Sarma have built their careers on this. The fear that the CAA would open the doors to a flood of refugees from East Bengal—today’s Bangladesh—has naturally inflamed passions.

The genesis of the tensions between the Assamese and Bengali linguistic communities in Assam lies in the state’s particular history. In 1826, the erstwhile Ahom kingdom, which was then under Burmese rule, fell to the British East India Company after the First Anglo-Burmese War of 1824-26. At the time, the British colonial government in India was run out of Calcutta in what used to be the Bengal Presidency. Thus, what is now Assam entered the British domains as part of Bengal.

In January 1838, the judicial and revenue department of the British Company Raj ordered that “in the districts comprised in the Bengal division of the presidency of Fort William, the vernacular language of those provinces shall be substituted for the Persian in judicial proceedings, and in the proceedings relating to the revenue, and the period of twelve months from the first instant shall be allowed for effecting the substitution". Bengali thus came to be imposed on Assam—an imposition for which the Bengali clerks (who were dominant at the lower levels of bureaucracy), rather than the British sahibs, came to be blamed. This subsequently became the historical genesis of a conflict between the Bengali and Assamese linguistic communities in the North-East that lingers to this day.

Citizens take part in a torch light procession to protest against the government's Citizenship Amendment Bill, in Guwahati on 7 December 2019
Citizens take part in a torch light procession to protest against the government's Citizenship Amendment Bill, in Guwahati on 7 December 2019

Anxieties about being dominated or overrun by Bengalis have been arguably the greatest single factor in the politics of Assam, and of at least two other North-East states—Meghalaya and Tripura—for decades. In Tripura, the local tribals of the erstwhile princely state became a minority due to an influx of Bengali-speaking migrants—from what is now Bangladesh—at the time of partition in 1947. This is still held up as a cautionary tale by all the states and communities of the North-East. It is a kind of primal fear that a similar fate may befall others too. The particular historical conditions that led to the partition of the subcontinent, and the forced migration of refugees, are usually forgotten.

While the rest of India has been protesting both the proposed NRC as well as the CAA, the protests in Assam and Meghalaya have been directed only against the CAA. Assam is so far the only state to have gone through the NRC exercise. Over 1.9 million residents of the state have been excluded from the final list and now face statelessness. The exercise has been condemned as erroneous by all political parties in Assam. One of its erstwhile cheerleaders, state finance minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, has promised a review. Even the All Assam Students Union (Aasu) has rejected it. For the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the problem is simple: Too many Hindu Bengalis, who are its core voters in Assam, have been left out. For Aasu, the contention is the exact opposite. They aver that too few people have been excluded. However, both agree that the numbers are not reliable.

Nobody knows how many of those 1.9 million are just poor Indian citizens who have been left out because of issues with documents from before the cut-off date of 25 March 1971, over 48 years ago. However, while protests against the NRC and CAA rage throughout the country, there has not been a single protest against the NRC in Assam, which may have to go through the exercise a second time if it is held for the entire country—such is the desire in the state to see people evicted.

The protests in Meghalaya and its capital, Shillong, against the CAA brought out vast numbers of people on the streets. Here too, the protests were purely against the CAA. In fact, almost the entire state of Meghalaya was already exempt from the provisions of the CAA by virtue of the tribal areas being covered by the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, administered by autonomous district councils. The number of pending citizenship applications from potential CAA beneficiaries in the state is in single digits, according to highly placed government sources. In Assam, Sonowal told the media that the number of beneficiaries of the CAA would be “very few in number", and subsequently repeated that the number was “very negligible".

Every single North-East state has seen rumbles of protest against the CAA. This has included states completely exempted from the provisions of the CAA, such as Nagaland, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh, where Indian citizens from other states require Inner Line Permits, and Manipur, which was added to the list of ILP states to assuage its residents. The concern in the ILP states is simple: The ILP is insufficient protection, they fear. The permit can be procured quite easily and while there is a system to check whether a person entering the state has the permit, there is no system to check if anyone with the permit overstays. The concern is that despite the exemption from CAA, people from Bangladesh, which adjoins the North-East, are somehow going to come flooding in now, and settle in the region.

The politics of religious nationalism championed by the BJP had made inroads into the North-East and tried to appropriate the anti-outsider sentiment, giving it an anti-Muslim turn. The Assam NRC was expected, like the much advertised all-India NRC, to exclude mainly Muslims of Bengali origin, who are prone to being labelled Bangladeshis. It didn’t quite work out that way. When the final NRC list in Assam left out an estimated million-plus Hindus—official data on this is not yet out—the BJP found itself in a bind. The CAA was pushed through as the backdoor via which the excluded Hindus could be saved. However, Assam and the rest of the North-East did not want Hindus either, and this was the point that Arnab Goswami made.

The contradictions between ethno-linguistic politics and religious nationalist politics are now out in the open. The Assam government is trying to control the situation by appeasing supporters of both. It has announced a cabinet decision to make the Assamese language compulsory up to class X in all schools regardless of the medium of instruction, but exempted the Barak Valley, which has a Bengali majority, the Bodoland areas, and the autonomous hill districts.

In emerging explosively into view at the moment of Abe and Modi’s cancelled summit meeting on Act East in Guwahati, these contradictions have highlighted another contradiction. There is an incongruity in carrying on a domestic politics built on demonizing people of neighbouring countries while at the same time investing money and effort in improving connectivity and business ties with them. The Bangladesh home and foreign ministers, like Abe, postponed scheduled visits to India. A former Bangladesh high commissioner to India, Tariq A. Karim, had written in a column in the north-eastern journal East Wind, before the CAA was passed, that “if the Indian state today is redefining itself as a Hindu Rashtra (ironically portraying itself as a mirror-image to Pakistani self-vision), it will end up losing its long-touted credentials as a champion of secularism. In the event, it may well trigger questions in Bangladeshi minds as to why the latter should continue to remain secular, as indeed secularism comprises one of the four pillars of the Bangladeshi state as asserted in its own Constitution".

Bangladesh has the third-largest Hindu population in the world, after India and Nepal. There are more than 14 million Hindus there, and they have chosen to remain there, like Muslims in India, because that is their homeland and they clearly do not wish to leave. The only situation in which the North-Eastern paranoia of millions of Bengali Hindus pouring into the region—as happened in 1947 and 1971—will occur is if situations of the sort that drove forced migration of ordinary people caught in large historical events of those times were to recur. Unfortunately, the NRC and its twin, the CAA—for they are two faces of the same coin—may have increased the likelihood of this.

Samrat is an author, a journalist and a former newspaper editor

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