You Don’t Get North East of India!

The ruling dispensation has successfully cleared the passage to the Citizenship Amendment Bill days ago on its second attempt and that now has become a legal constitutional Act. When it was initially pushed in January 2019, it was vehemently opposed and the Indian parliament could not clear the passage to the bill then. The most vociferous opposition comes from the people of India’s frontier region ‘North-East’, rather than its ‘heartland’. Today Assam, Tripura, Meghalaya have been paralysed by protest since the Indian Parliament cleared its passage. Three people have been killed in Assam, curfews imposed in parts of Assam, Tripura and Meghalaya and extra troopers have been called in.

Since the initial introduction of the bill, it has been a subject of concern, both at the regional level and at the ‘heartland’ of India. But the concerns over the new Citizen Act by the two have been entirely different and the discourse at the ‘heartland’ has been continuously belittling the issue of the region which in-fact is the core of politics in the region. The belittling of the region and its people is not new, in-fact during the first Indian parliamentary election the princely states of Manipur and Tripura were not allowed to exercise adult franchise, they were made a Part C State governed by a Chief Commissioner appointed by the President of India, and the reasons cited then by BR Ambedkar, the premier of India’s Constitution was that the inhabitants are “tribal”, “uneducated” and “backward” and the states having no “authority” or “local bodies”. All these while he had no clue of the 1948 elections in Manipur under the Manipur Constitution Act 1947 before its ‘merger’ with the Union of India. This is where I feel that I should speak. I will speak the language of the indigenous people in the region who are on the streets now and not mumble some convenient politically correct appeasing statements which will fit the ‘mainstream discourse’, I have no one to appease from the ‘heartland’ of India. In short, I will be honest to myself and to the people I speak for.

The suspicious orient(s)

The region often projected as ‘complex’ social-political terrain is home to more than two hundred unique trans-border ethnicities with sizes varying from a few million to some few hundreds. Catering these range of ethnicities within the logics of a modern ‘nation-state’ has been an ‘issue’ since the British colonial times till today under the Union of India. Witnessing identity based struggles in this region is not uncommon with struggles ranging from secession from India to autonomy within the Indian Union. With the Indian nationhood’s inability to travel beyond the Chicken Neck, historically the relation of the region with the Union has been bitter and contested, and it remains the same till today. With mistrust and suspicion by the then rulers of India the large portion of the region was “taken over” as a territory of the Union. The (in)famous response “Isn’t there a brigadier in Shillong?” by the then Deputy Prime Minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel from his death bed when the report of the native state Manipur’s reluctance to join the Union reached his ears resonates the mind of the people in Manipur till today. Further, Patel also saw the North-East frontier as “troublesome” and a “weak spot” to India’s security with reference to China, inhibited by people with “pro-Mongoloid prejudices” having no “established loyalty or devotion to India”, and hence the approach to the region till today has been from the radicalised lens of India’s strategic security, a frontier “taken over” to protect its ‘heartland’. The region today is a radicalised frontier territory and its large part ruled by extra constitutional legislations which put the entire populations as “suspects” and potential troublemakers. “Shoot at suspicion” is the ‘rule of law’ in the region and a “state of exception” prevails.

The demographic politricks

With the ‘strategic security’ approach to the region inhibited by people with “pro-Mongoloid prejudices”, the biopolitics towards the region includes the intention of demographic changes by its rulers from Delhi. This is apparent from the statement made by a then parliamentarian after India’s humiliating defeat in the Indo-China war that “half a million of farmers from Punjab” be settled in the present day Arunachal Pradesh; and the reluctance of Delhi to address the Bangladeshi immigration issue in the region points towards the intent of Delhi’s demographic designs in the region. The unabated influx from Bangladesh in the region since partition has been a crucial issue, particularly Assam and Tripura. As a matter of fact the Assamese nationalism is premised from the Bengali domination in the colonial and post-colonial period and has been the core of the politics in Assam. These two states have been taking the maximum ‘burden of partition’ in the region which was the result of the politics beyond the Chicken Neck. With no concrete policies for refugees in India, legal scholars have even questioned the legality of ‘sharing the burden’ in the region when states like Manipur was not even a part of India when the partition happened.

