CAB:  Challenges of Belongingness, Identity and Citizenship

Patricia Mukhim

The Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) 2016 was aborted by the NDA at the very last moment (the last day of parliament sessions in both houses for the present government). The contentious Bill has once again exposed how little the rulers of this vast nation understand this diverse region which is forced into an imagined homogenous space called North East. Yes the rulers of this country barring some honourable exceptions have never understood the people of this region; never appreciated their concerns; their dominant passions; their underlying fears; their inherent strengths and their momentary weaknesses. It is no gainsaying that this region is where South East Asia begins. In this region people are still negotiating their ‘Indianness.’ To bring a Bill like CAB which will impact this region because of its geo-strategic location and geo-political-historical legacy, is suicidal to say the least.

Although the CAB was not put through a referendum like Brexit was, it turned out into an informal referendum as far as the North East is concerned. There was near unity in opposing the Bill. For once the metro channels turned gaze towards  this region to find out what people find offensive about the CAB;  why they think the CAB is a detrimental piece of legislation and how it could conflagrate the region if it were to have been passed. There were even writings on the walls that the region might once again sink into the abyss of armed rebellion and that this time such movements would win popular support.

The naked protests by groups from Assam in the national capital; the series of outbursts from Manipur, (both BJP-ruled states), indicate that the BJP may have won votes in the two states but has not won the hearts of people. On the contrary, the BJP has completely alienated the people of this region and cancelled out the gains it had made in its five year tenure when it tried to complete several long-pending projects, particularly the Bogibeel bridge in Dibrugarh which is India’s second longest railroad bridge, inaugurated by Prime Minister Modi on Christmas Day last year. The Bogibeel is India’s endeavour towards defence preparedness. The abject lack of connectivity within the region in 1962 was India’s Achilles Heel. The Chinese came up to Tezpur. The Bogibeel would have been the bulwark against such surprise attacks. It would enable defence forces to move their equipment with greater speed. Army top brass say that the Bogibeel would make travelling to the farthest point of the India-China border shorter by several hundred kilometres and enable logistical support to the Indian Army serving in the borders.

The Bogibeel therefore has a multi-pronged utility and the BJP had hoped that completion of this Bridge which was kept in the backburner for decades would endear the people of Assam to it. But that was a misplaced hope. This time the people of Assam were unsettled by fears of becoming minorities in their homeland if new migrants are granted citizenship. Assam is already carrying the economic load of millions of illegal settlers from erstwhile East Pakistan and now Bangladesh. The illegal migrants are simply unstoppable. Despite the episodic citations by scholars that Bangladesh’s Human Development Indices far exceed those of India, the fact remains that India remains an attractive destination because of its liberal and secular nature.

Several studies testify to the fact that the majority of illegal migrants in Assam and other states of North East India are Muslims. In Assam Muslim voters constitute about 35% of the electorate. They are a deciding factor in 6 out of 14 Lok Sabha constituencies. Muslims form the dominant population in Dhubri, Barpeta, Nagaon, Koliabor, Karimganj and Silchar. This was what Himanta Biswa Sarma the BJP’s hatchet man in Assam was telling his audience at a meeting. He said there is need to offset this Muslim hegemony by inviting Hindus from that country to settle in India. Of course Afghanistan and Pakistan are also included as countries where Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Christians and Parsis are persecuted. As was earlier pointed out by this writer, the Hindus in Bangladesh number 17 million. A huge number by any count! The population of the eight states of the North East is roughly 45.5 million. If we add 17 million people we can imagine the pressure on land and economic resources and the impact on the culture, literature and ethnographic composition of the region. Tripura is an archetype of what could happen to the other North Eastern states if CAB was passed.

To imagine that the people of the North East are imbued with Indian nationhood which in the collective imagination of the BJP-RSS is equivalent to Hindu, Hindustan and Hindutva and that they would accept the CAB out of empathy for Hindus is a gargantuan error. The ethnic groups living within the eight states are negotiating the idea of nationhood on a daily basis. For a Khasi, her prime identity is that of a Khasi, and then an Indian. So too with Mizos, Nagas, and the 238 ethnic groups. ethnic identity will never be subsumed by the national identity. That is the major difference between being ‘Indian’ in Delhi or Bihar or Uttar Pradesh and being Indian in North East India. Ethnic Identity is part of our emotional and political consciousness. Observers from the outside the region may not agree with my observations but the fact remains that these are dominant traits.

This fear of the outsider and about being reduced to a minority can have retrograde effects and prevent our participation in the all-pervasive market economy that knows no geographical or political boundaries. In the book ‘The Prosperity Paradox: How Innovation Can Lift Nations Out of Poverty by Clayton M Christensen of Harvard Business School, the author says there is the push and pull method of addressing poverty and under-development. Christensen says ‘push’ strategies are driven by priorities of their originators who are typically experts in a particular field of development and generate solutions for poor income countries. But these resources are often pushed into a context that isn’t ready to absorb them. Christensen gives the example of the FIFA World Cup in South Africa. The country ended up recovering only 10% of the $3.12 billion it had invested in transportation, telecommunications and stadiums. Now the country has to shell out $32 million every year since 2010 to maintain the stadium, an amount that could have gone into creating better public utilities.

The ‘pull’ strategies on the other hand are responses to a demand. This demand is brought about by an economy that can absorb the knowledge and skills taught to students. Much of this happens in the private sector and the author speaks of his experiences with Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) one of the world’s largest companies with four lakh employees. TCS caters to market demands and skills people accordingly. The private sector is able to adapt to change quickly; the public sector cannot. Pull strategies create and respond to the needs of the market and that’s how jobs are created. Christensen sees a very poor chance of the state creating jobs. The market does. However, in the North East we are still largely reliant on government employment. Entrepreneurship is flagging and not adequately supported by banks and other financial institutions. Once the people of this region enter the market economy their priorities will change and the unaddressed fears might also turn into opportunities for economic growth. However, the North Easterner cannot be pushed into this. He has to evolve and come into his own and realise his inherent strengths and his ability to compete in a level playing field.

Insecurity is a serious problem. It brings out the worst in people. It makes them aggressive bullies. Once this sense of insecurity about one’s capability is removed by the strength infused by a new vision and new attitude then perhaps that sense of ethnic pride that must be defended at all costs will be replaced by a new kind of need – the need to collaborate and cooperate with companies and institutions across the nation and the globe. There are already many such collaborations.

Only then will the sense of ‘Indianness’ emerge where ethnic identity travels alongside the national identity without a tug of war. For this to happen the political eco-system needs to be such that statesmen and not politicians lead the way. The CAB was a quick-fix vote-gathering stratagem that backfired. But CAB has given the people of the region much to mull on about negotiating their political and economic rights within the larger Indian nation.


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