Why Assam and the Other Northeastern States are Angry Over the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill


Why Assam and the Other Northeastern States are Angry Over the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Prime Minister Narendra Modi famously said that when you point a finger at someone, three fingers point back at you. Since he is adept at the language of the human hand, he must also know that when you play with fire, you are bound to burn your fingers. And if the current state of affairs in the Northeast, particularly Assam, is anything to go by, the PM better put on some fireproof gear soon.

Upset over the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, which has been cleared in the Lok Sabha, protests have erupted in Assam, Tripura, and other Northeastern states. Thousands of protesters, many of them students, took to the streets in Guwahati on Wednesday, setting buses on fire and damaging public property. Government employees at the secretariat joined the agitation my wearing a gamosa, a traditional Assamese scarf, chanting slogans against the CAB. A curfew has now been imposed in Guwahati and mobile internet services have been suspended. In Tripura, the army has been deployed.

All of the Northeast, particularly Assam, where the BJP government snatched power from the old favourites, Congress, has been in uproar over what the people feel is a law that challenges their identity. Students are on the streets and bandh after bandh is intensifying the fight against what the Northeast sees as an effort to impose the BJP government’s one-size-fits-all vision of what it means to be an Indian.

For those who came in late, the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019, seeks to provide citizenship to Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Parsis, Jains, and Christians from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. The bill, however, does not extend to Muslim migrants.

The indigenous communities of the region, that have been fighting long and hard to fend off “outsiders”, feel this will lead to a sudden rush in the migration of Hindus from the neighbouring countries, especially Bangladesh, putting strain on their economy and identity. Particularly in Assam, the bill contradicts the Assam Accord of 1985, which clearly states that illegal migrants heading in from Bangladesh after March 25, 1971, will be deported. Irrespective of their religion.

The bill does not extend to Muslim migrants.

When the final National Register of Citizens was released in Assam on August 31 this year, more than 19 lakh people were left out. A majority of them were Hindus. The NRC stuck to  March 25, 1971 as the cut-off date. But the CAB changes everything. It allows migrants who entered on or before December 31, 2014 eligible for citizenship. This, the people of Assam believe, is the Centre’s move to pacify Hindus left out of the NRC.

Sitting in the comfort of your Instagram-friendly office cubicle, or typing from a hip chai shop in Bandra, you might wonder: So is this why the people in the Northeast are so upset? The problem lies in the question itself. For generations, the Northeast has been a vague location on the map of India beyond Kolkata. For most of India, the Northeast has been a lump of land inhabited by people who look Mongoloid, speak English, eat momos, and play the guitar. The BJP is no different. Still learning coalition politics the hard way and evidently struggling to understand the challenges of being a party that plays the length and breadth of the country, the BJP is guilty of wilful ignorance as well.

The reason why the BJP can never shake off its “outsider” tag in states beyond the Hindi belt is this – its monolithic view of ethno-cultural identity. Diversity is not something that you dress up in costumes and parade down Rajpath on Republic Day every year. It is about knowing that the taste of sambhar and the stuffing of momo and the texture of rice grains changes every 50 km in our country. It is how the same song is sung differently in different homes and the same air smells different when you walk from one neighbourhood to another.

The BJP seems to have extrapolated that the anti-minority sentiment that has seen it reap dividends in the rest of India would work in the Northeast. But the pulse is different in Assam and its neighbouring states. The Citizenship Amendment Bill like the NRC are aimed at Muslim migrants, who have been clashing with the indigenous communities in the region over the decades over livelihood and political power. The fact that they were Muslims, is perhaps secondary to the fact that they are simply immigrants who have taken up their land, resources, and power. The Northeast does not want migrants. Period.

The big BJP strategy to win the East is likely to backfire with the CAB.

“As per the Assam Accord, the commitment was to deport Hindus and Muslims who entered Assam after the 1971 date. Assam has taken the load from 1948 (July 19, 1948 was the final date for accepting migrants for the rest of India) to 1971. It is a small state and we cannot take this burden beyond 1971,” AASU chief adviser Samujjal Bhattacharjya told The Telegraph.

The people of Assam and other Northeastern states believe that the CAB will only motivate more people to cross the border and settle in their homes. This then renders the entire NRC exercise useless.

The big BJP strategy to win the East is likely to backfire with the CAB. Home Minister Amit Shah met leaders of the AASU and other student organisation last week to pacify them but they remain unconvinced. In January this year, when the Bill was passed, the   Asom Gana Parishad, the BJP’s biggest ally in Assam, had walked out of the coalition.

The BJP came to power in the state with the promise that they will act against illegal migrants. But with CAB, it seems to have changed its stance. The Bill could be a big blow for the BJP, which had managed to make inroads into the Northeast only in the last four years. As for its citizens go, not much has changed. They continue to feel alienated.

With inputs from Chandrima Pal