Assam is burning and North East is on fire. Protests have erupted across the seven sisters, but Assam is the worst hit with masses on streets, vandalizing offices, security forces helplessly trying to pacify the agitated crowd, curfew and a Kashmir-like internet lockdown. All denouncing the contentious Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) passed last week by Parliament. Succinctly, they see it as sacrificing State’s interests at the altar of Hindutva politics and giving backdoor entry to illegal migrants. Ouch.
The Act facilitates citizenship to persecuted “Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis or Christians” from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan who seek refuge in India till 31 December 2014, pointedly excluding Muslims. Certainly, Prime Minister Modi tries to assuage feeling by asserting that CAA was about giving citizenship and not taking it away from any Indian including Muslims. And that “illegal migrant” is faith-neutral and does not discriminate on the basis of religion, but the Opposition and North East are not biting. Already five States, West Bengal, Kerala, Punjab, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh refuse to implement it.
The Opposition contends the CAA goes against the very soul of India’s Constitution by making religion a classifying criterion for granting citizenship, messes with its very foundations, violates Article 14 (Right to Equality) and is discriminatory as it singles out Muslims who constitute 15% of the population. Further, the Government’s contention that it is to rectify pre-partition ills and that Muslims are neither discriminated nor persecuted in the three Islamic countries, is fallacious. It conveniently ignores Pakistan’s Shias and Ahmadiyas who are targets of violence.
Also, if the Bill’s criteria is neighbourhood countries where minorities have been subjected to prejudices then why have Myanmar and Buddhist Sri Lanka been left out? Rohingya Muslims are facing ethnic cleansing in the former and Tamils in the latter. It could also trigger further persecution and violence against groups India seeks to protect, in their countries? How would the cloak of protection embrace them?
Asserted a senior Congress leader, “The CAA fits the BJP’s political agenda of a “Hindu Rashtra” where Muslims are second class citizens. The Saffron worldview is about forcing immigration as a means of achieving cultural homogeneity or for asserting the dominance of one ethnic community over another”.
The Assamese feels it is a fundamental mismatch which will disturb the region’s demography and further burden resources and decrease employment opportunities for indigenous people. They are doubtful that the NDA will adhere to Clause 6 of the Assam Accord which relates to Constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards to protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people and insulates Assam from CAA’s adverse impact.
Or the Inner Line Permit (ILP) whereby people outside such declared areas can visit the places only if they have a permit. They cannot settle in such areas even with ILP. True, the system is applicable to most areas of NE and is being used to protect these areas from the purview of CAA. What is the guarantee, the Government will not retract.
Pertinently, the ILP enforce in Nagaland, Mizoram and Arunachal for decades has been ineffective. Though the Centre tried to walk a fine line by applying its provision across both Sixth Schedule areas covering autonomous council areas in Assam and Tripura, a complex situation has become even more challenging.
Indeed, the timing of CAA couldn’t be worse. Coming as it does on the heels of the controversial National Register of Citizens which identified a staggering 1.9 million which included a majority of Hindus as people whose citizenship is doubtful. While the BJP did not accept the Assam list, most Hindus and indigenous tribes left out of the NRC felt it was a disaster full of loopholes as they were unsure of their future, many without access to legal aid.
Consequently, the underlying anger tipped again with this Act as it appeared to be dismissive of the State’s concerns. Notwithstanding, the CAA was brought to fill those gaps. Yet it amplified the mess as Assamese fear CAA will make NRC redundant and lead to lakhs of Hindus from Bangladesh swamping indigenous communities, burdening resources, threatening their language, culture and tradition and bestowing citizenship on foreigners.
Also, while CAA has 2014 as cut-off date, protesters aver Assam bore the brunt of immigrants from 1951 to 1971 leading to a violent student agitation resulting in the 1985 Assam Accord which set the date of detection and deportation of foreigners as 25 March 1971. Hence it is unfair to impose more on the State. Additionally, they do not trust the Centre as the law will undo the Assam Accord.
Besides, it fundamentally changes the process of citizenship by naturalisation which allows foreigners to become Indians. Presently, illegal immigrants cannot apply for Indian citizenship but CAA makes it possible. It also shortens the waiting period for naturalisation from 11 to 6 years.
The BJP on its part, feels the CAA is best for the persecuted victims of Partition and would act as a shield that would save Hindus from exclusion from the NRC. Alongside the Party could reap political dividends in West Bengal which has a large number of Hindu migrants from Bangladesh in the 2021Assembly polls.
Undoubtedly, the State is caught in the crosshairs of illegal migrants which has been the leitmotif of Assam’s politics, and to an extent of the North East. Needless to say both the State and the Centre are to blame. In spite of knowing that Assam has a history of sectarian violence, they did not read the signs of conflagration building up.
The Centre too acted lahee, lahee underscoring the wide disconnect and lack of coordination between the State and Centre, even though both are ruled by the BJPs. Both had learnt no lesson from the 1983 Nellie massacre that left 3,000 people dead.
Arguably, Assam isn’t just a multi-ethnic, multi-religious State, it is an explosive mix of contestations on sovereignty, multiple layers of feelings of exploitation and injustice, terrorism, tussles over resources, political polarisation and competitive identity management made worse by tensions between settlers and immigrants.
What next? Is the Government capable of defusing this violence as local sentiments are running high in the entire region and spilled to Delhi. Thus, the situation needs careful handling. Many see a Kashmir-like response by the Government to the backlash. But protestors warn that no force can stop protests against the Act.
Time now for the Government for a sustained dialogue and asserting the trinity of liberty, equality and inclusivity. A return to arms for the North East’s angry youth will be the worst possible thing to happen to the region which is slowly erasing the nightmare of the bloody eighties and nineties. For Muslims across India, despite the assurances, it would seem like the onset of another headache.
The need of the hour is to understand the seriousness, deal assertively with the issues and set up time-bound measures once and for all. History has come a full circle for the illegal immigrants. The NDA Government has cast the first stone. More than talking tough, it needs to take a humane and holistic view.
The idea of citizenship is embedded in the structure of the State whereby citizenship confers the right to have rights in a country. The Government needs to assuage fears that CAA is taking it away on the basis of their religion, given the idea of citizen is a modern construct. After all, people are not dummy punching bags!