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Assam, Northeast India and the “unfinished business” of Partition

Print edition : Jun 11, 2022 T+T-
Protesters against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill burning tyres in Guwahati during the Assam bandh, on December 10, called by North East Students’ Organisation.

Protesters against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill burning tyres in Guwahati during the Assam bandh, on December 10, called by North East Students’ Organisation.

It is hard not to see the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill as a major move to introduce into Indian citizenship laws a distinction between Hindu and Muslim immigrants crossing Partition borders. While this marks a historic departure from India’s long-standing disavowal of the Two Nation Theory, in the immediate context it translates into a selective faith-based amnesty for a large segment of the 1.9 million people not included in the National Register of Citizens in Assam.

Few laws in the world have as grand and evocative a name as the Magna Carta (“Great Charter”) or the Magna Carta Libertatum (the Great Charter of Freedoms). The 800-year-old document is celebrated for having established the idea that we now call “the rule of law”. Though, the charter in its original form, as historian Jill Lepore suggests, was perhaps little more than a promise made by King John to “stop throwing people into dungeons whenever he wished”. Only later it acquired the meaning of “a right possessed by the people.”Such grand nomenclatures, however, are rare in the history of law-making. But even the most innocuously named laws can represent profound shifts in a nation’s public philosophy. India’s Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) of 2019 is a case in point. Its ostensible purpose is to shelter persecuted religious minorities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. It seeks to put Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from these countries who came to India before December 31, 2014, even if they entered illegally, on a path to Indian citizenship. However, Muslim groups such as Ahmadis, certainly a persecuted religious minority in Pakistan, are conspicuously absent, as are Hindu Tamil refugees who fled Sri Lanka.

Despite the selective humanitarian rhetoric of ruling party politicians, it is hard not to see the CAB as a major move to introduce into Indian citizenship laws a distinction between Hindu and Muslim immigrants crossing Partition borders. This radically changes the meaning of Indian citizenship. It marks a historic departure from India’s long-standing disavowal of the Two Nation Theory—the narrative behind the creation of Pakistan.

In the immediate contemporary context, the CAB translates into a selective faith-based amnesty for a large segment of the 1.9 million people not included in the just-completed National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam. Only Muslims who were excluded from it now risk being pushed into a state of precarious citizenship. For all practical purposes, Hindus and other non-Muslims have been given de facto amnesty by the CAB. With this radical change in the meaning of Indian citizenship, the NRC now acquires a connotation at odds with the context of the migration-intensive history of Northeast India out of which it originated. It is this post-CAB version of the NRC the ruling establishment wishes to extend to the rest of India.

Even though the CAB lays out December 31, 2014, as the cut-off date of entering India, if the history of the past migration of Hindus from Bangladesh to India is any guide, this law is sure to trigger more migration from across Partition’s eastern border. The Hindu population of the territory of present-day Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) has declined dramatically over the seven decades since Partition mostly as result of emigration to India. They were 22 per cent of the total population in 1951. The proportion came down to 12 per cent in 1981; and it was only 9 per cent in 2011. There is little doubt that the CAB will push more Hindus to choose the exit option. To be sure, the CAB does not say that Indian citizenship will be open to any Bangladeshi Hindu. But there is much in the global history of migration to suggest that laws like the CAB have important signaling effects to encourage migration flows. It is not unlikely, for instance, that the CAB would incentivise anti-Hindu extremists in Bangladesh—eager to lay claims on the properties and possessions of the Hindu minority–to make sure that welcome mat that India has laid out to Bangladesh’s minority population is fully utilised. Northeast India’s historical problem with immigration from that region will only get worse. It is hard to see how it will produce a more peaceful Northeast India.

Considering these potentially far-reaching consequences, the Bill’s nomenclature is a remarkable exercise in understatement. In this era of political marketing, its innocuous-sounding name and the appearance of incremental change is perhaps not accidental. Its appeal may be precisely because it hides the true significance of this law and insulates it from international attention and scrutiny.

