Pradyot Deb Barman among young Northeastern protesters against CAA in New Delhi

New Delhi: Pradyot Kishore Manikya Deb Barman has emerged as one of the most vocal critics of the newly enacted Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 among the young crop of leaders from the Northeast. An entrepreneur by profession, he belongs to the erstwhile Manikya dynasty of Tripura.

In an exclusive interaction with EastMojo, Deb Barman urged the Centre to keep the Northeast out of law’s purview and sought the expeditious drafting of national refugee policy. Popularly known as ‘Bubagra’ – which means ‘king’ in Kokborok language of the Sino-Tibetan family – he also asked young protesters from the region to guard against the core agenda of their movement from being hijacked by vested interest groups.

The former head of the Tripura unit of the Indian National Congress (INC) also accused national political parties of compromising the region’s interest for the sake of vote bank politics. He was recently in New Delhi to address a protest by members of the Northeast community held under the aegis of North-East Unites for Justice & Peace (NEIUJP).

Excerpts from the interview:

There have been widespread protests against CAA in the Northeast. What are your own main objections to the newly promulgated law?

Firstly, the CAA does not look at the impact it has on the indigenous people of the Northeast. We have a small population and a long porous border with Bangladesh. We have already accepted people who were either member of the persecuted religious minorities or arrived in India for economic benefits. Secondly, when you passed a law with the cut-off year determined as 2014 with there being no need to produce documents, you have already ensured that the onus is on no one to prove that they are Indian citizens. Thirdly, be it Tripura, Sikkim, Meghalaya, Manipur or any other state in the region, we have a small population. Any tinkering with that would leave us in a state of lawlessness and isolation. And we are extremely worried about that. We oppose the CAA and it should not be implemented whether it is for Hindus, Muslims or any other community in the states of the Northeast.

In your YouTube videos that have gone viral, you have been very emphatic on the point that your protest is not directed against any community or ethnic group.

I am a Hindu. The people who are protesting in Assam are also largely Hindu. People who are protesting in Tripura are also largely Hindu. The Meitei people of Manipur who are protesting are also Hindu.The protest in the Northeast is not anti-Hindu, it is merely about preserving our ethnicity. Today, if you send 5 lakh people to Nepal, the Nepalese who are predominantly Hindu will protest. If you send Christians from any part of the world to a Christian country, the Christians there will protest. Our protest is about preserving the ethnicity, culture and character of our respective states.

Among the young crop of NE leaders, Pradyot Deb Barman has been a vocal critic against the CAA

How has Tripura, a small state with limited resources, coped up with waves of refugees in its recent history?

You need to come to Agartala to see how much we have suffered. Tripura does not feel like Tripura it once used to be. The state is an example for the rest of the Northeast of what not to become. So,the government of India needs to introspect. In fact, it is largely the national parties that are to be blamed because they are all practicing vote-bank politics and my concern is that the regional parties are either too weak or completely at the bidding of the national parties presently to speak for our interests.

Incidentally, Tripura was one of the first states to open its borders to immigrants from Bangladesh starting for those escaping the carnage of Hindus in Noakhali in 1946, in undivided Bengal. So, at what point did the problem aggravate?

That happened after we merged with the union of India. Then it was the government of India’s policy to allow people from East Pakistan or Bangladesh to come in. Sometimes that happened on humanitarian grounds at other times because the government didn’t trust the indigenous population enough. Even today, the boundaries are open and people come and go back at will. Now, how do you identify a Bengali speaking Muslim from a Bengali speaking Hindu? What will be the mechanism for ensuring home minister Amit Shah’s assertion that if one is a Hindu one doesn’t need to produce any documents? If you don’t need to produce any documents what is the use of having the cut-off year as 2014? You could very well have come in yesterday and still claim that you arrived in 2013.

But government sources point out that CAA does neither to the tribal-dominated regions in the states of Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura under the Sixth Schedule of the constitution or to Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram that are under the Inner-Line Permit (ILP) regime.

The ILP only stops Indians from freely coming to the Northeast but it doesn’t bar Bangladeshis from doing so. Tripura had Restricted Area Permit (RAP) till 1995 but that still didn’t stop infiltration.We are against CAA because we no longer want our demography or voting pattern to be influenced by illegals. The Government of India must trust us more to love India rather than importing people from Bangladesh and telling us that this was the way forward. Since we are also Indians, please love us more and then think about the neighbourhood.

You have also raised the need for the country to draft a national refugee policy. Tell us more about that.

India should have a national refugee policy.Like, look at the way we have given asylum to the Dalai Lama. He is not the chief minister of any state but he is living here with dignity and is allowed to move about freely. However, he can’t hold constitutional posts or apply for certain other privileges available to a regular citizen of the country. We are not for detention camps or throwing people into the Bay of Bengal. We also want refugees to live with dignity but then they cannot enjoy the same rights as an Indian citizen. We have to clarify this point as our agenda is getting hijacked. Certain left-wing elements are keen to hijack our agenda and I am not in favour of that at all.

Tripura’s royal scion Pradyot Deb Barman

In fact, this concern about the main agenda behind the CAA protests being hijacked by vested interest groups was shared with EastMojo by several other protesters from the region. How can that be avoided?

It will be avoided once the left and the right-wing stop fighting with each other and using us as a battleground. Also,my message to the young protesters is that they must think independently and clearly, and learn to fight for themselves rather than expecting some right-thinking intellectual coming to their defence.

Even while opposing CAB you have called for a National Register of Citizens.

I want NRC. My petition in the Supreme Court has requested for NRC in Tripura. However, the exercise should not be determined based on ethnicity, language, caste or religion; an Indian is an Indian and a non-Indian is a non-Indian.

But the religion clause applies to only the persecuted minorities living in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan?

If you have made a CAA law like this you are automatically implying that one religion is out, which is incorrect.

So, how should the broad contours of the NRC be determined?

The NRC will become redundant if CAA is passed in its present form. My recommendation is to first prepare an NRC and then release a national refugee policy. Ensure that they don’t get the right to vote or buy a property. Redistribute people across the country rather than keeping them in one place so that they don’t become the vote bank of a political party and end up alienating an entire indigenous population.

It’s been three months since you announced your resignation from INC. What will be your future course of action?

There is no course of action as such for this is the time to engage, debate and remain equidistant while also speaking for your people. What’s happened is that this country has become divided among various “wings”. Being a centrist, I look at the good aspects of all sides and am open to a dialogue with everyone. But I won’t compromise on my basic agenda,which is the preservation as well as securing of the interests of the indigenous people of Tripura and the Northeast.

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