“A nation that has the aspiration to become a leading power…cannot continue with… an unintegrated region,” external affairs minister S. Jaishankar said in a recent public lecture.
Undoubtedly, India’s Northeast has been one such region. Nationalist disquiet in this area had necessitated the Indian state to enact and impose the controversial Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 (AFSPA) as an “exceptional” measure, “as a paradigm” to govern and incorporate those who somehow could not be fully integrated into the political system of the Indian state.
The latest amendment to the Citizenship Act could be seen as another juridical supplement to AFSPA, a notorious legal fiction that excludes, much like the Nuremberg laws did to the Jews, the people of India’s Northeast from the ambit of the constitutional guarantee of right to life.
Indeed, if AFSPA has reduced individual citizens to “bare lives” who can be killed merely on the basis of suspicion without going through the familiar legal procedures, the CAA comes as an additional onslaught on the population as a whole by allowing and justifying an adverse shift in the demographic balance between migrants and the region’s native inhabitants.
The demographic legacy of colonialism
In a proverbial move of killing two birds with one stone, the CAA seeks to add a “Hindu-Muslim” dimension by splitting Bengali-speakers on religious lines in order to consolidate the BJP’s position in West Bengal while simultaneously positioning Hindu Bangla speakers as its ‘vanguard of nation-building’ in India’s Northeast.
Such a move, and the responses it has triggered, particularly the restive voice from India’s Northeast, must be understood within a historical context.
Since the 19th century, Muslims have been marked out in Bengali society. Even the hero of Bengali renaissance Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay invoked religion to mark out Muslims – despite their common linguistic/ethnic background – when he talked of four types of Bengali: “Aryan-Bengali”, “non-Aryan Bengali”, “mixed-Bengali” and “Muslim-Bengali”.
Besides, it’s worth remembering that the vocabulary of “partition” in South Asia began with the split of Bengal in 1905 on religious ground and the colossal violence that marked the later partition of South Asia in 1947 started with the bloody riots in Bengal in March, 1946.
With this historical backdrop, one must understand how the question of “Hindu-Muslim” divide comes to play its part in the rise of Hindu rights in the east, including the ongoing tussle between the Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the BJP in West Bengal, with their eyes firm on the forthcoming assembly election in that state.
For India’s Northeast, it’s been a part of the contact between Bengal with Southeast Asia, particularly its northwestern region, a phenomenon that preceded the emergence of western colonial forces in these areas. However, a significant shift took place as the British made steady inroads into the region, particularly in the latter half of the 18th century. They brought along Bangla speakers from Bengal into this territory to run their administration. And till the end of the 19th century, everything from the medium of instruction in schools to the normative cultural imagination of the elite sections of the people in the region was influenced by the Bengali (bhadralok) ethos.
Subsequently, amongst the Bangla speakers, not only was Assam seen as a part of Bengal but also the Axomiya language was seen as one of its “dialects”. The Axomiya (and Manipuri) nationalist awakening in the late 19th and early parts of 20th century was in part a reaction to this hegemonic imaginaire which was reinforced by the presence of Bengali speakers in key positions.
Besides, there is a tendency amongst certain sections of Bangla nationalists, including Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, to look at India’s Northeast as a part of larger Bengal. Incidentally, the name “Northeast”, which has both spatial and racial-cultural-civilisational connotations (e.g., “South East Asia begins from India’s Northeast”), originates from a spatial reference to the region as a periphery (viz., “Northeastern Frontier”) of the then colonial Bengal, with Kolkata as its cosmopolitan centre. Thus, during the partition of South Asia in 1947, some had even sought to place Assam in (what was then East) Pakistan and Assamese nationalists had to make strenuous efforts to ensure that it did not happen.
The partition of the subcontinent in 1947, and the war in 1971 which saw the emergence of Bangladesh, also brought more Bengali speakers into the region, changing its demographic character. With the porous border, economically driven migration has also been taking place over the years.
A grim reminder of these population shifts has been the fate of Tripura. There, the indigenous Tripuris have been reduced to barely 20% of the population and the immigrants have taken over and come to define the state’s political, economic and cultural landscape.