Tripura today is a settler colonial state ruled by the immigrants pushing the Indigenous Tipras to fringes. When one says partition and the subsequent exodus of the people, it is not a one time event, but rather a trail of human migration which continues for a long period and probably continuing till today. The situation in Tripura has reached to the level where the policing of the indigenous population during an indigenous uprising is done by the civilian Bengali settlers themselves. Even today, aftermath the amendment of the Citizen Act, reports are coming in that some Tipra settlements are hiding in the jungles for their safety from the violence of the Bengali settlers.

It will be naive to assume that the burden of partition is borne by Assam and Tripura only in the region. The settlements in Dimapur in Nagaland, Jiri in Manipur is testimony to it and the rest of the states have its own share. Beyond the Bangladesh immigration issue, many ethnicities in the region do not welcome the migrants from India’s ‘heartland’ coming and settling in their respective ‘homelands’, as they also pose the same threat to the ethnic minorities. The threat perception towards the people from India’s ‘heartland’ is no less than that of a Bangladeshi, as a matter of fact Bangladesh was also India once. The past people’s movements in Meghalaya and recent one in Manipur for legislative protection for the indigenous people is testimony to it. With no objective constitutional conceptualisation of indigenous people and ethnic minorities in India and lack of concrete protective policies in place for the indigenous people in the region, and no policies for ‘sharing the burden’ of partition, the region is open to settle by ‘outsiders’ paving the way to its decay. The fear and anxiety by the ethnic minorities in the region is never an ‘imagined’ one. The region records of having low birth rates but the decadal population growth rate is much larger exceeding most of the decadal counts from the national average, which obviously is due to the migration in the region. Any minority ethnicity in this situation will obviously feel threatened.

The new Citizenship Amendment Act and the dissenting ‘North-East’

Partition was an event which happened beyond the reach of the politics in the region. But its political repercussions is far-reaching, the region is not left out from its effects. Both the Indian National Congress (INC) and Bharatya Janata Party (BJP) have played their share of politricks out of it. The BJP, partnered with many small regional parties in each state having its own agendas, came and formed the government in the region taking up the issue of immigration and protection and development of the Indigenous people and their rights and importantly using the anti incumbency sentiments towards the INC. In Assam, they promised to implement the Assam Accord 1985 “in letter and spirit” which the party itself violated days back. The BJP back stabbed the people of Assam and the North-East at large.

The reading of the dissent in the region against the new Citizen Act is in the context of Assam Accord of 1985 and the National Register of Citizen (NRC) exercise in Assam which is an outcome of the Accord signed to identify non Indian citizens. Assam is the only state in Indian Union which is conducting an NRC exercise. The exercise started in 2013 only under the scanner of Supreme Court of India. In a 1979 parliamentary by-poll in Magaldoi, Assam, people witnessed an unusual rise of voters and it was suspected that the rise was due to the influx of Bangladeshi immigrants. It sparked the most violent protest in Assam popularly called the Assam Agitation spanning over six years killing a total of 885 persons. It is also in this context of uprising, the armed group United Liberation Front of Assam was founded which continues its armed struggle for a “Swadhin Asom”. The half decade long uprising was finally concluded in 1985 with the signing of a Memorandum of Settlement: the Assam Accord, with the Government of India (GoI) under the prime ministership of Rajiv Gandhi and the All Assam Students Union (AASU) and All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AGP) as peoples’ representative of Assam. On a similar line in 1980, in Manipur, the All Manipur Students Union (AMSU) and the All Manipur Students Co-ordination Committee (AMSCOC) launched a violent agitation against the foreigners and migrants from India’s ‘heartland’ where two students were killed. An agreement was reached with the Government of Manipur (GoM) and the student bodies with an agreement signed in July 1980.

