North East: NRC, CAA open healing wounds

The protests have begun to turn violent. There are reports of arson and rioting coming in from Assam, Tripura and Meghalaya

Protests over amended Citizenship act in Shillong (Twitter) 
Protests over amended Citizenship act in Shillong (Twitter)

Samrat Choudhury

The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which promises citizenship after a period of six rather than 11 years residency in India to non-Muslims from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, has cleared the Lok Sabha for the second time. Speaking in Parliament during the debate over the Bill, Union Home Minister Amit Shah linked it to Partition, saying “If the Congress had not divided this country on the basis of religion, there would be no need to bring in this Bill”. This accusation was rebutted by Congress MP Manish Tiwari, who correctly pointed out that the two-nation theory had in fact been pioneered by Sangh icon VD Savarkar. MA Jinnah adopted the same idea years later.

That the Partition of 1947 is the basis of legislation to give citizenship to people now, more than 72 years after the event, is decidedly strange. It is true and undeniable that India was split on the basis of religion in 1947. It is equally true that religious minorities, mainly Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs, in undivided Pakistan and in Afghanistan under the Taliban, have faced serious persecution, thus leaving India as their “natural home”. However, the bulk of the refugee exodus due to such persecution occurred between Partition in 1947 and the Bangladesh genocide in 1971. The only subsequent spikes in migration of Hindus from Pakistan and Bangladesh into India have occurred due to reactions to events such as the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 and the Gujarat riots in 2002. Apart from these, there is probably a steady trickle of migration. Borders on the ground do not have the neat linear clarity that they do on maps, and therefore there is always some movement in both directions across porous land borders at all times.

Though the British Indian empire was divided on maps in the space of two months, from its first announcement in June to the Partition in August 1947, transport links and movement between the different new countries so formed did not cease overnight. However, at the outset, there was no definition of who qualified to be an Indian citizen. The Constitution, which in Part II enumerates provisions for grant of Indian citizenship, came into effect on 26th January 1950. The Constitutional provision in Part II granted citizenship to any person born in India, to any person either of whose parents was born in India, and to any person who had been resident in India for five or more years before the commencement of the Constitution.

Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists who came to India as refugees in those early years became citizens.

Their descendants born in India are citizens. The migration from East Pakistan, which is now Bangladesh, occurred mainly up to 1971, and those who came then, as well as their descendants, are also already citizens. Anyone born in India, including to refugees from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, before July 1987, is a citizen. Even the Hindus who were driven out of Pakistan after 1992 and came into the border districts of Rajasthan and Gujarat have, to a large extent, been resettled and granted citizenship. The power to grant citizenship was delegated to district magistrates in select districts of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Delhi in 2016, and therefore even future migration is possible, and a system exists to handle it.

The necessity of a new amendment to the citizenship laws to grant citizenship specifically to non- Muslims refugees from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, with a December 31, 2014 deadline, is therefore not apparent. Where, outside the seven states of north and west India where DMs can already grant citizenship, are the people who will be benefited by this amendment? The Citizenship Amendment Act is for non-Muslim foreigners. It has no relevance to Indian citizens. Therefore, refugees who have already obtained Indian documentation are not benefited.

What the Citizenship Amendment Act does at present is therefore largely symbolic. It takes to conclusion the logic of Partition, and establishes India as a mirror image of Pakistan. It also replaces fully the original Indian concept of citizenship, which was based on birth within the territory of India – regardless of ethnicity and origins – with the concept of citizenship based on descent. The place where this concept has been put into practice much before the rest of India is Assam. The National Register of Citizens (NRC) drawn up there through the combined efforts of the state government, the centre, and the Supreme Court attempted to weed out those who migrated into the state after March 1971, and their descendants. The exercise was an unmitigated disaster, riddled with errors, and has been rejected by all groups including Assam’s BJP-led state government itself.

In the Assam NRC, a special provision was allowed for easy inclusion of “original inhabitants” of Assam. The category was not defined, but was understood to include the “original Assamese”.

