The Citizenship Amendment Act passed by the Parliament of India on 11th December 2019, amended the Citizenship Act of 1955, thereby providing an easier way of granting citizenship to the Hindus, Sikhs, Parsis, Buddhists, Jains and Christians, fleeing persecution from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. However, the Muslims have been denied this privilege, making the Act a grossly unconstitutional one. The Right to Equality given under Article 14 of Indian law has been subverted with the passing of this Act, where religion has been overtly used as a criterion for citizenship, disregarding the secular ethos of the constitution.
Students from universities across the country, as well as people from all strata of society have stood up against this non-secular measure, and broken out in protests. However, the protests in the north-eastern states, chiefly in Assam and Tripura are of a different nature.
I have been fortunate enough to be able to interview renowned Sahitya Akademi winning author, Janice Pariat regarding the nature of protests in north-east India and how they are different from those in the rest of the country.
I. What is it that makes the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act in the north-east different from the rest of India?
The rest of India are justifiably enraged over its anti-secular provisions and the implications this could have on our Muslim community. But to understand the protests in the northeast let’s begin by recognizing that the “northeast” is not one homogeneous geographical lumping. The states most affected by the imposition of the CAA are Tripura and Assam—the rest are protected by the 6th Schedule Clause (which recognises tribal areas as autonomous districts) and/or the Inner Line Permit (travel document issued by the state government to allow an Indian citizen access to a protected area for a limited time period). Small tribal areas within Tripura and Assam are also protected by these but otherwise largely not.
Given their geographical proximity to Bangladesh, these two states have seen a large movement of migrants across the border. In Tripura, this has resulted in the tribal population falling to 30% as of 2001, and Kokborok displaced by Bengali. (In fact, the few voices heard from Tripura have spoken of how protests by the Tripuris has allegedly been quelled by the majority community.) The Assamese, an intricate web of over 200 tribes, are also angered over how they feel the CAA threatens their indigenous existence.
Assam, which has so far accommodated over 50 lakh immigrants, is concerned about drastic demographic shifts, and the impact this could have on their economy, their identity, their language/dialects. Historically, linguistic undermining has already taken place, with British colonial imposition of Bengali on Assam for many decades beginning 1836, when Assamese was outlawed from official and educational spaces.
The Assam Movement of the late 1970s in which almost a thousand people lost their lives, was a fight against what was seen as a danger of being marginalized not just within the structure of the nation (which is already the case) but also within their own state. The movement led to the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985, which legalized immigrants (of any religion) who’d entered before 1971.
The CAA shifts the cut-off year to 2014 and invalidates the Assam Accord.
For a people frequently undermined in their attempts at self-determination, this is yet again a betrayal and a dishonoring of their voices and wishes.
The protests breaking out in the rest of the Northeast which remain exempt from the CAA—Imphal, Aizawl, Shillong—are in solidarity with Assam, and of course, also with the the broader national concern of its anti-constitutional nature.
II. Some Assamese people are seemingly supporting the NRC, but not the CAA. Why is that?
The NRC was meant to distinguish, for the state government, the immigrants who had entered the state before or after 1971.
Since the NRC is a process by which the provisions of the Assam Accord could be fulfilled, I would presume some Assamese people support the NRC being carried out within Assam.
III. What are the state of affairs now in Assam and Meghalaya?
The people of Assam are still protesting—peacefully, I might add, while in Meghalaya, the demand is now to implement the ILP (Inner Line Permit) within the state as added “precautionary measure”. What I do know is general mistrust of the centre remains—as does a sense of betrayal.
IV. From a privileged point of view, it is easy to term the protests in the north-east to be xenophobic in nature, and this is precisely what many people are claiming them to be. However, as someone born in Assam and brought up in Shillong, how would you disprove such a callous allegation?
It’s the easiest narrative to profess—that the northeasterns “just want to kick everybody out”, or that the protests in the rest of India are more noble in nature since voices are being raised for equality and secularism, not for “exclusion”. But the fights are different because our histories are different ; it really is as simple as that.
I will not deny that xenophobia, sadly, isn’t entirely absent in the protests in the Northeast, but protest is not one monolithic thing. It is multi-pronged, and springs not from a vacuum, but a particular historical context - one where small vulnerable indigenous populations have been at the mercy of an often draconian center, imposing its will, viciously, violently, upon a “faraway” people. Nagaland was never granted the independence she was promised; in 1962 during the Sino-Indian War, Nehru as good as bid farewell to Arunachal Pradesh and Assam ; to quell the Mizo Front in 1966 (having risen due to a severe famine that the centre barely helped alleviate), Indira Gandhi ordered an air strike on Mizoram. The inhumane Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) has been imposed on almost every state in the northeast.
For decades we experienced intense militarization in the region. We grew up with curfews, army road checks, and saw our hometowns turned into encounter zones. To profess the easy narrative - that north-easterners are xenophobic - is to ignore yet again our stories, to discount the weight of our histories. The Assam Accord, the Assam NRC, faulty measures as they may be, are an attempt to claim some semblance of localized self-determination by a people to whom this has been frequently denied.
The heart of the matter is this: you can feel ambivalent towards many aspects of a protest or a movement and yet still extend your empathy, and acknowledge the context within which their pain and fear have arisen.
V. How did you arrive at using magic realism in your stories, and how does it kind of connect with the way in which you represent the minority?
In my first book, Boats on Land, a collection of short stories set in Shillong, Cherrapunji and various pockets of Assam, I employed certain magic realist techniques—including the juxtaposing of the marvelous and the mundane.
This was not to “represent the minority” but to illustrate how reality could be as fantastical as so-called magic. That the terrible things we do to each other in the name of nation, religion, identity, etc are often as hard to believe and as extraordinary as the stories we hear of the supernatural, the magical, the uncanny.
VI. How do you think we can create more awareness regarding the nature of the issue in the north-east, given that there are intermittent internet shutdowns in the region, as well as lesser media coverage?
There are Internet shutdowns in UP too now, so the Northeast is singled out no longer in this regard. But it’s too easy to say that it’s up to the media now to “create more awareness”. The creation of awareness needs to begin early. Include our histories in school syllabi across the nation, our songs, our folktales, our freedom fighters, our poetry. If people don’t care about a region’s past, they will not care about its future. If they don’t hear its stories, they will not know the storytellers exist.
If you enjoyed reading this article, we suggest you also read