India Needs to Understand Why the Northeast is Protesting Against CAA

Even as we protest the government's communal agenda, we must not forget that each protest has its own source that cannot be subsumed under other issues.

As attention turns away from the Northeast to mainland India, I write this to remind readers the crisis there continues, and to help provide a wider perspective on the whole Citizenship Amendment Act-National Register of Citizens problem.

Since this is a contentious issue, I want to begin by declaring my stand. I believe the conversation around the region has been hijacked by binaries, even though no binary or political ideology is required to understand the problems faced by minority indigenous groups there, and in India in general.

The communication of one’s plight does not require anyone to prove their allegiance to one side or another; nor does it require playing into popular rhetoric or using a dismissive or patronising tone.

Instead, all one needs is some basic empathy, and the willingness to thoughtfully proceed towards a more peaceful future for the region.

This conversation begins with an article published in Raiot by seven indigenous leaders from Assam. Indigenous voices have been the most suppressed in this situation.

As indigenous leaders, these authors recognise that the complexity begins from Assam having two sorts of outsiders laying claim to their land: settlers from the rest of India, and “illegal/undocumented” migration from outside.

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They also have clarity on another matter: they state that the processes of NRC, before and after, have always been aimed at communally dividing people. They are also clear that deportation or detention are not viable solutions, and are just being used to fool the people. Just as they are now being used to fool even more people with the nationwide NRC and CAA.

The point of the indigenous statement is clear. They write:

“There is no correct political position to be assumed on this issue, except the one which aims at addressing long standing historical demands without resulting in mass displacement and injury to anyone.”

It is their wisdom that all Indians must pay heed to as we move towards solutions for these contentious issues.

The Assam laboratory for experiments in hate

Assam has been used as a pilot to operationalise this programme of hate and to create confusion among ethnic communities living in the rest of the Northeast.

The tactics used by the Indian state in the past decade have included the decentralisation and localisation of fear, by creating multiple ‘others’ through terms like , ‘Bangladeshi infiltrators’, ‘ghuspeti’, ‘anti-national’, ‘outsiders’, ‘Urban Naxals’ and have been fuelling them to fight this enemy.

Activists of All Assam Students Union take part in a torch rally against the amended Citizenship Act, in Guwahati, Friday, January 3, 2020.

In the context of Assam and Northeast, researchers like Rintu and Suraj explain what a “Bangladeshi, Bongal etc” may mean in serving the interest of the state through identity politics.

This plan has worked for the BJP to some extent, as several ethnic groups have now gone back to the beliefs they held in the 70s and 80s, and some political representatives have issued statements against minorities during the whole NRC episode.

A  former minister from Assam, N.S. Deka of the Congress has allegedly said publicly that Bengali speaking people of Assam are trying to destroy the Assamese language and culture and they are obstructing the development of the Assamese community. 

Now, these statements have been used to paint the protest in Assam and Northeast as only communal, which fits with the BJP’s agenda of communalising the issue.

Over the last several days, thousands of people are on the streets across the region; young people have been murdered; the Army is all over. But what the mainland does not realize is that the CAA is not only communal and does not only attack the Muslim population.

It also ends up being an assault on indigenous rights. The mainland may believe that making CAA non-discriminatory when it comes to religion will solve the problem, but it will not address the concerns of indigenous peoples. A situation this complex needs complex and localised solutions, instead of a blanket law.

The indigeneity of the people of Northeast India has been intrinsic to their identity and culture. The mainland fails to understand this, as it never fits into the many simplistic binaries found in India.

An anti-CAA protest in Assam. Photo: PTI

Ethnic identities matter, and have even been partially recognised through the Sixth Schedule of the Indian constitution. But that has not protected the indigenous people from various waves of migration and misappropriation of local resources starting from the 19th century, with Tripura being the classic example. 

The Northeast is far more complex

Bengali, Nepali and other settlers have come into Assam and other parts of Northeast at different points in time, with Bengalis being the highest in number. Apart from coming as colonial employees and administrators under the British Raj, migrants have also come due to geographical contiguity and religious persecution before and after 1947. 

