On December 12th, 2019, the Indian President approved the arguably most discriminatory piece of legislation the country had seen since its independence. The Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 – henceforth CAA – sparked off spontaneous protests as it seeks to change the nature of the Indian Constitution. It declares: “Any person belonging to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, or Christian community from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan, who entered into India on or before the 31st day of December, 2014…shall not be treated as illegal migrants. ” By excluding Muslims, atheists or practitioners of indigenous faiths from its purview, the Act undermines secularism, a notion central to the Republic.
This has understandably outraged conscientious citizens and has left Indian Muslims feeling betrayed. The world’s largest democracy is transforming into an ochlocracy under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) pro-Hindu right-wing government since it assumed power in 2014.
This legislation has met with strong resistance in several parts of the country, but the underlying reasons vary. In mainland India, protests have revolved around the anti-secular aspects of the Act. However, resistance against the Act in the Northeast region, specifically in the state of Assam, is embedded in the historic anti-colonial struggle for identity and survival by indigenous communities.
Settler Colonialism in Assam
In the NE region, the Hindu-Muslim framing of the issue finds little resonance. Herein lies the difference between the protests in the NE states and the rest of the country. India’s landlocked Northeast region is surrounded by 4200 km of international borders with Bangladesh, Myanmar, Bhutan and China; only 2 percent borders with India. The region is home to as many as 225 of 450 recognised tribes of India.
Exploitation and consequent environmental degradation in the region began with colonial policies in the latter half of the 18th century. British making inroads into Assam with Bengali administrators changed social relations and demography in the region forever. In 1836, Bengali was declared the official language of Assam. The large-scale induction of Bengalis for key roles in government services was one of the main tactics for the colonial rulers, and led to the Axomiya (Assamese) nationalist awakening of this time. Suppression of indigenous languages and culture continued well into the 19th century until Assamese was restored as the official language in 1872, aided by the American Baptist mission. However, exploitation has continued in the region also under post-independent Indian administration.
The Indian state’s geopolitical interest in the Northeastern region is tied to its rich reserves of oil and gas, coal, tea, silk, uranium, etc. a lot of which is governed by constitutional provisions and customary laws of respective states. Being a frontier region with active insurgency provides further excuse for Indian security forces to occupy vast tracts of protected tribal lands. Indigenous groups’ demands of self-determination in the region have been ignored or forcefully suppressed using draconian laws like the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) 1958, often seen as a “license to kill” with impunity.
The 1947 Partition and the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971 are two critical events causing fundamental demographic shifts through the large-scale migration of Bengali-speaking refugees from East Pakistan into the indigenous states of Assam and Tripura. The Indian state, with its foundational upper-caste and majoritarian bias, has since used the refugee population for their own colonial interest of suppressing indigenous aspirations for political autonomy and administering the area by proxy through settlers (BJP is currently in power in Assam and Tripura). While movements in Assam still struggle to constitutionally protect indigenous groups, Tripura’s tribal population fell by 70% after this influx.
By 1980s, the growing unemployment and discontent among indigenous Assamese youth led them to condemn the Indian government’s colonising strategies. With the depletion and exploitation of natural resources, abuse of constitutional guarantees, imposition of Bengali language in educational institutions and courts, youth erupted into a spontaneous resistance across the state. 885 indigenous youth died in the six-year-long Assam Agitation, which culminated in the signing of the Assam Accord with the Indian government on August 15, 1985.
In the Accord, Assam, represented by leaders of the Assam Movement, agreed to accept all migrants who entered the state before January 1, 1966 and revise electoral rolls based on this date. The government also decided to detect and deport all undocumented Bangladeshis who continued to enter Assam after March 25, 1971 due to porous borders.
Though there is a tendency among commentators to refer to the Assam Agitation as a movement against migration, a closer reading of the sociopolitical context would reveal that for the indigenous population, it was primarily a self-respect and autonomy movement. Rather than being motivated by “anti-immigrant” sentiments, Assam’s resistance has always been a decolonising exercise against the British and Indian administration’s colonial policies of turning the Northeast into a frontier. Owing to this turbulent past, the NE states are accorded special protection under Article 371 of the Indian Constitution.
“Anti-indigenous” — A More Complex Strand of Anti-CAA Protest
On December 12, 2019, the Northeastern (NE) region was burning: Reportedly six extrajudicial killings in Assam, over 5000 preventive detentions, arrests of activists, curfews, internet shutdowns and police attacks on the local press within days of renewed anti-CAA agitation. While escalation of state repression is new in the mainland, it is routine in the NE region, with the Indian state’s violent history of forced integration and assimilation of tribes.
Mainland mobilisation against the Citizenship Act denounces mainly on bureaucratic victimisation of Muslim citizens who may not have documented proofs, or how the law does not extend similarly to Muslims from the said countries (Ahmediyyas or Bangladeshi Muslims). It is viewed as a law that violates constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights to equality before law and prohibition of discrimination based on religion. While that is true, for Assam and other states in the Northeastern (NE) region, the CAA represents an unacceptable betrayal of the Assam Accord by granting immigrants from Bangladesh citizenship en bloc. This touches a raw nerve that brings bitter memories of Bengali hegemony under colonial rule. The Assamese people fear that the CAA threatens to compromise the rights of tribes and ethnic minorities. Indigenous resistance is against being eliminated by newer entities whom the CAA politically reinforces based on religio-cultural affiliations to boost BJP’s Hindu nationalist agenda.
Civil society in Assam is enraged by Indian state’s lack of commitment towards the Accord, and the region has never been more united politically as against the said Act. Here, this Act is perceived not so much as an attack on faith, but more as a threat to the indigenous Assamese identity itself.
In the NE region the Hindu-Muslim framing of the issue finds little resonance. Herein lies the difference between the protests in the NE states and the rest of the country. The Indian government has met the anti-CAA protests everywhere by escalating with state repression, terrorising minorities and polarising public discourse. Amidst widespread unrest, far from national limelight, Assam continues to be the epicentre of resistance against the CAA in the country.
Racism towards Northeastern racial/ethnic minorities in India is a politically veiled issue and complicated by the question of caste. The resistance of the many non-caste indigenous communities are separate and sometimes even opposed in their interests to anti-caste struggles of Mainland India, which makes racism a contentious subject within postcolonial narratives. While the critique to the CAA on grounds of religious discrimination is obvious, the question of how settler colonialism threatens the inherent rights and aspirations of indigenous ethnic and tribal minorities has been obscured.
The mainland Indian protests refuse to acknowledge the insidious anti-indigenous agenda motivations underlying the Act. Whatever the outcomes, by failing to address historical injustices and structural inequities, the Mainland Indian resistance reifies the old divide — of Centre versus Northeastern peripheries — albeit with new modalities. It is important that the mainstream resistance against the CAA takes into account its anti-indigenous nature if it wishes to create a truly inclusive moment capable of setting right the wrongs of the past.
[The article was first published in the issue 2020:4 of MANA magazine, Sweden.]
Dr. Sabina Yasmin Rahman, the author of this article, is a sociologist from Assam. She is currently affiliated with the Department of Sociology, Delhi School of Economics. Her areas of research interests are experiencing “otherness,” begging and anti-begging laws in urban India, and settler colonialism in Assam and NE region.