Paying the price for narrow political calculations

Paying the price for narrow political calculations

NRC and CAB have pitted politics of religion against the politics of ethnicity in Assam and NE; will have harmful overall impact on the social fabric of India

When the reigning duo of Amit Shah and Narendra Modi muscled the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill through Parliament, they seem to have not expected any backlash in Assam, a state ruled by their party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Mr Modi was scheduled to host Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Guwahati this week. When the protests suddenly broke out against the CAB, hoardings announcing the planned summit near the state secretariat in the Assam capital were pulled down and set on fire by protestors. Mr Abe has since postponed his planned visit.

Messrs Shah and Modi have long and extensive experience of politics in Gujarat, a state that has for decades been the laboratory and fortress of Hindutva. Their knowledge and understanding of Assam, the newest addition to the expanding map of states coloured saffron that their supporters like to flourish, was perhaps inadequate, or they would have known that merely because Assam voted BJP does not mean that it has abandoned its deep-rooted old politics of insider and outsider. 

In that political reckoning, the Hindu Bengali is as much of an outsider as the Muslim Bengali. Politics in Assam for more than a hundred years has revolved around this tension. The caste Assamese, who even Bengalis in other parts of India cannot tell apart from Bengalis – names are identical and appearances similar – have long carried a fear that they will lose their identity due to migration from East Bengal. This fear has its roots in colonial history, and is based on a somewhat mythologised and oversimplified understanding of an outcome of British language policy that led to Bengali becoming the official language in 1837 of what was then part of Bengal Presidency and subsequently became the province of Assam in 1874.

The protests in Assam against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, now an Act, were driven by the fear that its passage would once again open the doors to Hindu Bengali migrants from what is now Bangladesh. This fear is unjustified, since the Act has a cut-off date of December 31, 2014, and is useless for any Hindu migrants who have come after that date. The total number of migrants who will get citizenship due to this Act is highly unlikely to exceed the 31,313 mentioned in the Joint Parliamentary Committee report. Most of those individuals are Pakistani Hindus in camps in Rajasthan.

Nonetheless, politicians play on fears, and so the politics of religion is now pitted against the politics of ethnicity in Assam and across northeast India. There is no doubt that this round has gone to the ethno-linguistic forces protesting the amended Citizenship Act. The fact that the Asom Gana Parishad, the sole political party in the state that represents this position, voted for the Act due to compulsions of power – it is part of the BJP government – has left it completely discredited. The political space in Assam is now open for a new party to fill this space. 

Popular Assamese singer Zubeen Garg has spoken of launching just such a party. Garg, who sang the BJP’s campaign song in the last state polls, is among those leading protests against it now. He will find support from the powerful All Assam Students’ Union, and from a whole range of ethno-linguistic forces including farmer leader Akhil Gogoi and the United Liberation Front of Asom leaders such as its general secretary Anup Chetia, among others. With Assam facing state elections in 2021, along with West Bengal, the issues of the Citizenship Act and NRC – and the related questions of identity and migration – are set to dominate.

The immediate chaos and violence may be papered over after a few days or weeks. Christmas is coming and the mainly Christian hill states of Northeast India will enter a festive mood. In Guwahati, which is now a bustling city, the pressures of business in a time of economic slowdown may force a return to “normalcy”. But this does not mean that everything will go back to what it was before the NRC and amended Citizenship Act came along. Old wounds going back to Partition have been reopened. The maharaja of Tripura, Pradyot Manikya Deb Barman, is filing a petition in the Supreme Court challenging the amended Act on the basis of the Instrument of Accession his ancestors signed to join India. 

Across the Northeast, similar sentiments and memories of a troubled acceptance of India are fresh. The Naga peace talks are still on and the demand by the Naga separatist leaders for a separate flag and constitution are still pending. India is not Gujarat. It is a union of states. Trying to impose the will of one section of Indians on states such as Punjab, Bengal and Kerala, whose chief ministers have vowed not to implement the new Act, will spread further disharmony. The NRC and CAB were pushed through due to narrow political calculations – it is absurd to say that people affected by Partition, 72 years ago, are being given citizenship now – but the overall impact on the social fabric in India is harmful, and we have already seen that. 

It would be in the national interest to put religious and ethnic conflicts aside as soon as possible and concentrate on pulling our country out from the economic hole into which, due to demonetisation and other such idiocies, it has fallen.

(Samrat is an author and journalist, and a former newspaper editor)

The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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