Vilification of the ‘Bangladeshi immigrant’ has triggered claims of nativity and indigeneity from within communities. This has led to multiple iterations of othering, for instance, as indigenous Assamese Muslims seek to differentiate themselves from Bengali Muslims.
Many Northeast Indian languages contain words that convey notions of ‘othering’. In Khasi and Mizo, the words dkhar and vai are used to refer to an ‘outsider’; in Meitei, the term mayang is used for the plainsmen; and in Assamese, the term bongal is used for outsiders. In Nagaland, the acronym ‘IBI’ (or, illegal Bangladeshi immigrant) has gained currency. These local terms often form the basis of othering against a set of people described as ‘illegal Bangladeshis’, based on perceived ethnic differences.
The National Register of Citizens (NRC) exercise in Northeast India led to the exclusion of 1.9 million people from the list of citizens. Many right-wing organizations have rued the rejection of such a ‘small’ number, having expected a much bigger number. But on the darker side, a large number of people, including children, women and infirm have been separated from their families and jailed in various detention camps. Even worse is the story of the deaths of inmates in detention camps and reports of suicides by those not being able to bear the shock of being tagged ‘foreigners’.
The NRC exercise placed the entire population under suspicion of being illegal immigrants, with the burden of proof of citizenship solely on the ‘suspect’. The documents given by a ‘suspect’ were verified by comparing them with back-end documents that were supposedly available with the government. This ineffective and flawed process resulted in many bonafide Indians being denied their citizenship by an apparent mismatch of papers.
By bringing the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) into force, suspected illegal immigrants who are not Muslims, and who could prove beyond reasonable doubt that they left their country of origin to take refuge in India, are eligible for fast-tracked Indian citizenship. At the same time, the CAA will filter out Muslim immigrants as ‘infiltrators’, left with no other lifeline to prove that they are here as Indians. Needless to say, the CAA added a new stigma to the tradition of othering in the Northeast: that the Muslims are transgressors.
This exclusionary gaze towards the Muslims as the ‘other’, even within the ‘illegal immigrants’ group, will especially impact Bengali Muslims. Following the CAA, an Assamese Muslim organization – a group of Muslims claiming to be indigenous to Assam – demanded a separate census for the identification of indigenous Muslims from within the 12 million Muslims of Assam. Through this claim, indigenous Assamese Muslims seek to make for themselves a special cut above the Bengali Muslims, who now hit the bottom in the game of othering.
But there are historical complications which no one accounts for. The Bengali Muslim-majority district of Goalpara was added to Assam in 1874. As many of the Muslims from that district adopted Assamese as their language and identified themselves as Assamese, it sounds ridiculous to separate them as ‘non-natives’ in contrast to Assamese Muslims.
The othering of Bengali Hindus as beneficiaries of the CAA who threaten indigenous identity and the attempt to exclude Bengali Muslims from within the Assamese identity go hand in hand. This is precisely where the CAA’s implied exclusion of Muslims converges with the popularly constructed binary between the indigenous and the immigrant.
Poetry published by Bengali Muslims, termed ‘Miya poetry’, was branded as non-Assamese, as it was written in local dialects resembling Bengali. Police complaints were filed last year against Miya poets under the allegation that they described Assamese people as “xenophobic”. In this way, Bengali Muslims are filtered and alienated from mainstream Assamese cultural and linguistic identity, despite them identifying themselves as Assamese speakers.
If Assamese Muslims are considered inseparable from Assamese identity, Bengali Muslims are dubbed an inessential part of Assamese identity. The CAA’s exclusion of Muslims has now exacerbated the ongoing othering; Bengali Muslims could now be subjected to irredeemable legal ordeals in case they are suspected to be illegal immigrants. Worse, the cultural exclusion of Bengali Muslims will now be firmly established through the legal package of CAA and NRC.
The effect of CAA and NRC together has also sparked off the demand for inner line permits (ILP) which regulate the entry and exit of nonindigenous Indian citizens in states like Nagaland, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Meghalaya. The ILP mechanism treats an Indian citizen on par with a foreigner in an integral territory of India, including the pinch of carrying something like a visa barring any overstay.
In anticipation of such demands for ILP, the central government exempted tribal states and Sixth Schedule areas of Northeast India from the CAA. The intended beneficiaries of the CAA, therefore, should not cross into the tribal dominated states. This further reinforces an already existing perception of radical otherness between Hindus of Bengali origin (the CAA beneficiaries) and the tribal people.
The re-introduction of ILP to dilute the impact of the CAA is a part of the central government’s compensation plan for the Assamese people, which seeks to give them exclusive reservation on land, employment and political representation, in order to implement Clause 6 of the Assam Accord.
There is no doubt that all these instruments of selective benefit and compensation end up erecting social and political fences between contiguous social groups. This worsens existing fault lines in the Northeast and fuels a grave ideological contest between nativism and the constitutional vision of undifferentiated Indian citizenship. The disenchantment created by the CAA, the wasted NRC which preceded it, and the now impending census operations have all succeeded in exacerbating identity politics by major ethnic groups in India’s Northeast. The ubiquitous ‘Bangladeshi immigrant’ acts as the trigger for claims of nativity and indigeneity from within communities. This leads to multiple iterations of othering – used indiscriminately for self-preservation and protection of one’s own community. The result is a dangerously fractious and divided society.
Prasenjit Biswas is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong, Meghalaya. He is an author, a political analyst and a human rights defender based in Shillong, Meghalaya and Silchar, Assam.