Home » CAA: Thinking Beyond Secularism and Hindu-Muslim binary; The Northeast Question

CAA: Thinking Beyond Secularism and Hindu-Muslim binary; The Northeast Question

by Rinku Khumukcham
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India’s liberal mainstream responses has termed the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 (CAA), brought in by the present right-wing majority government, as an onslaught on secularism and the foundations of right to Equality as enshrined in article 14 of India’s constitution. The voices rejecting the latest citizenship Act have faced extensive state response; police actions, mass detention, civilian deaths and month(s) long imposition of CrPc 144 in many places. As many as 59 PILs have been filed against the Act in the Supreme Court of India whose first hearing is expected on 22nd January 2020. The refusal of states like Kerala, Punjab and West Bengal to implement CAA and the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC) reflect a critical dimension of centre-state relations in India which the present constitutional set up seem to provide no clue for an amicable juridical settlement.  
The present response of the Indian liberal democrats to the CAA and the NRC has yet again missed out the critical aspects of the text and context of Northeast India’s resistance to CAA. The first wave of critique against the CAA came from Manipur with the formation of Manipur People against Citizenship Amendment Bill popularly known as MANPAC. It gradually extended to other sister states in the Northeast region and then to mainland India. Sustenance of a movement against the current government, which was openly determined to amend the citizenship law, hangs around the backdrop of bringing back the Indian brethren who were once displaced during the partition of India in 1947. Such an intention was crystal clear in the electoral manifesto of Bharatiya Janata Party. The present critique of the Indian liberal democrats is so encompassing that one finds it difficult to even segregate the actual difference in the premises of the Indian Left and Centre. The collapse is so entrenched that one would find a similarity between the premise of the Centrists and Rightists for which one can refer to the Constituent Assembly debates in India.
The Constituent Assembly of India which Granville Austin termed as ‘dominated’ by the Indian National Congress was adamant to make no strict and final rule on citizenship. The Chair of the drafting Committee of the Constitution Dr B. R. Ambedkar himself left Part II, Articles 5-11, highly open-ended and subject to future amendments as the citizenship provision came to be defined as ‘temporary’. The premise of defining the Citizenship Act, 1955, temporary as elaborated in Article 11 of the Constitution must be seen in the light of Indian nationalists’ desire to give another chance to persons displaced during the partition of India to relocate to India. The present idea of the CAA fundamentally has roots in how the Congress-dominated Constituent Assembly perceived the idea of citizenship. As on January 26, 1950, under the aegis of the Congress, the citizenship rules only laid down norms for persons who became citizens of India at commencement of the Constitution. It deliberately did not deal with issues of acquisition or loss of citizenship subsequent to its commencement.
The present discourses on the CAA from the vantage points of partition, secularism and the right to equality do not fit with arguments against the CAA that have emerged from India’s Northeast. For instance, the Tamilian resistance to the CAA have hovered around their desire to give citizenship to the roughly estimated seventy thousand odd displaced Tamil diaspora from Sri Lanka who are presently taking shelter in Tamil Nadu. Thus, for and against responses to the CAA has largely revolved around religious and community predilections and affiliations. While in the case of India’s northeast, the response is nowhere being lenient on the grounds of religion or diaspora or preferential or selective location of CAA beneficiaries. The Northeast constitutes a microscopic 4% of India’s total demography. The case of indigenous Tripuris being converted into a minority in their own homeland is a classic case of bio-politics. The anti-CAA stand is informed by questions of politico-cultural survival for the indigenes in the region called the Northeast India.
Northeast Indians have expressed their fear of being further displaced in their own homelands in the wake of the CAA’s possible scope to evade the very idea of illegal immigrants for those who have come to India on or before 31st December 2014 for the six select communities. A three-fold demand could be seen during the course of the movements in the northeast. First; northeast groups argued that the CAA should not affect the Northeast India; two, CAA should not be extended to the Northeast through some ‘exemption’ provisions. Third,  it has also been argued that the Government of India needs to either recall the CAA completely or identify an area of the settlement zone outside the Northeast India for those who shall be given citizenship under the provisions of the new citizenship law.
