The CAA and NRC are bound to create further divisions among Indians
India’s new Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which has already been passed by the Indian parliament and signed off by the president, is an act with serious constitutional, legal, political, ideological and operational implications.
It is also related to the National Register of Citizens (NRC), which was passed in Assam. According to the BJP, it is meant to be implemented nationwide in the near future.
The key and controversial feature of the CAA is its discriminatory naturalization policy of immigrants.
It presupposes that non-Muslim, mostly Hindu, immigrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh who entered India before the end of 2014 are persecuted minorities, and so they shall be awarded a special path to quick Indian citizenship.
CAA has heralded protests against it all across India, but for different purposes.
There are two major lines of protests.
The liberal and Muslim-minority people living in India consider it discriminatory and a violation of Article 14 of the Indian constitution, which emphasizes equality above law and requires equal protection for all residents of India, regardless of their religious affiliation.
They suspect, combined with the proposed nationwide NRC, that the CAA will be used to persecute Indian Muslims, who make up a sizable minority of 180 million people in India — the third largest national Muslim population in the world.
The second group of protesters are the non-Bengali people of North East India.
According to them, this citizenship law will allow, in their language, the illegal Bengali Hindu immigrants of the region to permanently settle in their respective areas, altering India’s demography and laying claim on the nation’s resources.
The successive BJP governments of Narendra Modi, Amit Shah and cohorts in India, despite their lack of performance on governance and development, keep doing controversial things to appease their Hindu jingoistic vote bank, which they have already expanded over the past few years through various types of trickery like the Ram Mandir issue, cow vigilante, spreading anti Muslim rhetoric, the NRC, stoked up conflict with Pakistan, etc.
CAA is the newest addition to it. The complexities of the agenda and implications of the CAA are enormous; it is even doubtful whether the Modi-Shah gang fully understand it themselves.
India is a giant country with a huge population and wide diversities. The fault lines of its diversities run through language, ethnicity, religion, caste, culture, race, tribes, history and geography.
But, certainly, the Hindutva ideologues have some sort of agenda regarding this, since they have proven not to be the folks to stick to much of a political or ideological propriety.
Apparently, for them, this act will appease Bengali Hindus, especially the ones of West Bengal.
The BJP has an eye on West Bengal, a large state that the party has never ruled. But it has some prospects in the state assembly election of 2021, as it came close second to the TMC of Mamata Banerjee in the state’s Loksava polls of 2019.
However, the CAA might curtail BJP’s future prospect in the North East, especially in Assam. Assam is the largest state of that region, where the party was voted into power in the last state election after pitching an anti-Bangladeshi infiltration stance.
But West Bengal is a much bigger prize than Assam, and the party is probably ready for the trade-off. They seem to be looking for further consolidation of Bengali Hindu votes in West Bengal with the help of the discriminatory CAA, and against Mamata Banerjee’s vision of a Hindu-Muslim alliance.
Divide and conquer at whatever cost — that has been the Saffron strategy for quite some time now.
The CAA will actually be well received in Tripura — despite protests from the tribal population — as Bengali Hindus already constitute the majority of the state.
Most of the non-Assamese North Eastern states and tribal areas have the 6th Schedule of Indian constitution and Inner Line Permit System that prevents non-local, non-tribal individuals from buying property and permanently settling in those culturally exclusive areas.
Manipur doesn’t have the Inner Line Permit, but the central Indian government has already declared to give them one very soon.
Assam is a strange case in India and North East India.
The ethno-linguistic Assamese are a non-mongoloid mixture of Indo-Aryan and Austro-Asiatic people — unlike the rest of the region — and who form little more than half of the population, including the sizable Muslim Assamese.
There are smaller tribes in Assam, mostly mongoloid and of various categories.
Bengalis constitute the second largest ethno-linguistic group in Assam, both historically and due to an influx of Bengali-speaking people after 1947. But the Assamese consider Assam as exclusively their own.
Assam is not really a state formed in line with the State Reorganization Act of 1956.
It was a mixed state during 1947, and even after carving out a few smaller states from it, it still remains a mixed one. But, the ethnic Assamese consider the entire geography of the state as their sole cultural domain, which never has been the case.
