Thursday, April 18, 2024
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Why the caa is still a danger for everyone in the North East

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By Bhogtoram Mawroh

The upcoming elections are going to be crucial especially for Meghalaya and the North East, as they are happening against the backdrop of the CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act), for which now rules have been formulated. Although almost all of Meghalaya (barring a small percentage) has been exempted from CAA, the fact that 8.5 lakh Hindus have been left out of the NRC conducted in Assam and Chief Minister, Himanta Sharma, has declared that up to 3 to 6 lakh can apply for citizenship is still a big threat for the indigenous communities of the region. In fact, the future road map of how giving citizenship to such a large number of people will affect indigenous communities is already playing out in Karbi Anglong.
Last month, the Karbi Students Association and the Autonomous State Demand Committee Youth Front protested against the illegal encroachment of reserved grazing land in Karbi Anglong. This happened in the context of Rachnatmak Nonia Sanyukta Sangh, an organization of the Hindi-speaking Nonia community, submitting a memorandum to President Draupadi Murmu demanding, among other things, the legalization of settlers on the encroached lands in West Karbi Anglong. During the protests, the Hindi-speaking mob attacked the Karbi volunteers, leading to the injury of 11 people. The police promptly arrested 17 people involved in the violence. The attack on the Karbis evoked a backlash, and Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council (KAAC) Chief Executive Member (CEM) Tuliram Ronghang announced that they would evict the illegal encroachers within 30 days. The Assam government has stated that it will not interfere with the order. But the whole issue is exactly what fuels the fear of indigenous communities. For them, it’s not about religious identity, which is the foundation of CAA and which the BJP wanted to exploit; it’s about the alienation of their land, like it has happened in Tripura and other places in the North East.
Indeed, alienation of land was a big concern during the Constituent Assembly debate of 1949. Since then, there has always been an attempt to assimilate the indigenous community with those from the mainstream, which, in other words, means alienating them from their land and culture. One should look at the arguments made by Rohini Kumar Chaudhuri, a former Member of Parliament from Guwahati, in the Constituent Assembly debate in favour of assimilation, stressing the inability to own property in tribal areas. He was challenged by Rev. J J M. Nichols Roy, a Khasi, and Mr. Jaipal Singh, a Munda (both belonging to the Austroasiatic language family), who dismantled his arguments and put forth their case, demanding special laws for protecting the rights of the indigenous people. Ultimately, Rev J J M. Nichols Roy and Mr. Jaipal Singh prevailed, and the Constitution introduced the Fifth and Sixth Schedules. However, as Virginius Xaxa, a noted indigenous scholar, has discussed in his book chapter ‘Governing the Environment in the Fifth and Sixth Schedule Areas’, the Sixth Schedule represents self-determined governance and development, while the Fifth Schedule is marked by its absence. As a result, dispossession and displacement have been negligible in the Sixth Schedule areas. But Fifth Schedule areas have experienced loss of control over land and forests due to the extension of laws adverse to the interests of indigenous peoples, and the absence of self-governance has resulted in poor development. This is where CAA becomes very important.
With 3 to 6 lakh being eligible for citizenship, they will eventually spill over into indigenous areas, like it has happened in Karbi Anglong. In time, they will ask for the delisting of those areas under the Sixth Schedule so that they can lay claim to the land. This is already happening. Slowly but steadily, a lot of areas will be delisted, with indigenous communities becoming a minority in their own territory. In the future, a new exemption will be instituted and a new date given for granting citizenship. Identification of illegal immigrants and their deportation was supposed to take place on the 1971 cutoff date; now it has been extended to 2014. Perhaps in the future, the new date will be 2030. In the meantime, both migrants from the mainland and the new citizens will continuously push on to indigenous territories. This strategy has become apparent from the statement of Chief Minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma, who stated that the definition of Assamese has undergone change over the years and must include people such as Hindi speakers and the tea tribes. In fact, he claimed that, excluding them and the indigenous tribal communities in the state, the Assamese population will be only 28–30 percent in Assam. At the moment, the non-indigenous population cannot own land in Sixth Schedule areas, but once they control the state administration through electoral politics, they could starve those areas of funds and pressure them to delist areas, opening them for occupation by the non-indigenous population. As the pressure increases on indigenous communities like the Karbis, it will spill over into Meghalaya as well. But CAA is not the only strategy to deprive indigenous peoples of their land.