However, Assam is multi-ethnic and different parts of the state have historically had people of different communities living for centuries, many of whom came from different areas. Indeed, Ahoms celebrate December 2 as Sukapha Day to commemorate the arrival in Assam of their first king Chaolung Su Ka Pha from what is now the China-Myanmar border region around Yunnan in the 13th Century A.D. The Ahom claim of being the “original inhabitants” is one that is therefore shaky, and contested by local tribes such as the Bodos and Dimasas who were there before the Ahom monarch arrived. In the Goalpara and Cachar areas, which were appended to Assam from Bengal by the British in 1874, there are old Bengali-speaking populations, who also have claims to being “original” in those parts.

The Bengalis, like the Nepali-speaking populations, are however not generally considered “original inhabitants” of any place outside Bangladesh or West Bengal. The imagination of people as belonging in certain territories is one that has linguistic as well as religious dimensions. In the case of Northeast India, there is also additionally a strong divide between the tribal and the non-tribal. What the Citizenship Amendment Act, the NRC, and the exemptions to the CAA are doing, is deepening every single one of those lines of fracture. For instance, the tribal areas of Northeast India governed by the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution have been granted exemption from CAA. This has not fully allayed renewed fears of being dominated by “outsiders” in tribal groups, but it has certainly demarcated even more deeply the divide between tribal and non-tribal lands and identities.

States covered by the Inner Line Permit have been exempted. Manipur, which did not have the ILP requirement, has been added to the list of such states. This again does not satisfy those against the Act, who point out that an ILP can be procured within one hour for a meagre sum of money by anyone with Indian citizenship. The number of actual migrants who will benefit from the CAB is possibly no more than the 31,313 individuals, mainly Hindus from Pakistan, who were mentioned by the then Intelligence Bureau director in his deposition before the Joint Parliamentary Committee examining the Bill. However, the suspicion of being recent migrants may now attach to all Bengalis across Northeast India who are liable to be viewed as recent migrants from Bangladesh.

Non-tribals already do not have the right to purchase property in most of the tribal areas of Northeast India. Their freedom to carry out trade and business is also more constrained than those of ethnic locals, and they rarely find state government jobs. Indeed, even jobs such as those of teachers in private colleges and schools are generally given to non-tribals only as a last resort. CAA will certainly not add to the limited rights enjoyed by the non-tribals in Northeast India; instead, it will make their already precarious existence more precarious. Nor will it increase the protections enjoyed by the tribals, who fear being swamped by large numbers of outsiders. It will only add to the mutual suspicions between the two.

In Assam, where there has long been a bitter four-cornered tussle between the dominant Assamese- speaking communities (Hindu and Muslim), the Bengali Hindus, the Bengali Muslims called Miyas, and tribal groups, the NRC and CAA together have reopened divides that had healed after decades of conflict. The stage is therefore set for a complicated and unpredictable set of political moves. The initial signs are that the CAA will not go down well in Assam, where there are already large and intensifying protests against the Bill.

Elsewhere in the Northeast, the protests have begun to turn violent. At the time of writing there are initial reports of arson and rioting coming in from Assam, Tripura and Meghalaya. This is not surprising given the long history of ethnic politics in those states.

The attempt to create different classes of citizens, via the combination of CAA and NRC, with the Muslims as second-class citizens, is one that is bound to have serious long-term consequences for India. The reopening of divisive religious politics is also inevitably going to be met by equally divisive ethnic politics. The clashes of linguistic and regional identities may accompany the clash of religious identities.

One Pandora’s Box was opened when the locks of the Babri Masjid were opened in 1985. That event had a decisive impact on Indian politics from then to now. What Amit Shah and Narendra Modi are doing with NRC and CAA is opening two Pandora’s Boxes. It is unlikely that they, or anyone, can forecast the future repercussions of these moves, whose effects may be felt for decades.

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