The principle clause of the Assam Accord was the “detection and deportation” of foreigners and the cut off date set for citizenship was the midnight of 25th March 1971. Any foreigners regardless of religion entering into Assam after the cut-off date was to be detected through NRC exercise and deported. And for the agreement in Manipur the base year was 1951 and “detection and deportation” of foreigners was also part of the agreement which was never materialised. The newly amended Citizen Act by setting the new base year for citizenship in India to December 2014 even though exclusively for Hindus completely contravenes the primary clauses of the Assam Accord and the agreement between AMSU, AMSCOC and GoM thereby giving passage for citizenship to the majority of the foreigners recently identified by NRC in Assam. This is the bone of contention and the source of current unrest in the region.

Our blood is not your brownie points!

Much has been talked of the region not being represented the in the mainstream discourses be it cultural or political, even PhD theses have been written on this subject. I agree to it at some point, but there is also representation(s) to an extent, the problem with it is that whatsoever is represented has been a misrepresentation of the people in the region. Dilution, defilement, belittlement have been the nature of the so called representation(s) be it on our culture, identity or politics. The narratives on culture, identity, and politics from the region do not fit their conscience, it has to be tweaked to fit their conscience. This act of mis-representation is a conscious act of violence towards the people of the region by the dominant mainstream. A violence operational at the level of discourse. This violence on discourse justifies their dominance. We are, through their discourse(s) fixated into the categories of “Anti-state”, “violent”, “unruly” “barbaric”, “not liberal”, “xenophobe” etc etc and so on.

When the news of the preliminary list of NRC list started coming with a slight indication of majority muslim Bangladeshis being on the verge of declaring foreigners and ‘stateless’, the debates and opinion pieces in media and comments by civil and political bodies in the ‘heartland’ of India was quick to conclude the exercise as “islamophobic”, “anti-secular” and “undemocratic”. Some even went to the extent of demonising the people of ‘North-East’ by condemning them as “xenophobic”, without having a slightest clue of the historicity of the exercise and the concerns of the indigenous people in the region. Later when the final list was published nearly two million people were announced as foreigners or non Indian citizens. Many were not satisfied with the final list. For the Assamese people the digits were less and for the BJP the huge chunk of the declared foreigners turned out to be Hindus. This is where the newly amended Citizen Act saves the agenda of BJP. The Act sets the cut off date exclusive for Hindus for citizenship who have entered India on or before December 2014. The BJP’s intention is to naturalise the citizenship of the excluded Hindus from the final NRC list in Assam while the people wanted to deport the foreigners, be it Hindu or Muslim. This is why the Assamese are agitating, and not because the new Citizen Act is anti Muslim or non-secular. The Act opens the passages for settler colonialism in the region.

With the BJP’s newly enacted Citizenship Amendment Act and plans for a pan Indian NRC, the targets towards the Muslims of India’s ‘heartland’ have been sending anxieties to Indian ‘liberals’ and ‘secularist’ who are vocal against the current ruling party. By relegating the cries of the North-East region to fringes, a strong and powerful ‘liberal’ discourse on ‘secularism’ has emerged in India’s ‘heartland’. One can clearly observe the immorality of this discourse; news reports, opinion pieces announce the new Citizen Act as “islamophobic” and “anti-secular” while using images from the protesting ‘North-East’. One will also find news reports where images are used from the current Assam protest and the news item never mentions the protest in Assam and its reason but talks of passing an “Anti Secular Bill”. Deaths of protesters in Assam is cited in making their ‘liberal’ ‘secularist’ arguments in news rooms and opinion pieces. Slogans like “no to NRC” is coming out from Ganga Dhaba/Jantar Mantar protesters while the entire region of North-East wants an NRC or similar exercise. While the BJP has completely annihilated the Assam Accord and the aspirations of indigenous people of ‘North-East’, the ‘liberals’ and ‘secularist’ have done no less than the BJP by muddying the entire issue at hand. BJP has killed the indigenous people of ‘North-East’ and Indian ‘liberals’ and ‘secularist’ are scoring brownie points in their liberal spaces through the blood shed in the region! This is the immorality of India’s ‘heartland’ be it left, right or centre!



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Kulajit Maisnam Written by:

Research Scholar at TISS, Mumbai

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