The three positions clearly spell out the fact that the Northeast was raising only a mundane question of their fear and apprehension of being swamped by the non-indigenes; a fear that forces them to go beyond normative premise of secularism and equality. The fear is, however, genuine if one looks at the demographic realities. Nearly one-third of Manipur’s population is today constituted of outsiders, in Tripura nearly 70% population is that of the non-indigenes and more than 40% of residents in Assam are non-Assamese speaking population. For survival, most of the states in the region have started demanding protection under the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation (BEFR), 1873 which the President of India can re-invoke or (re-adapt laws) under the provisions of article 372. The relevance of colonial legislations like BEFR or exclusion from certain contested legislations like CAA precisely comes from the fact that the present Northeast India historically constituted a distinct geo-cultural body that did never constitute the colonially constructed idea of India. The erstwhile Princely State like Manipur had prior precedent of consolidating a democratically written Constitution as early as 1947 while an independent government was formed accordingly after elections in October, 1948. Manipur, thus, stands out to be a distinctive entity not only in the so-called Indian sub-continental polity but also in the entire democratic political history of Asia. The people’s government of Manipur was overthrown without consulting the elected government at Shillong in 1949 by resorting to unconstitutional procedures and military mechanisms.
The present resistance against the CAA needs to be located in a similar historical trajectory of India’s consistent attempt to either dilute or India’s failure to understand the distinct historicity of peoples in the present Northeast India. The CAA is self-contradictory and constitutionally problematic not only for violating secularism and principles of non-discrimination from the point of right to equality as often cited, but also it has directly affected the historical rights of the people of Assam as recognised under the Assam Accord of 1985 to which the Government of India is a signatory. The people of Northeast consider the CAA as a violation of special provisions of Indian Constitution that recognises the distinct geo-politico-cultural rights of the people of Northeast. CAA, therefore, have potentially created proxy citizens in the region by diluting the legal standings of the NRC of Assam that has detected around 19 lacs illegal immigrants in Assam. CAA could lead to a wholesome demographic alteration in the entire region as the region has an exposure of more than four thousand kilometres of international border. Having realised such an exposure to regional movements of population of the foreigners in the region, a Permit System to regulate the entry into and exit from Manipur was in operation. The permit, however, was abolished after coercive takeover of Manipur by India in November 1950 along with the downgrading of Manipur into a Part C state. The mundane question of India’s Northeast is to be understood from a historical and political spectrum that has been unfolding since the colonial days.  
In the days after colonial departure, the Centrist regimes proved no lesser banal as far the Northeast was concerned. It was during the Congress regime that the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act was promulgated in 1958 to give impunity to shoot, even to cause death on mere ground of suspicion to the central security personnel. As a consequence, Manipur alone has 1526 fake encounter cases being filed in the Supreme Court of India. Congress’s appeasement policy resulted in the unrestrained immigration of Bangladeshis during the 1971 Bangladesh war directly affected Tripura and Assam. The conversion of Tripura into (illegal immigrant) settlers’ state and the detection of millions of illegal immigrants in Assam are stark realties that evidenced the displacement of the indigenous communities in Northeast.
The CAA may also in the long run contradicts the Special Provisions like the Article 371 A, 371 F and 371 G that empowers the state of Nagaland, Sikkim and Mizoram respectively with special rights over customary practices, land and resources. The CAA is a bizarre legislation for it entirely legitimises naturalisation of persons even if they have entered the country illegally. The impact of the CAA on Northeast cannot be limited merely to text and context of secularism, Hindu-Muslim binary and juridical issues of equality. The government of India needs to realise the ‘survival’ context of the Northeast people for any durable engagement. Any celebration of ‘the reappearance of secularism in Indian public discourse, initiated by ‘young Indian students’, to quote Prof. Rajeev Bhargava (The Hindu, December 26, 2019), in the wake of the CAA and COVID-19 needs to re-orient itself to understand the palpable difference of premises between the secular reappearance of the ‘young Indians’ and in its inability to contribute in practically dealing with externally imposed disciminations on the racial and religious minorities in India.

* The author is an Assistant Prof., teaches at the Department of Political Science, D.M. College of Arts, D.M. University, Imphal. He is also the author of two books; “Colonialism and Resistance” (Routledge, 2016), & “1949: The Story of India’s Takeover of Manipur” (CADM, 2018). He is an Executive Editor, Alternative Perspectives, a quarterly journal.
e-mail: ([email protected])

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