Recently, an organization calling itself the Karbi Traditional Faith Association (KTFA) threatened to demolish the statue of Jesus Christ and other Christian imagery from the premises of a school in Ri Bhoi. The irony is that the village where this took place on the Meghalaya side also happened to belong to the Karbi community. This is in line with the demand made by Janajati Surakha Mancha (JSM), a BJP-backed Hindu body of tribal people active across India, seeking delisting of the tribals from Scheduled Tribes (ST) status who have converted to Christianity in Tripura. This is reminiscent of the British ‘divide and rule policy’ which, in this case, is about fomenting hostility within the indigenous communities and weakening them.
If one goes to history, they will find that some Native American groups aligned themselves at one time or another with the European powers against other Native American groups, hoping they would benefit at the expense of their kin. The result was that more than 90% of the Native American population in the Americas was wiped out by European colonialism. Those who remained were deprived of their rights and had to endure humiliation where their children were taken away from them to drive out the ‘native/indigenous’ from them. Are these indigenous groups, who are now fighting against their own brethren, not aware of what awaits them in the end?
Religion is a personal affair, but what makes an indigenous person part of the community is the kinship that they share with each other. This was illustrated in a story told to me by Tarun Bhartiya, a national and international award-winning film maker from Shillong, where one of the earlier Khasi converts pulled a gun on the missionary, threatening him in case he was pressured to give up his kur, the matrilineal clan. Personally, I believe such Christians are more Khasi than those traditional faith practitioners who want to break the community, or those who are ashamed of their matrilineal culture. You can change your religion, but you cannot change your kur, i.e., matrilineal clan, and this is what links the community. Forget that, and what happened to indigenous peoples elsewhere will be repeated here as well.
But one adverse impact of the CAA will, ironically, also fall on the non-indigenous population that has been residing in indigenous lands for many generations. In Meghalaya, this also includes the Harijans, who have been at the receiving end of vitriolic hate despite the undeniable fact that they have helped build Shillong and are part of the city and the state as much as any indigenous person. The settlement of the decades-long issue will have to happen, but it must be done with recognition of their contribution, and a sincere attempt must be made to accommodate them in a respectful manner. This also includes the many non-indigenous populations, like the Nepali, Bengali, Punjabi, Marwari, and Sindhi, who have also made the state their home and have contributed immensely to the state. The justified paranoia in which indigenous peoples will be forced to live because of the new migration or new migrants who will be pushed into indigenous territories because of CAA or other measures will only create a situation of fear and resentment. This will perpetuate the second-class treatments the local non-indigenous population has been facing for decades.
The threat to the indigenous peoples of the North East is a fact, but the unjust treatment of non-indigenous people who have settled for generations is also not justified. This is similar to what the Dalits, Muslims, and the indigenous people known as Adivasi have to go through in the mainland, which has intensified in recent years, especially against the Muslims. It is for this reason that the argument against CAA is not only led by indigenous groups but also well-meaning non-indigenous groups from all over the country.

In today’s age, no community, whether indigenous or non-indigenous, can live as an island or be oblivious to what is happening elsewhere. For this reason, there is need to build solidarity because indigenous and non-indigenous people will only be safe when both groups are allowed to live with dignity and respect. However, at the moment, there are those who want to create animosity between the Khasi and the Garo, between the Khasi and the Karbi, and maintain the perpetual animosity between the Khasi and the local non-indigenous population. In this atmosphere of mutual hate and suspicion, only those who don’t belong to the region will benefit in the long run. In fact, that is exactly what the CAA seems to be intended for.
(The views expressed in the article are those of the author and do not reflect in any way his affiliation to any organisation or institution)

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