“Unfinished business” of Partition

The CAB is best seen as what some in India have long believed to be an unfinished piece of Partition business. It seeks to adapt India’s citizenship laws to “the compelling logic of the consequences of partition” as former External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh phrased it in a pioneering 1984 essay on “Assam’s Crisis of Citizenship”. The compelling logic he alludes to is that Hindus will continue to come to India from across the Partition border no matter how Indian law defines citizens and aliens. Unlike Jaswant Singh, who remains one of Hindu nationalism’s best-known moderate voices, Hindu majoritarians are not given to such nuanced formulations. The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat has declared repeatedly that no Hindu can be a “foreigner” in India.

Historians have long cautioned against the temptation to view Partition as a single, one-time event. Partition, in Joya Chatterjee’s words, was “a messy, long-drawn-out process. It was in no sense finally or tidily concluded in August 1947; indeed, one could argue that the process had just begun, and that it is still unfinished today.” This political trajectory is not unique to India’s Partition. The “unfinished business” of partition, writes Arie M. Dubnov, a historian of twentieth century Jewish and Israeli history, dominates political life in the post-partition spaces of all three instances of paradigmatic British partitions: Ireland, India and Palestine.

Resistance in Northeast India

When it comes to the question of immigration from across Partition’s eastern border, Assam and Northeast India have long presented an enduring obstacle standing obstinately in the way of pan-Indian narratives and pan-Indian political forces of all stripes. This should not come as a surprise to the historically informed political observer. Both migration from eastern Bengal to the territories of British colonial Assam and the opposition to it began well before Partition.

There is a long history of resistance to colonial and postcolonial rulers treating their territory as land without people—or land with barely any people. Frontiers are not empty places. It is unequal political power and often conquest that turns some people’s lands into the frontiers of other people. Efforts to reclaim their ancestral lands and the local pasts, and to assert the historical presence of political communities against the discourse of power, have been dominant themes in the politics of Assam and Northeast India for nearly a century. Unfortunately, the region’s local pasts hold little interest for the country’s ruling establishment or for bureaucrats in the security wing advising policymakers.

Demographic layering of the colonial experience

Prominent among people who migrated to Assam during the British colonial period were educated Hindu Bengalis drawn by the opportunities opened up by the extension of British rule to this colonial frontier. Since Bengal had a longer history of being under British colonial rule, Bengalis, especially Hindus, had a more extended period of exposure to the English language and more opportunities to learn the job skills in demand for positions in the British colonial administration. Since Sylhet, now in Bangladesh, was a part of the colonial province of Assam—and the provincial capital Shillong was close to Sylhet—Sylhetis were in a particularly favorable position for recruitment to all levels of the provincial bureaucracy. Anindita Dasgupta, a historian of Sylhet, has commented on the overrepresentation of Sylhetis in the provincial bureaucracy in Assam as well as in the new professions of law and education and in the staff positions in various businesses. “Bengali clerks, doctors and lawyers, most of them Sylhetis,” writes Dasgupta, “monopolised government jobs and professions.”

A particular conflict-generating aspect of the experience of colonial rule in many parts of Southeast Asia, writes Burma historian Mandy Sadan, was that while they were “governed from a western metropole”, the agents of colonisation were “people (predominantly men) of Asian origin”. This insight is particularly useful for understanding politics in Assam and Northeast India. Colonial rule in a number of Southeast Asian countries was mediated through “the daily experience of the social, political and economic colonisation” in the hands of fellow Asians. If South Asian migrants were the local face of British colonisation of Burma, in French colonial Indochina, particularly Cambodia and Laos, French colonisation had a Vietnamese accent.

The net effect of the predominance of Hindu Bengalis in the provincial bureaucracy in undivided Assam was to give Assam’s colonial experience a “demographic layering” with a political edge not unlike that of countries across its eastern border. The politics of immigration in Assam and Northeast India, including the present-day protests against the CAB, is a reminder of the continually contested meaning of decolonization in this region; the idea of authentic independence never seems to lose its appeal. While our bureaucrats and national politicians hold forth enthusiastically about Northeast India being the gateway to Southeast Asia, this aspect of the shared historical experience of Northeast India and its trans-national eastern neighbours eludes them.

