Should uniformity be a national project?
The states of Northeast India are agitated and rightly so. Some wonder naively as to why these states in the Northeastern periphery should be so worried about the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAB) and the Uniform Civil Code. The reasons are plenty. India’s Northeast is a melting pot of races; the region is many nations that have somehow been, at the time of their integration with “India,” far too disintegrated to be thinking as a collective.
While large sections of the people of the Northeast are of Tibeto-Burman origin, the Khasi-Jaintia group is of the Austro-Asiatic, Mon-Khmer group more akin to their brethren from Cambodia is habits and language. Centuries of interaction have dimmed the stark cultural differences but have not obliterated those completely. While the tribes are largely agreeable about co-existence with those from the sister states of the region, they become highly suspicious about any attempt to open up the region to the “outsider.” Tripura has always been the epitome of integration gone horribly wrong. What happened centuries ago in undivided India has come to haunt Tripura today and reduced the indigenous Borok people to a mere 32% of the population with Bengali speaking people becoming the majority in the state.
Such is the angst of the tribals of Tripura who have now found voice under the leadership of the scion of the Tripura royal family, Pradyot Kishore Maniky Deb Barman, that they have now asked for a National Register of Citizens (NRC) to be carried out in Tripura too. It is on this contentious issue that Pradyot -- a long-term member of the Congress -- resigned from the party two months ago when the AICC leadership questioned his demand for the NRC.
Deb Barman had gone to the Supreme Court on this issue. He was asked to withdraw the case but refused to. Hence the divorce with the party. Deb Barman says quite a huge chunk of Bengalis from Bangladesh continues to enter Tripura through the extremely porous border much after the cut-off year of 1971. They should be identified and sent back, he says.
In Assam, where different figures have been floated about the number of illegal Bangladeshi settlers who are essentially Muslim, a section of Assamese people are up in arms to deport those 19 lakh people who have no legacy documents and have therefore been considered aliens. But it is not as if all those without documents are Muslims. Perhaps this is the reason why the NRC in Assam has now been trashed by the Centre and state government.
The question then is: Why is the Modi government now wanting to do an NRC across the country? Will this not lead to similar outcomes? How can the country run an experiment on a large-scale exercise which involves expenditure of thousands of crores of public money? What actually is the government trying to do other than keep the pot boiling on issues other than the sinking GDP which is now at 4.5 %?
In the other Northeastern states – Nagaland, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh, all of which have their fair share of illegal migrants there is a strident demand that the CAB should not be implemented as it is an instrument meant to deliver electoral goods to the BJP but at a huge cost to the indigenous tribal population. Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh are intent on not giving citizenship status to Chakmas.
The Mizos don’t want the Brus and Reangs (all three tribes are from the Chittagong Hill tracts of Bangladesh) to be given permanent citizenship status. The Bru people in Mizoram have been demanding political rights and representation in the state assembly. Perhaps that is the reason why they were pushed out of Mizoram and continue to remain in Tripura as refugees. Attempts to resettle the Brus in Mizoram have met with limited success.
In Meghalaya, there is a large area (10x10 sq km) within Shillong city called the European Ward which is beyond the purview of the Sixth Schedule. This is already a very populated area and some parts of this area have become slums occupied by people of Bangladeshi origin (visible from their language and profiles). Union home minister Amit Shah has said that states with Sixth Schedule status and where ILP and Article 371 is in place will not share the burden of accommodating citizens under the CAB.
In Meghalaya interest and pressure groups and civil society resist the CAB because they know that there are already a substantial illegal migrants present in the state. They are also aware that 17 million Bangladeshi Hindus who claim to be persecuted in Bangladesh will want to settle in Meghalaya and the Barak Valley in Assam due to language and cultural proximity with the Bengalis residing there. Government of Meghalaya has already come up with the Meghalaya Residents Safety and Security (MRSS) Act which is pending with the governor. This Act requires that a visitor to Meghalaya who desires to stay for over 24 hours has to fill an online application and get permission to enter the state. This is the Inner Line Permit (ILP) by another name. If passed this Act is bound to affect tourism but that is how knee-jerk reactions play out. There is no long-term thinking on the consequences of such regressive legislation. It’s a legislation driven by paranoia and will backfire on a state whose people, especially rural folks are now hugely dependent on tourism. But that is how policies in the Northeast are made or unmade.
That CAB will lead to public unrest is a given and it is also likely that home minister Amit Shah might resort to force to quell such unrest. The NDA is a no-nonsense government and does not care much for the consequences of its actions. The Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) is already applied to many states of the region. It should not be difficult to extend that Act wherever trouble is brewing. But by stating that the CAB will not be applicable in Sixth Schedule states and those where Article 371 is in place, the plains tribals of Assam who are still fighting for a Sixth Schedule status are wondering whether their lands will now be used to settle the Hindu migrants from Bangladesh. This is an astute move by Amit Shah to divide and confuse the people of the North East. It is also clear that the consultations with people from the North East is just an alibi to say that consultations were carried out and that people were taken on board before the Cabinet passed the CAB on Wednesday.
In Meghalaya, the spokesperson for the Federation of Khasi States, John Kharshiiing, is reminding the Central government about the clauses that were part of the Instrument of Accession signed by the Khasi chieftains in 1948. The 25 Khasi states led by their chieftains had signed the Instrument of Accession and Annexed Agreement with the Dominion of India between December 15, 1947, and March 19, 1948.
The treaty was conditional and gave India rights over defence, finance and external affairs only. This is called the Standstill Agreement and the people of Meghalaya today feel that somehow this Agreement has been annulled without their consent. The Khasi states did not sign the Instrument of Merger with the Indian Union unlike most other states in India. The Khasi states were never part of British ruled India. Hence India did not automatically inherit these territories from the British.
Instruments like the CAB have now become locations of contestations that India could well do without because the Northeast is also a region of conflict and many of its territories are contested too. It would have been prudent for the Indian state to not needle the people of this region beyond a point. It is a fact that the people of this region barring Arunachal Pradesh have not emotionally integrated with the rest of India to the point of giving up their rights as indigenous people. The CAB will bring out all these difference to the fore and provide ammunition to groups that have always been antagonistic to the idea of one nation, one language, one religion and a uniform civil code. And for once there will be many who will agree that the idea of uniformity in India is anathema.
India is a country that defines diversity of race, creed, language and cultures. How can anyone want to quash that diversity in the name of ‘one nation’? What is a nation anyway? Whose idea of the nation are we trying to promote? Why is the India of today incubating ideas that have proved disastrous and resulted in balkanization of the USSR? India is not China where 94% of the population is of Han ancestry. We are a country of many nations, races and cultures. Those who rule this country must have both foresight and large-heartedness to accommodate differences. The Hindutva project is a dangerous one.
(Patricia Mukhim is a social activist, writer, journalist and the editor of The Shillong Times. Recipient of various honours of national and international repute, she was also bestowed with the Padma Shri in 2000 by the government of India. She tweets at @meipat. Views expressed above are her own)