Image Credit: DSC_0920 by Suhas Das/Flickr; licence: CC BY NC 2.0.

Written by Rajesh Dev.

As increased global flows, especially of people, catalyse new narratives of belonging all across the world, contestations over citizenship have acquired a new centrality. Almost every form of struggle within the nation-state is being articulated in the ‘language of citizenship’. Claims over who and under what conditions can belong to a ‘national’ community and partake of rights as a citizen are feverishly challenged and contested.

In India, the popular unrest and resistance against the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 (hereafter CAA) bring into sharp relief this contestation. The CAA liberalises the protocols for granting citizenship to Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh and Parsi migrants from the Muslim-majority states of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. At the heart of the protests that followed the enactment of this legislation lies the premium that it places on religious identity as well as the framing of political-moral concerns like  ‘migration’ and ‘persecution’ through an exclusionary ethos of religious identity.

Same Act, different responses

For the Union government led by the Hindu right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), this faith-based legal change to the Citizenship Act of 1955 makes political – and perhaps also electoral – sense, since all three countries self-identify themselves as Islamic republics and declare Islam to be their state religion. The government of India, with little appreciation of the nuanced trajectory of these countries’ past or contemporary political histories, arrived at the conclusion that the minorities identified by the CAA are vulnerable to religious intolerance and consequently the victims of Islamic bigotry in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Arrangements meant to advance justice and equality have in practice produced a vicarious politics of ‘us’ and ‘them’, substituting fluid community boundaries with categorical ones

Those who stand against the amendment quite rightly argue that the Act is exclusionary and violates established constitutional norms and values. Through this legal change, they are convinced, the government intends to re-envision India’s political history and collective aspirations as a nation. In prefacing faith as the founding attribute of citizenship, the CAA is unquestionably a veiled attempt to reconstitute the terms of national belonging, privileging a particular religious identity to the extent of making it the undeclared state religion of the country.

This standard impression about the amended Act and its implied consequences has a vernacular permutation as well. While there have been large-scale civil protests across India against this move to legalise the political agenda of the cultural nationalists, in India’s northeast the protests are more self-oriented and shaped by the region’s distinctive cultural politics of difference. Here, the CAA is viewed through a more provincial lens as a challenge to marginal cultural identities and hence condemned as an attempt to repress the cultural authenticity of indigenous communities.

In the states of Assam, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura in particular – conventionally classified in a flattened geo-cultural stereotype as ‘the northeast’ – resistance is framed through a counter-cultural narrative of identity that is constructed around fluid notions of the ‘outsider’ and this other’s overdetermined relationship with the demographic and political security of the indigenes. This identity politics is perhaps no less deleterious in terms of its effects on social cohesion and shared belonging than the cultural and political imaginary it challenges.

Historical legacies and schisms

We can locate the source of this polarity between the ‘national mainland’ and its ‘regional periphery’ in regional history. For each of the states in the region, entanglement with migration has been crucial in shaping their cultural identity and political history. As a region lying on the path of the great migration routes, the northeast has traditionally been predisposed to waves of immigrants who then went on to identify intrinsically with the place and its cultures.

In Assam, where the protests have been the most pronounced and which experienced a long-drawn-out anti-migrant movement in the late 1970s, migration history may be said to have begun with the arrival of the Ahoms in the thirteenth century. Eventually, these migrants from the upper reaches of Burma not only became the rulers of large parts of Assam, but they were also a crucible for the formation of a broader Assamese identity.

It was the practices of the colonial state in the second decade of the nineteenth century that inaugurated a new chapter in the history of migration in the state and region. This led to the construction of a new politics-focused on identity. Historians have recorded how the colonial administration and economy introduced new migrants conversant with the conduct of colonial administration and the workings of a new ‘planter raj’. With it came the plantation workers from central India, the soldiers, and graziers from Nepal, the traders and workers from Rajasthan and other parts of the country, and the clerks and peasants from greater Bengal.

Unlike other migrants, it was the migrants from Bengal – derisively termed the Bangal – who were perceived by the natives as dominating the society and polity of the then undivided Assam. Drawing on cultural capital derived through their close association with colonialism, these new migrants gained access to and a great deal of clout within the local colonial administration and society, much to the resentment of the native Assamese speakers. The acrimony intensified following the partition of the sub-continent and the later formation of Bangladesh, when the episodic movement of optees (those who chose to stay on the Indian side), economic migrants and refugees distended the existing numbers.

It was this moment of colonial rupture that furnished the conditions for an ethnolinguistic schism that continues to reverberate periodically in the politics of Assam and other states of the region. The image of the Bangal, the perpetual migrant, and the Bengali language was crucial not only to the formation of a modern Assamese linguistic identity but also the inauguration of an anti-Bangal mentalité. Constructed around a rumour about Bengalis and their ability to control and dominate, this frame has transformed the community into a permanent ‘other’, ignoring their significant contribution to the social, economic and cultural life of the region.

