Oppose the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, but for the right reasons     

Protecting secularism should be the premise of the opposition and not xenophobic nativism

Debarshi Das

Kakopathar, located in the easternmost tip of Assam, has a special place in the resistance lore of the state. In February, 2006, the Indian Army picked up a suspected ULFA linkman named Ajit Mahanta. Mahanta’s subsequent death in Army custody led to mass protests in Kakopathar. At least nine people were killed when the Army opened fire on unarmed protesters. The progressive-democratic sections of Assam remember Kakopathar as a symbol of common men’s courage against State depredation.

Kakopathar has returned to news after 13 years. The Asomiya Pratidin of January 13 reported that a Bolero pick-up van with a group of 36 people, mostly women and children, were detained by the police in Kakopathar. The Bolero had a puncture. Finding the group of stranded strangers on the road, the locals, who were returning from an anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Bill rally, probably guessed their religion and language. They started shouting “Bangladeshi! Bangladeshi!” Some locals tried to assault the group, while some tried to set their belongings on fire. Fortunately, in these circumstances, the police took the group in custody. As per the claim of the apprehended, they are not Bangladeshis but residents of Nagaon and Morigaon districts of central Assam and were on their way to Arunachal Pradesh.

It won’t be surprising if the claim turns out to be correct. Incidents of harassment of poor non-indigenous working class people, when they are travelling in a group, are common. On October 13, 2018, the KMSS (Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti, an organisation with left-nationalist leaning) called a bandh against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. The Bill seeks to grant legal status to non-Muslim infiltrators from Bangladesh. On that day, there were two separate incidents of similar nature. Nationalist organisations of Assam detained groups of non-locals on the suspicion that they were Bangladeshis. Seven apprehended men who were actually from Dhubri district were made to kneel down, holding their ears. Their photos were taken. Another “Bangladeshi” group was not even Bengali or Muslim, they were migrant Hindu workers from Bihar.

These two incidents of Kakopathar, the first of resistance, the other of xenophobia, points to the tragedy politics has wreaked upon Assam and the Northeast. The disaffection of locals which could have been directed towards the neglect by the State has got directed towards their potential comrades. The draconian powers that the State arrogated to itself has left a trail of blood all over the region. Ajit Mahanta of Kakopathar, Parag Das of Guwahati, Thangjam Manorama of East Imphal are a few in a long list of names.

But this list is not the only list that exists. There is another list which is longer. It goes on extending silently. The 15 mine workers who died trapped in the rat-hole mines of Meghalaya belong to this list. The list does not have recognisable names. Poor working people, desperate enough to risk their lives in hazardous occupations which disembowel the nature, find their place here. The immigrant as well as the indigenous enters this list.

Protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 are welcome. The Bill links religious identity to Indian citizenry, and is a thinly-veiled attempt to set the country on the path of Hindu Rashtra

The tragedy is that politics of the state appears to be oblivious of the second list. It misidentifies its adversary. The Bangladeshi becomes its enemy. To nab the ubiquitous yet elusive Bangladeshi, an unending hunt, as described above, goes on. The working class locals, who are in the second list, gets pitted against the working class migrants who are in the same list. The possibility of a united resistance of the second-listers gets nullified.

Perhaps, that was the aim after all. It helps if our attention gets diverted from the ruthless exploitation of natural resources of the region and of labour. The spectre of the elusive Bangladeshi is thus extremely useful. The popular media in Assam fulminates over Bangladeshi infiltration and the existential crisis of the Assamese people. Let us parse the evidence of these two claims, namely, mass Bangladeshi infiltration in Assam and existential crisis of the Assamese-speaking people in their homeland.

What is the evidence of infiltration? In 2004, the Union Home Ministry mentioned that 5 million illegal Bangladeshis were in Assam. This figure has been widely cited as an authentic confirmation of the presence of illegal foreigners. If 5 million illegal Bangladeshis were residing in Assam, they constituted nearly 20% of state’s population at that point of time. The number was even quoted in a Supreme Court judgment which directed the update of the NRC (National Register of Citizens). The fact is, the Union Home Ministry itself has clarified that “The reported figures were not based on any comprehensive or sample study but were based on hearsay and that too from interested parties. Therefore, no realistic figures can be given for illegal Bangladeshi migrants in Assam.”