National versus provincial issues

Bodhisattva Kar, a historian of modern Assam, provides an amusing and yet revealing account of an argumentation between Jawaharlal Nehru and the Assamese public intellectual Jnananath Bora during Nehru’s visit to Assam as Congress president in 1937. India’s independence and poverty eradication were high on the Congress party’s agenda at that time. Nehru appealed to the people of Assam to give priority to those “national problems” over Assam’s “provincial problems”. Nehru after reaching Assam had found to his surprise that local public opinion was exercised mostly by the question of immigration from eastern Bengal and not by any “national issue”—not even Indian independence. The separation of Sylhet and the Line System to restrict the areas open to settlement by new immigrants were high on the list of concerns of the audience that came to hear Nehru.

Bora criticised Nehru for failing to understand Assam’s priorities. if the so-called provincial problems are only secondary, the best way to give them the priority they deserve, he said, was “to make Assam an independent nation, a deś [country] rather than a pradeś [region]”. When the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) emerged in the 1980s, an important Assamese public intellectual widely known for his political sympathies for ULFA, Parag Kumar Das, says Bodhisattva Kar, “categorically reclaimed the legacy of Jnananath Bora while making a case for secession of Assam from India”.

There are remarkable affinities between the politics of Assam during the 1930s, the 1980s, that is, the years of the Assam Movement and ULFA, and the contemporary politics around the NRC and the CAB.

For Hindu nationalist forces, building a political coalition in Assam on the purportedly unfinished business of Partition has been a challenge. The BJP did well in the last couple of elections in Assam. But the fault lines with its regional allies on this issue have been apparent at every stage. While BJP leaders speak of expelling “Bangladeshis”, which in their definition includes only Muslims, their local allies talk of protecting khilonjia interests. The Assamese term khilonjia means original inhabitant, indigenous or autochthonous. In the election to the State Assembly in 2016, borrowing from its regional allies, the BJP promised a Khilonjia Sarkar in Assam. In Assamese usage the implicit distinction is with an elected State government that is under obligation to “immigrant” power. To its regional allies and their constituencies, it is the growing political influence of those of eastern Bengali descent—Hindus and Muslims alike—that is a sign of “immigrant power”. To the BJP’s traditional supporters in the Bengali-speaking Barak Valley, the talk of a Khilonjia Sarkar was not reassuring. While putting post-Partition Hindu migrants on a citizenship track was a winning issue in the Barak Valley, it was in sharp contradiction with the promise it made in other parts of Assam to implement the “Assam Accord in letter and spirit”—the embodiment of khilonjia interests.

Managing Northeast India’s dissent

The section of the CAB that outlines the path to citizenship for non-Muslim immigrants crossing the Partition border ends with a surprise qualification: “Nothing in this section shall apply to tribal areas of Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram or Tripura as included in the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution and the area covered under ‘The Inner Line’ notified under the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation, 1873.” These provisions are supposed to distinguish CAB-2019 from the aborted CAB-2016.

This claim is cute, but not particularly clever. The indigene-migrant distinction is central to the political order of the States where the Inner Line is in place—Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland—and to a lesser extent in the Sixth Schedule areas as well. Access to public employment and business and trade licences, rights to land ownership and exchange, and the right to seek elected office are mostly limited to members of the Scheduled Tribes legally considered indigenous to particular territories. What it means to claim that the CAB would not apply to these areas is far from clear. No one expects those who become Indian citizens through the CAB route to make claims to the status of indigenous Scheduled Tribes in these territories. Unless the CAB-conferred citizenship becomes worth less than ordinary Indian citizenship, it is unlikely that their status in those areas will be any different from that of other ethnic nonlocal Indian citizens residing in those States. The reference to the Sixth Schedule and the Inner Line is therefore entirely redundant.

The clause, it appears, was added only to allow Northeastern politicians of those areas, who are in any case in no position to displease the powers that be in Delhi, to claim that they have stuck to their principles and have won these “concessions”. In reality they are no more than face-saving devices. The expectation seems to be that if some of these politicians can be persuaded to take a wait-and-see attitude, the political opposition to the CAB in Northeast India can be weakened. Only areas which do not already have the protection of the Inner Line or the Sixth Schedule, notably Assam and Manipur and to a lesser extent Tripura (because of the post-Partition demographic change that has already occurred) will have reasons to oppose the CAB.

