The country has erupted in protests since the passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act. The protests first broke out in Assam, a state ruled by the BJP, and spread to Meghalaya and Tripura before fanning out to cities and states across India. Yet there is a fundamental difference in the reason and character between the protests in the Northeast and those in the rest of the country.
The protests in Assam and Meghalaya were against the Citizenship Amendment Act alone. Elsewhere, the protests were against the CAA as well as the National Register of Citizens, which is meant to follow the amending of the Citizenship Act. While the stated purpose of the CAA is to grant citizenship on relatively easy terms to Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Sikhs and other non-Muslim minorities from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the aim of the NRC is to evict all those who cannot prove through documents that they or their ancestors were citizens of India before a certain cut-off date. The cut-off date for the rest of India is unknown, but in Assam, the only state where this exercise has been carried out so far, the cut-off date was March 24, 1971.
Around 19 lakh people had been left out of the NRC in Assam. The official data on the ethnic and linguistic breakup is not yet out, although BJP leader and senior Assam minister Himanta Biswa Sarma had promised that the data would be made public. However, source-based estimates widely reported in the media have mentioned figures of 10-12 lakh Bengali Hindus among the 19 lakhs excluded, as well as another lakh or so each of Gorkhas and indigenous tribals. The rest are Muslims, mainly those of Bengali heritage.
The fact that the NRC process was ridden with errors was clear right through. All kinds of people found themselves excluded. A soldier who served the nation for 30 years, fought for India in Kargil, and won a President’s medal, Mohammad Sanaullah, was sent to a detention camp by the order of a foreigners’ tribunal. There were several other cases of unexpected exclusions, most of which would never make news because they were of ordinary poor people.
Everyone in Assam knew this was happening. All groups including the BJP and the All Assam Students’ Union eventually rejected the NRC for their own reasons and agreed that the exercise had been deeply flawed. Yet now, when the Citizenship Act was passed, the state has risen in spontaneous protest — but only against the Citizenship Act, not against the NRC. Why?
The reason is that the protests in Assam are driven by a desire to exclude all “outsiders”, but the main targets are the Bengali Hindus. The fear is that Bengali Hindus from Bangladesh will come swarming in. This is an illogical fear since there is a cut-off date of December 31, 2014, stated in the CAA, and therefore any new immigrants will not be covered by it. However, illogical fears and historical half-truths have powered Assamese politics of xenophobia for decades.
The story goes back to before the Partition of India. In a recent essay in Frontline, Prof. Sanjib Baruah writes: “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.”
Sylhet had been removed from Bengal Presidency and appended to Assam by the colonial British administration in 1874, when Assam emerged as a province. From 1826, when it became a part of British India, until then, it had been part of Bengal Presidency.
The basis of fear of Bengali domination lies in the oft-repeated fact that Bengali was made the language of administration of the province by the British from 1837 until 1874. This happened because Assam had been conquered by the Burmese, and then the British, and appended to the Bengal Presidency. The Bengali clerk, to this day, is blamed for the British colonial administration’s decisions that resulted from that sequence of historical events.
It is a fact that Bengalis and Punjabis paid the real price for India’s freedom, because the million and more who died in Partition were mainly Bengalis and Punjabis. The many millions more who became refugees were also mainly Bengalis and Punjabis.
Many of those who were forced out due to religious tensions after Partition in East Pakistan wound up in adjoining Assam — and there, they faced attacks again in the “Bongal Kheda” (chase out Bengalis) riots of the 1960s, which morphed into the “Bidexi Kheda” (chase out foreigners) agitation of the 1970s and the Assam Agitation of 1979-85. Eventually, the worst victims of the Assam Agitation were Bengali Muslim peasants. In the Nellie massacre of 1983, at least 2,200 men, women and children were hacked to death overnight. Not a single person ever went to jail for those 2,200-plus murders, because Assamese society closed ranks to prevent justice in a way that would have astonished those who saw Gujarat 2002.
The NRC exercise happened only in Assam as a result of that long history. The protests against the Citizenship Act there, but not the erroneous NRC, is part of the same deep-rooted politics of xenophobia that has been normalised for so long that, when it comes to determining who is “pure” Assamese, talk of “purity of blood” is par for the course even in polite “liberal” sections of society.