The border with Bangladesh is porous. The presence of waterbodies makes it difficult to police. Also, it is impossible to stop the back and forth movement of men and material within a landscape which was an integral whole for millennia. So, nobody is making a case that there are absolutely no illegal Bangladeshi migrants in Assam. But it is reasonable to expect “mass Bangladeshi infiltration” – an issue which has dogged public discourse for decades – would have a sound statistical backing. This is sadly missing.

Secondly, what is the evidence of ‘existential crisis of the Assamese people in their homeland’? According to the Census figures of 2001 and 2011, a little less than 50 per cent of Assam’s residents identified themselves as Assamese speakers. A little less than 30 per cent reported Bengali. Expressing grave concern, these figures have been mentioned by eminent intellectuals of the state as they rationalised the NRC process that may render more that a million Assamese residents stateless. Indian states were formed on the principle of linguistic divide. Therefore, losing linguistic majority appears to be a serious development. Is it really?

The geographic boundaries of Assam has changed over time. For revenue purposes, the British Raj appended the Bengali-dominated Barak-Surma valley to the Assamese-dominated Brahmaputra valley. The hatchet of Partition cut off Sylhet in 1947 from the Barak-Surma valley region; the Hindu-majority, Bengali-speaking old Cachar district remained with Assam. The correct point of reference, therefore, cannot be the entire state. It can be the Brahmaputra valley. Have the Assamese speakers lost majority in Brahmaputra valley? Nothing could be further than truth. Assamese speakers outnumber Bengali speakers roughly by a ratio of 2.8 to 1 in the Brahmaputra valley districts. Three Assamese speakers for each Bengali speaker does not sound like an existential crisis.

If the threat is not demographic, does it lie in the cultural domain? Is Assamese language getting pushed to a corner by aggressive Bengali language domination? During colonial times, Bengali was adopted as the official language of Assam between the 1830’s and the 1870’s. This left a historically long bitter taste in the mouth of the Assamese-speaking people. Allegations have been levelled that Bengalis have a hidden plot to thwart the growth of Assamese language and impose their own language on the people. It did not help that in 1898, in an article titled Bhashabichchhed, Rabindranath Tagore held that Assam and Odisha should adopt Bengali as their language, for Assamese and Odia are akin to many dialects of Bengali.

These unfortunate events happened more than a hundred years ago. It is tenuous to claim today that Bengalis are smothering Assamese culture. The Brahmaputra valley boasts of a rich and thriving Assamese literary scene. Scores of Assamese newspapers and TV channels exist and the list is ever-growing. Assamese films, theatres, videos, audios are produced and consumed by millions. It is inconceivable that a vibrant community of 16 million with a wealth of cultural heritage will get annihilated by Bangladeshi (or Bengali) intruders. If anything, migrant settlers are gradually assimilating into local mores of life. There are migrant Bengali families which do not speak Bengali anymore, not even in their homes. It could be debated if culturally that is a great development. The larger point is the narrative of existential crisis that gets manufactured by politics and magnified by the media has extremely shaky factual basis. Such nativist narratives do a disservice to the forging of cross-ethnic alliances and solidarities between peoples which could provide a closure to the series of ethnic violence Assam has been witness to.

Protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 are welcome. The Bill links religious identity to Indian citizenry, and is a thinly-veiled attempt to set the country on the path of Hindu Rashtra. Some redoubtable liberals see the Bill as justice meted out to the victims of Partition. But it is doubtful if secularism is a price worth paying for that delayed justice. Mainland India should wake up. The very vision of the republic is at stake. At the same time, one worries that protests in the Northeast against the Bill are less about protecting secular India and are more driven by nativism.

(The writer is an academic)

This article first appeared in National Herald on Sunday.

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