In defence of CAA: A perspective from and for Northeast

In defence of CAA: A perspective from and for Northeast

The debate around CAA has been shrouded with immense amounts of misinformation, worsened by scaremongering elements who seek to further their own agendas.

In defence of CAA: A perspective from and for Northeast In defence of CAA: A perspective from and for Northeast

The Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 has been a subject of great controversy in the various states of Northeast India with most indigenous groups not being very supportive of the act. Some groups such as the North East Students Organisation, an umbrella of various students unions from the different states, as well as civil society groups have come out vehemently against the act. There is a great sense of apprehension among the masses that the legislation will bring about a demographic calamity, drawing out the indigenous groups and turning them into a minority in their own homelands. This has already been observed in Tripura where waves of Bengali Hindu refugees in 1947, 1965 and 1971 caused the share of tribals to plummet to about a third of the state’s population. The state administration dereserving tribal belts such as those in Kanchanpur to house some of the immigrant refugees only worsened the fear among the masses who felt utterly neglected by the central and state leaderships.

This neglect brought about a state of vacuum which was effectively utilised by separatists to destabilise the region. Having been sold into a dream of sovereignty, the insurgencies have almost entirely died out as their supporters came to understand the snake oil of insurgency that was being given out to them. A small landlocked state surrounded by hostile neighbours is almost certain to perish as observed throughout history across several failed states across the world.Vested interests are determined to utilise the anger against CAA to reignite these tensions. 

The debate around CAA has been shrouded with immense amounts of misinformation, worsened by scaremongering elements who seek to further their own agendas. The general notion exists of Bengali Hindus swarming into the Northeast and turning every state into Tripura. However, the best solution to the existing demographic tragedy may lie through the very CAA that is being opposed.

A thorough understanding of Bangladesh’s demographic and historical makeup reveals that the nation is far more homogenous than what appears on the surface. Most Tiprasas living in Tripura are sadly unaware that they have a large diaspora living right across the border in the Chittagong Hill Tracts as well as areas like Sylhet and Comilla (the erstwhile Plain Tipperah of British era). Settlement of Tiprasa refugees into Tripura is only going to strengthen the demographic leverage of the state’s eponymous ethnicity. If other tribal communities such as Chakmas, Marmas, Mros, etc are also included, Tripura may even return to a tribal majority once again. Sylhet similarly also hosts a large Meitei and Bishnupriya Manipuri population, who are indigenous to the state of Manipur.

The biggest issue in the demographic puzzle that has been raging Northeast is in Assam, which sits at the core of the region. Having been subjected to British demographic engineering where hoards of peasant settlers were brought in from Mymensingh in colonial era and subsequent illegal immigration, the demographic makeup of the state has drastically been altered with the natives at the precipice of becoming a minority in their own homeland. The state not only hosts a vast number of trespassers who failed to integrate into the Assamese culture, but also internally displaced groups like the tea tribes who were forcibly relocated from Central India. Some radical groups are of the opinion that violent ethnic cleansing to remove other ethnic groups is a viable solution, not comprehending that it not only violates basic human rights but is also not a viable solution.

Bangladesh’s census records have also been a subject of great debate as the state essentially tries to count every citizen as “Bengali” by default. Bangladesh’s founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman is infamously believed to have rebuked a tribal delegation insisting that everyone in Bangladesh is a Bengali by default, even communities like Garos, Hajongs, Tiprasas, etc. Adding to this puzzle, various tribal groups have long alleged that their numbers are being undercounted to suppress their influence. Counting prominent groups under a larger “Bengali” label only perpetuates this further. The Indian government counting languages such as Hajong, Rajbongshi/Kamatapuri, Chakma, etc as dialects of Bengali on the census records does not help the case for these communities either.

