The protesters and the posters in the Northeast, including Assam, are angry and upset by “illegal migrants”.
The Union Cabinet’s decision on introducing the Citizenship Amendment Bill in Parliament just now regardless of the dismay and dread it has spread among very large numbers of people for different reasons pointing to a lack of broad public support seems to imply that the BJP and its government in New Delhi is in a breathless hurry. That is puzzling.
Neither the beneficiaries of CAB nor those likely to be adversely affected are going anywhere. The Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists and Christians who sought refuge in India from persecution in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan live, with dignity or furtively, in India. The exclusion of Muslims from the claim to citizenship does not mean that those who came in as migrants are going anywhere. The process of excluding or including people from claims to citizenship is not going to be completed in a hurry, no matter what home minister Amit Shah may have to say on the matter.
On the contrary, the announcement and the timeline for introduction of the legislation in Parliament has sparked off resistance and protests in Assam and elsewhere in the Northeast as well as West Bengal and Tripura. Quite apart from the fact that the proposed amendment makes nonsense of the 1985 Assam Accord, where the deadline for exclusion was set as March 25, 1971, as the goalpost has been shifted to December 31, 2014, it fails the test of sensibility.
The BJP’s obsession with Hindus and its fervent belief that the containment of Muslims is the most widely shared concern for all nationalist Indians misses the point entirely when it comes to the Northeast, tribal and non-tribal populations, as well as in West Bengal and Tripura. The majoritarian politics of the BJP-Sangh Parivar rooted in the conviction that Hindus need to be uplifted and protected in a homeland that is purified through exclusions and distortions is insensible to the reality of culture, ethnicity and the dynamics of equilibrium.
The protesters and the posters in the Northeast, including Assam, are angry and upset by “illegal migrants”. The settlements of illegal migrants, irrespective of their religious identity, impacts the culture and life of the locals, be they Hindus or tribals. The BJP seems to have very little understanding of what destabilised Assam in the 1980s. It was not the presence of Muslims from Bangladesh. It was the influx of people from Bangladesh, added to the large settlements of Bengali speaking people in Assam who had migrated and occupied professional and employee positions at every level, as well as people from Nepal that overwhelmed the ethnic Assamese population and produced the explosion of sub-national assertion.
Himanta Biswa Sarma, Assam’s pointsman, can insist as much as he wants, albeit to please his BJP bosses, that the status of Hindus is the primary issue, he knows as does Assam that any encroachment of culture and ethnicity is a far more incendiary issue than religion alone. For the BJP, religious identity has been a source of valuable political capital. But people do not live by spending time on religion alone. The idea of individuals with a single and defining identity is not anywhere close to reality and the issue in Assam and the Northeast is therefore not religion but culture, language and ethnicity as well.
Onions, inflation, unemployment and the decelerating growth rate are also the principal issues that impact more people than illegals hiding themselves in the teeming multitudes of an extraordinarily diverse population. The BJP as a party has an agenda to fulfil; it may feel the need to do so supersedes all other concerns of the government and governance. But that is not the only concern of the masses, because the BJP is not the only representative of all the voters in India.
It is puzzling why the BJP is behaving like a fitness freak on a treadmill with a target, irrespective of what else is happening in the larger political and economic environment. By prioritising unrolling of CAB and its inevitable consequence, the National Register of Citizens, the BJP seems to be signalling that there are no other issues for the people. Like sheep, the masses have to go where they are led.
Having been elected with a large and stable single-party majority in Parliament, the BJP has time to deal with everything; prioritising the economy that is tanking and the distress that is spreading from household kitchens to the boardrooms of corporate India, would be a tougher challenge, but nevertheless an immediate one. By trivialising it and reducing it to individual food preferences of the Union finance minister, the BJP is seemingly determined to avoid taking responsibility for the problem that is of its own creation.
Or, there is some other agenda that the BJP has, that it believes is far more important that how people live, earn and eat. If there is, then the BJP ought to share it with the rest of the country. Meanwhile, it has made no headway in normalising the situation in Jammu and Kashmir after abrogating Article 370. It seems to have forgotten about triple talaq, after banning it. It has not progressed much on the Ram Mandir-Ayodhya plans because no one seems to know what is happening after the Supreme Court verdict.
There are many, in Assam and elsewhere, who suspect that the BJP has used the CAB and will use NRC as a red herring. The move is being seen as a means of diverting attention from the problems that the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah government cannot handle. The amendment followed up with NRC will keep the Opposition and the people so focused on identity issues that pangs of hunger and despair over joblessness will be shelved, many argue.
If that suspicion is even partly proved to be true, the BJP will have eroded even more of its dwindling political capital by legislating CAB. It became the party of second choice in Maharashtra, which means that it lost political capital. It could recover some of its capital, by being seen to be working on finding solutions that have broad support to the problems with the economy. Instead, the BJP seems to be preparing to embark on some unanticipated adventure.