Given these facts and historically rooted experiences, the very idea of granting Indian citizenship (en bloc) to immigrants, legal or illegal, from Bangladesh, irrespective of whichever religious groups those immigrants may belong, is bound to come as an ominous proposition to people in the region.
In fact, this act of automatically converting Bangladeshi migrants into citizens has to be seen in the context of the extra attention the Government of India under the leadership of Prime Minister Modi has been giving to this “eastern frontier” – incidentally an imperial expression that the Prime Minister had used while speaking on the occasion of signing the Framework Agreement for Nagaland on August 3, 2015.
The attention Modi has paid, which includes economic and security measures, has taken a diabolical turn with the CAA. By encouraging a demographic re-balancing, the Act in effect becomes a measure to deal with an “un-integrated” region which is a crucial part of what has been termed the “Mongolian fringe” of South Asia by Olaf Caroe, the foreign secretary of the then British-Indian Government in 1940, a region inhabited by people who, as Sardar Patel once wrote to Nehru, lack “loyalty” to the nation and suffer from “pro-Mongoloid prejudices”.
In short, the move could amount to, wittingly or unwittingly, producing India’s own version of China’s moves in Tibet or the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
The move is bound to foster antagonism amongst the people in the region. Not only between Hindus and Muslims, which is not an irrelevant issue in the region, but also Bangla speakers, including those who have been part and parcel of the region for hundreds of years, and the other non-Bangla indigenous population in the region.
Furthermore, the introduction of what has been termed as an “exemption” in the new law seeks to camouflage the question of a demographic shift by leaving this so-called “exemption” open-ended or vague.
For instance, when the new law says that the amendment shall not be applied in those areas under the VIth Schedule and provisions of the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation, 1873 (BEFR/ILP), what does it exactly mean?
Does it mean that those undocumented immigrants in these areas shall not be allowed to apply for citizenship under the provisions of the CAA? Or that those immigrants who have been granted citizenship under the new law shall not be allowed to enter and/or settle in these areas? In any case, what will stop the same immigrants from applying for citizenship in other areas or parts of the country which are not under the VIth Schedule or BEFR/ILP. And once they have been granted citizenship, what will stop them – and their next generations – from entering or settling in any part of India’s Northeast? Such critical issues have been left unexplained.
Simultaneously, the “exemption” not only splits the unified voice against the move but also sets up a situation which seeks to create new, and accentuate old, schisms amongst the indigenous population in the region – between those in the hills and plains of Assam, the valleys and hills of Manipur, and “Scheduled Tribes” and other un-scheduled communities in India’s Northeast.
These developments are likely to accentuate the familiar “ethnic” (for the want of a better expression) “chauvinism” and “conflicts” in the region, an orientation that will sap the energy of the people while simultaneously distracting their attention from the inroads of neo-liberal extractive forces and the security apparatus.
Such eventualities of conflict and antagonism are then likely to be placed within the discursive space of “national integration” and “development” to justify and further strengthen the overbearing security outlook towards the region and mask the extractive economic onslaught.
As a responsible state, India must show its responsibility towards refugees with humanitarian concern and act in line with international norms. If neighbouring states are persecuting their own citizens, India must take up the issue either in bi-lateral or multilateral forums with these countries. That is expected of a responsible member of the United Nations. But the CAA is not a refugee policy that is in conformity with international law but a politically expedient method of converting immigrants into citizens, promoting schisms and conflict in the Northeast and elsewhere in India.
A government which cannot even give employment to its youth and whose citizens languish without basic amenities is invoking the logic of “blood relations” to convert immigrants as citizens at the expense of its own citizens. There is nothing benign or rational about this policy. And we have already begun to see whose blood is colouring the streets as a consequence of the CAA.
A. Bimol Akoijam is a social and political psychologist.
This is the second and final part of A. Bimol Akoijam’s series on the links between the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and nation building. Read part one, on the organic nation and its exclusions, here.