Garos and Khasis of Sylhet and Mymensingh regularly state they are victims of land grabbing by extrajudicial elements as well state schemes that seek to turn their homelands into sanctuaries. Despite leaders such as Jewel Arengh, a Garo MP in Bangladesh’s National Assembly, voicing the need to protect said communities, the condition is only getting worse with time. Mass encroachments continue unabated as the share of these indigenous people groups drops further in their homelands, making India the only place where they can run for shelter. With CAA being exempted from the hill states of Northeast India, these refugees will be treated as illegal trespassers. Essentially, groups like Khasi Students Union will indirectly cause confinement of Khasi refugees in Meghalaya and subsequent deportation back to Bangladesh to be persecuted.

Where does one determine where an “Assamese”ends and “Bengali” begins? The two ethnic groups are not concrete identities as seen in many other states of India, but represent a composite culture where various communities have adopted a common lingua franca overtime. The identification between both communities is also not something that is fixed, with various groups such as Kaibartas reporting their mother tongue differently based on geographical location. One prime example is the Dalu tribe who report their mother tongue as Assamese when in the Brahmaputra valley but switch to Bangla when in Meghalaya. This phenomenon is more commonplace in Lower Assam and Barak valley which have a large number of Koch Rajbongshis, the largest Assamese community. Members of the community living in Barak valley and North Bengal districts such as Kochbehar are enumerated as Bengali speakers while those barely a few minutes away in neighbouring Dhubri are counted as Assamese speakers. This phenomenon is further complicated as many Koch Rajbongshis who migrate from North Bengal to Assam for employment and educational opportunities seamlessly assimilate into the “Axomiya identity”.

The vast majority of the Hindu population of the Rangpur division of Bangladesh comprises Koch Rajbongshis followed by other groups such as Kaibartas, Dalus, Hajongs, etc, all of whom would be considered “Assamese”. Many of them have also migrated to Assam following partition in 1947. Therefore, it was not surprising that a large number of Assamese people were cut off during the 2019 NRC update. Without the safety net of CAA, many Assamese people are themselves certain of facing imprisonment, especially in Lower Assam districts such as Goalpara and Dhubri.

While some communities living along the Indo-Burmese border demand boundless liberty to have free movement arguing that it is needed for cultural reasons, the same justification is opposed when considering those in Bangladesh. If the centre provides unjust advantage to a few communities, it is bound to create a sense of distrust among the other communities of the region. Therefore, protests even in states such as Meghalaya are not only misguided but also detrimental to the ethnic majority of their states. 

CAA is for rescuing these downtrodden people of Bangladesh so that they can be integrated with the motherland they were taken away from in 1947. Given that most of these people are coming to India as refugees belong to the downtrodden sections (STs and SCs mainly) of the society, it also implies that these people who couldn't migrate to Bharat for reasons whatsoever during the Partition, they are being given a chance to preserve their identity in the form of the CAA. It is a crucial measure of social justice for them. It can be understood why student organisations like NESO are opposing the Act. Are they not in favour of the integration of these people with their own brethren?

The fear of people of other ethnicities migrating to Northeast India from Bangladesh can easily be mitigated by formulating a mechanism to ensure that proper verification of all refugees is done to prevent possibility of trespassers assuming a different identity and cheating through the system. Moreover, it will also provide a sense of relief to the various tribal refugees (and their descendants) who are residing in the region.

Local communities in states such as Assam, Tripura and Manipur are the most to benefit from immigration of their diaspora populations. The fear that a redux of what happened in Tripura can easily be mitigated by redirecting any Bengali refugee to West Bengal. Working in tandem with the central and state governments is certain to benefit all parties in question rather than the incessant bouts of violence that risk destabilising peace in a region that is finally seeing some semblance of tranquillity. 

CAA is not counterproductive in the least bit. The CAA, in fact, is the most effective solution in restoring the demographic equilibrium in several states of the region. In conclusion, the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 is not to exacerbate the demographic dilemma but is itself the end solution to the issues caused by the British.

Edited By: Bikash Chetry
Published On: Mar 29, 2024