The explicit reference to the Sixth Schedule and the Inner Line will have consequences for the future politics of Northeast India. Already the extension of the Sixth Schedule, originally designed for the relatively isolated colonial era excluded hill areas, to the plains, such as the area under the Bodoland Territorial Area Districts (BTAD), has been the source of significant trouble in the past few years. Non-Bodo communities outnumber the Bodos in this area and they resent the granting of special status to the Bodos. This has produced successive waves of ethnic violence. These troubles will get only exacerbated with the CAB. At the same time, the demand for Sixth Schedule and Inner Line will get only louder. For in a post-CAB Northeast India, they would appear to be the only kind of protection available against future settlement of Hindu immigrants from Bangladesh, who will no longer be unauthorised immigrants in the eyes of the law.

Promise of Clause 6: A Faustian bargain for the Assamese

Apart from these provisions, Delhi’s strategy for managing potential dissent in Assam originally included taking a fresh look at Clause 6 of the Assam Accord of 1985 that promises “constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards, as may be appropriate… to protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people”. Political reservation in the State Assembly and Parliament and other constitutional safeguards, it was hoped, would make Assamese public opinion friendlier to the CAB. In effect, the Assamese were to be offered a Faustian bargain: material benefits set aside for them in exchange for their support for the CAB.

After the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985, one of the first steps in the implementation of Clause 6 was the establishment of Srimanta Sankardeva Kalakshetra in Guwahati. While there may be controversies about the concept of the complex in artistic and literary circles, so far as the Central government was concerned it was mainly a question of money. That is relatively simple, especially in post-liberalisation India.

As part of its preparation for passing the CAB, the Central government formed a “high-powered” committee on Clause 6. The committee was expected to operationalise the idea of the promised safeguards. It has a daunting task ahead: to define who the “Assamese people” are. For, without such a definition it would be hard to decide who exactly would be entitled to seat reservation and other constitutional safeguards as Assam transitions into a reservation-intensive State like some its neighbouring hill States.

When the Assam Accord was signed, it was unlikely that the phrase “the Assamese people” appeared problematical to any of its signatories. It must have seemed self-evident, pretty much like the expressions: the Bengali people, the Kashmiri people, or the Tamil people. But given the particular history of demographic politics in Assam, defining the Assamese people has been more of a challenge to successive State governments of Assam than anyone expected.

It is unlikely that this committee will enter the treacherous terrain of attempting an ethnolinguistic definition of the Assamese people. It will most likely follow the logic of the report by the former Speaker of the Assam Assembly, Pranab Gogoi, on the same subject: play with the only slightly treacherous concept of “indigenous people” and define it as the descendants of those living in Assam before a certain year—1951 always becomes the favorite base year in such discussions because that is when the original NRC was prepared.

In any case, the high-powered committee on Clause 6 has failed to meet the time line preferred by the ruling party, which seems to have been in a hurry to pass the CAB. When angry protests against the CAB broke out in Assam following the passage of the Bill in Parliament, Assam Chief Minister Sarbanada Sonowal said the protesters were “misinformed” about the CAB posing a threat to Assam’s “identity”. The Clause 6 committee, he declared confidently, “will take care of all the concerns…. The sooner the committee submits its report, the better.” Clearly, the ruling party’s political calculation of offering the Assamese a Faustian bargain has not quite worked out as planned.

If we look for an analogy in the contemporary world for the kind of shift in the nation’s public philosophy that the CAB represents, one possible example may be the Fundamental Law adopted by the Hungarian Parliament in 2011 that overruled the country’s former Constitution. It begins with the National Avowal, which states, “We are proud that our king Saint Stephen built the Hungarian State on solid ground and made our country a part of Christian Europe one thousand years ago.” Perhaps the CAB could have included such a National Avowal articulating a new constitutional bargain to replace the one that created the present Republic.

Sanjib Baruah is the author of the forthcoming book In the Name of the Nation: India and its Northeast (Stanford University Press, 2020).

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