As the data show, between 1971 and 2011 net migration into Assam was zero, so what explains the pervasiveness of this cultural view about the Bangal? One explanation of course is the ‘historically set concept’ of the Bangal as the enemy/other that becomes activated during conditions of societal stress. The other, and the more contemporary, cause is a collective crisis of identity among the Assamese middle class. This crisis follows the disintegration of a pan-Assamese meta-community and the emergence of competitive claims centred around ‘the idea of exclusive homelands’ articulated expressed by ethnic communities who previously displayed a cultural affinity with the broader Assamese identity.

Ambiguities of belonging

The CAA proposes to introduce a groups-differentiated citizenship regime, an arrangement which is not new to the region, based as it is on ethnic identity and difference. These regimes are part of the complex mechanisms of accommodation meant to constitutionally insulate vulnerable minorities from a variety of majoritarian impulses. One significant impulse, specific to the region, is demographic. The establishment of territorial autonomous councils under the Sixth Schedule and statutory councils under the State Act are mechanisms designed to accord social, political and economic rights to explicitly recognised tribal groups. Some of these councils have been converted into full-fledged tribal-dominated states with additional layers of legal institutional control like the Inner Line Permit (ILP) that restricts the ingress of ‘outsiders’ into these autonomous enclaves.

Together, all these arrangements established at different moments of postcolonial history have transformed the region’s vulnerable national minorities into dominant regional majorities who have comprehensive control over their cultural and political life. The irony is that such arrangements meant to advance justice and equality have in practice produced a vicarious politics of ‘us’ and ‘them’, substituting fluid community boundaries with categorical ones. They have privileged the rights of only the core groups and institutionalised group differences, hierarchies and inequalities among different ethnic communities.

In these enclaves of autonomy, cultural identity determines the right of belonging, where every ethnic non-member is an ‘outsider’. In practice, such processes of homeland-making have transformed these spaces of autonomy into new regimes of exclusion. So that the Tea-tribes, Bengalis, Nepalis, and Assamese become ‘outsiders’ in the scheduled areas demarcated for the Bodos, as do the Bodo-Kachari, Hajong, Koch, Mann, Mizo or Rabha tribes in the scheduled areas of Khasi Jaintia and Garo-dominated Meghalaya, and the Chakmas and Reangs/Brus in Mizo-dominated Mizoram.

Similarly, tribes from neighbouring states of the region are denied representation or rights to a settlement in states other than their own, plains tribes resent the privileges accorded to hill tribes, and communities are perpetually seeking to reconstitute themselves as recognised communities within a defined territory. These exclusions expose not only the tensions and ambiguities of belonging but also beg the question: who is particularly an ‘outsider’ in Assam or, for that matter, in any state of the region? In the context of the current protests against the CAA, some sections among Bengali Muslims oppose the CAA while Bengali Hindus support it, even though in the popular social imaginary both these ‘communities’ are alien ‘outsiders’.

This complex history of collective memory and belonging becomes further complicated when we consider the conditions of communities like the Hajongs, Garos and Rabhas and the Chakmas in Assam. A large section of these communities has been unable to underwrite their claims to citizenship and inclusion in the National Register of Citizens (NRC). The NRC, we may note, was an exercise to identify genuine citizens and secure closure on the vexed issue of ‘outsiders/immigrants’ in Assam. These indigenous communities, having cross-border loyalties and affiliations, neither support nor oppose the CAA. Rather, they remain in the ‘shadow lines’ of a ‘culture-space’ where shifting binaries of indigenous/alien, tribe/non-tribe and Hindu/Muslim further complicate claims to belonging.

One ardent observer is convinced that protests in the region are only part of the ‘long history of resistance … to reclaim … ancestral land and local pasts’. This is a view conditioned by a particular conception of regional history that fails to engage morally with the memories of the Nellie Massacre of 1983, when more than 1600 Bengali Muslim peasants were killed in an attack by the Tiwa tribes and Assamese villagers, or the legally contrived conversion of 1.9 million people into stateless pariahs through the National Register of Citizens.

Protests against the CAA in India’s northeast undoubtedly reflect the limits of Hindutva politics and efforts to foreground religious identity as a pan-Indian ‘master narrative’. However, if the CAA is an exclusivist exercise designed to craft a culturally ‘authentic’ Hindu political community, protests in the region can be seen as a mirror image designed to consolidate an analogous ethno-majoritarianism and cultural hierarchy.

Assam in its diversity is a microcosm of India. Therefore, engagement with its past requires a new imagination of belonging that is not trapped in history. For those aware of the unbroken history of Assam, it is time, perhaps, for the scripting of a new Haradhon-Rangmon-Katha.

Rajesh Dev is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Delhi, New Delhi.

*Articles published by The Asia Dialogue represent the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of The Asia Dialogue or affiliated institutions

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