This is the double tragedy: while tribal rights have been under attack for centuries, we cannot ignore the plight of non-tribal citizens of the Northeast, many of whom have fled persecution and massacres during the partition and the 1971 genocide.

As it happened, these non-tribal citizens of Assam and entire Northeast are those who have stayed back in spite of years of struggle and the reorganisation of states. These are the people who, no matter where they worked, aspired to return to their homes where they were born, cherishing their memories and returning to childhood friends. 

Also read: The CAA Heralds an India Starkly Different from What the Constitution Envisages

There has been a sense of  belonging and ownership, and it was only recently that the people of Assam and other parts of the Northeast were getting comfortable with each other and moving towards a shared identity.

Unfortunately, it is just when things were getting better that the NRC hit us like a storm. Along with it came all kinds of terrible state propaganda: there is fake/real news circulating on social media that claims that crores of Bangladeshis are waiting to relocate to India once the CAA is brought.

Women and children who were excluded from the Assam NRC. Photo: The Wire

Another statement by the very Chief Minister of Assam before the release of NRC district data mentions that about five lakh Hindus in Cachar district would be accommodated under the then-CAB. Such unconfirmed news is aimed at destabilising the imaginations different social groups. 

Now, things have gotten so bad that in opposition to the seven indigenous leaders who penned the Raiot statement, there are many social media commentators supporting ethno-nationalistic aspirations and placing every non-indigenous citizen of Assam and Northeast of being a ‘settler’ out to occupy tribal land and resources.

They, too, are forgetting that many of those who came are not beneficiaries of colonisation, but instead have their own traumas and struggles for dignity. The anxieties, complexities and linkages of both NRC and CAA in this context is lucidly captured in the article written by researchers like Anshuman and Suraj in their Firstpost article

Even as we protest the communal agenda of the RSS and the BJP, we must not forget that each protest has its own source and pain point that cannot be subsumed under other issues. All these concerns are worthy of our attention. The attack on students in Jamia Millia is no less or more than the attack on students in Guwahati (four dead in police firing, 175 arrested, more than 1400 detained, according to India Today).

In all this, one must not actually discount the security threats that CAA poses as stated by the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW).

Also read: CAB Could Be Misused By Foreign Agents to Infiltrate India, RAW Had Said

The ultimate battle is against such hegemonic and fear-mongering politics, and we can all join in it even if we come from different vantage points. We have to find a way for equal representation of different resistance movements without one consuming the other.

This will help us serve very many interests like Mohammed Ayoob a Professor Emeritus of International Relations, Michigan State University says in his article. He states,

Portraying it as a Hindu-Muslim issue plays into the hands of extremist majoritarian elements thus defeating the purpose of opposition to the law.”

Similarly Bitasa Das from IISC Bengaluru in her article moves away from right left liberal politics and says that “this protest that is faceless, leaderless, organisation-less can best be described as a mass struggle of the common people to uphold the sovereignty and economy of the region against the onslaught of hegemonic federal government”. 

Failing to do so actually ends up serving the interests of those looking to divide us. Those who want to make the protests only about religious binaries or settler colonialism end up serving the interests of the fascist regime, as they can then play on those who have been ignored and bring them into their camp. 

Therefore, the starting point for any discussion on the implementation and protest on NRC and CAA needs to start from a recognition of historical differences.

It needs to be inclusively traced without undermining the traumas of indigenous peoples and migrants escaping persecution. We do not need conceptions of ‘unity’ where our differences are dissolved, but we can work in the spirit of ‘unison’. This unison need not be achieved by erasing the past completely or by imposing a false peace.

We can all speak against arbitrary interference by governments and politicians who divide us in order to seize power. The CAA and NRC are brutal impositions that ignore local conditions as much in the North East as in the rest of India.

Surely, in a time where information is so easily accessed, we can all be more thoughtful about the way we go about facing fascist forces.

Dev N.C. is a researcher at IIT Bombay and a development professional.