Protestors hurl brick-bats during clashes between a group of anti-CAA protestors and supporters of the new citizenship act, at Jafrabad in north-east Delhi-Feb 24, 2020 (PTI)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement on repealing the three contentious farm laws has revived the debate surrounding another controversial piece of legislation—the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), 2019.
According to CAA, “any person belonging to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian community from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan, who entered India on or before the 31 December 2014… shall not be treated as illegal migrant”.
CAA sparked nationwide protest and violence in some states. Four people were killed in Assam in police firing during the December 2019 anti-CAA agitation.
The reasons behind the popular protests in northeastern states such as Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura were not the same as in the rest of the country.
While CAA is seen as anti-Muslim and as an instrument to polarise voters, the citizenship debate in the Northeast is much more complex, given its links to the questions of identity and indigeneity.
Assam and the rest of the Northeast were up in arms against the legislation fearing it would disrupt the ethnic demography in the region by allowing more Hindu immigrants from Bangladesh.
Assam witnessed massive protests in December 2019 against CAA, with the civil society and ethnic organisations arguing that it violated the 1985 Assam Accord of detection and expulsion of illegal immigrants based on March 24, 1971 cutoff date.
Besides, the law was in conflict with the exercise to update the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam, aimed at weeding out illegal Bangladeshi settlers irrespective of their religion.
The updated NRC, however, failed to live up to expectations and nobody knows how soon the alleged errors in the register would be rectified.
Also read: Union Cabinet clears withdrawal of three farm laws ahead of Winter Session of Parliament
Why Northeast opposes CAA
Nevertheless, the demand to either repeal the CAA or make constitutional provisions not to implement it in the Northeast is still alive and kicking.
“If PM can repeal farm laws, then he should consider the plight of the indigenous people of Northeast and repeal CAA from states like Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura. Is it too much for the PM to think once for the indigenous people of Northeast?” Pradyot Manikya Deb Burman, Tripura “royal” and chairman of The Indigenous Progressive Regional Alliance, better known as Tipra, told this writer.
Tipra was launched as a non-political platform amid anti-CAA protests in the country in December 2019. It was registered as a political party on February 5, 2021.
States such as Assam and Tripura are busting at the seams because of the migration from neighbouring Bangladesh.
In Tripura, the situation is more alarming, given that the unchecked influx of Hindu Bengali refugees had completely changed the state’s demographic, reducing the indigenous people to a minority.
Deb Burman had earlier told this writer that CAA would have been acceptable to the people of the Northeast had the Centre made separate provisions for settling the migrants outside the region.
Also read: Explained | What are the three farm laws and what made them controversial?
Has anti-CAA stir fizzled out?
In Assam, the influential All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and several civil society organisations have been opposing the controversial citizenships law since its passage by Parliament.
"Now, the Centre has to repeal the CAA as it is against the indigenous people of the Northeast. The AASU and North East Students' Organisation (NESO) are firm on our opposition to the CAA. It is related to the question of the identity of the people of the region," AASU chief adviser Samujjal Bhattacharya was quoted as saying by PTI.
The opposition Congress had promised to repeal CAA ahead of the 2021 Assam assembly elections. The party maintains that the citizenship law is “discriminatory” and “unconstitutional” as it “violates” Articles 14 of the Indian Constitution that guarantees equality under the law to all persons irrespective of creed, caste or gender.
“The Congress joined different civil society organizations in the protest against CAA. In the run-up to the 2019 parliamentary elections, we highlighted the issue in our public meetings and rallies but it looks really strange to see how this entire issue has just fizzled out in no time,” Assam Pradesh Congress Committee spokesperson Bobbeeta Sharma told this writer.
“We need to be persistent. As an opposition party, we can raise our voice but the pressure to bring in any change has to come from citizens of this country. And it’s for the people to take it forward,” she said.
“Farmers, especially those from Punjab, had been really persistent. They had been persistent for the past one year, something I find missing in Assamese civil society organizations. This is the saddest part.”
Political analyst Kaustubh Kumar Deka has a different view.
“In my opinion, to an extent, it is right to say that due to lack of resolve and absence of sustained zeal, anti-CAA protests fizzled out in Assam. However, one should also recognise the difference in the social and cultural capital of people of Northeast vis-a-vis that of people from states likes Punjab and Uttar Pradesh,” said Deka, who teaches political science at Assam’s Dibrugarh University.
“Most farmer families from these regions also send a son each to the defence forces and these communities are also at the very centre stage of 'mainstream' power politics in a way. The experience of Assam and NE being on the margins of political imagination for long and with a long history of militarisation cannot be compared immediately and in toto,” Deka added.
Indeed, the Northeast does not count much when it comes to national politics, given that the region as a whole sends only 25 lawmakers to the Lok Sabha compared to 80 MPs from Uttar Pradesh, 13 from Punjab and 10 from Haryana.
However, the present dispensation would do well to recognise the fact that the strategically important Northeast should not be left to fend for itself because the success of the government’s Act East policy will undoubtedly depend on peace and stability in the region.(Jayanta Kalita is a senior journalist and author based in Delhi. He writes on issues related to India’s Northeast. The views expressed are personal.)