The Barak Valley has been more of a Sylheti Bengali area. The lower and mid Brahmaputra Valley has been mixed with Assamese, Bengali and tribal populations. Only the upper Brahmaputra Valley was predominantly Assamese.
The lower Brahmaputra was even a part of the Bengal presidency once, in the era of the British Raj. Under the British patronage, Bengali Muslims cultivators moved to Assam in waves since the 19th century. They cleared jungles, created farmlands, paid taxes. Who owns their lands if not them?
Human beings are not always static. Migration is a common aspect of human history, and it occurs for various reasons, with global demographic changes that can be observed even today.
Landlocked Assam’s trade routes go through Bengal; they are dependent on Kolkata’s ports and, historically, a lot of Assamese have completed their education and work in Bengal as well as other parts of India.
Bengalis in Assam are actually doing a great service to the economy and progress of the state. Yet, many Assamese have developed a hatred towards Bengalis and they express it politically and aggressively.
Bengalis have historically been persecuted in Assam. Long term stability in Assam actually lies in the trifurcation of the state in the Bengali-dominated Barak Valley, Assamese-dominated upper Brahmaputra, and the mixed mid and lower Brahmaputra Valley.
The debate on the infiltration from Bangladesh to Assam, in spite of Assamese propaganda and made-up astronomical figures, has gradually narrowed down to post March 25, 1971. The NRC was based on that.
And, despite improbable and inflated Assamese claims, the number of so-called illegal Bengali immigrants are found to be just 1.9 million out of Assam’s 36 million people. Of them, just 0.6 million are Bengali Muslims, presumably economic migrants of 1970s and 80s.
All experts agree that it is a tiny number in the context of the decades-long intense propaganda that large groups of Bangladeshi infiltrators are taking over Assam.
Adding fuel to the Bengali Hindu sentiment for the prospect of favorable votes in West Bengal, the BJP have inserted a fundamentally discriminatory clause in this new citizenship law: They have termed any Hindu immigrant going from Bangladesh to India a persecuted minority.
The definition of persecution is not clear, and in this law it appears to include even those immigrants who are going from Bangladesh to India under the pull factors of migration.
Bangladesh has emphatically denied this allegation of blatant persecution of minorities within its boundaries. The persecuted minorities, as per the amendment, also include any non-Muslims from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Another danger of the CAA is, in conjunction with the BJP-proposed India wide NRC, Indian Muslims might be subject to larger persecution.
Many poor Indians don’t have the ability to properly preserve enough documents to prove that they are Indian citizens. Under this CAA and BJP ideology, non-Muslims — largely Hindus — will be exempt from this burden of proof.
On the other hand, Indian Muslims will face perpetual fear, persecution and anxiety. It will be an even graver problem for the Bengali Muslims of West Bengal and Assam.
It is difficult to differentiate whether a Bengali Muslim is from Bangladesh, West Bengal or Assam. For example, both Bangladesh and West Bengal have parts of North Bengal. Similarly, both Bangladesh and present day Assam have parts of Sylheti areas.
Even if we consider that India has found a large influx of so-called illegal Bengali Muslims in Assam, what can India do with them? Bangladesh certainly cannot take them without difficult proof, like the legacy documents that the NRC requires.
It is unlikely that these people will have such documents.
If India puts them in Nazi or Soviet-like detention camps, there will be widespread criticism both within India as well as internationally. This will inevitably damage India’s international reputation.
For over a decade, Bangladesh has remained one South Asian country that notably stood by India for both diplomatic purposes and practical operations. It has done so across many international forums, especially regarding security problems in the Indian North East as well as India-Pakistan issues.
India might now be putting this important bonhomie in peril.
With the CAA, the BJP government of India seems to have recognized the “Two Nation Theory,” which the Sangh Parivar has been citing as one of the main reasons for the partition of the subcontinent.
A great irony indeed.
The consequences of the CAA and the proposed India wide NRC are not fully understood by either the BJP officials or other interest groups. These are likely to have complex and troubling domestic, regional and even international ramifications.
Contentious matters ought to be dealt with carefully and with good judgment and consensus building.
Only that would bring collective good for all the domestic and regional stakeholders who ultimately cannot do without each other in the long run in this increasingly interconnected world and continental regions.
Sarwar Jahan Chowdhury is an opinion contributor to Dhaka Tribune.