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Who Belongs Where in Northeast India, and Who Should Decide?

31 July 2019
By Joshua Castellino

On 31 August 2019, a process lingering since 1985, may be brought to a close. This might seem like an overdue closure or a victory for protection of the indigenous peoples of Assam. But the decisions could impact four million people who may be deemed ‘foreign’, and will weaken the carefully woven fabric of independent diverse India.  

Identity issues present significant social tensions in a region once considered the eastern part of British imperial India, encompassing the provinces of Bengal, Assam and Upper Burma. At Indian independence, Bengal was divided (first with East Pakistan, subsequently, in 1971, as Bangladesh); Assam got sub-divided into smaller Indian states, while Upper Burma gained its own independence, severed from the British Indian Empire in 1937.

The porous nature of boundaries, regular intermixing of people, spread of religions, and importance of trade at these cross-roads between China, India and southeast Asia, make questions of belonging extremely complex.

Independent India was founded as a secular society where all religions and languages could flourish. Charged with framing the Constitution, India’s Constituent Assembly was aware of identity divides and ‘communalism’, establishing safeguards for diversity through law. Re-drawing Indian state boundaries on the basis of language was envisaged as a means for ensuring that indigenous cultures would flourish, though this was never intended to exclude those who spoke other languages.

The Assam crisis relates to the arrival of groups which the local community feared would submerge Assamese culture. With India unable to secure its borders from centuries’ old movement of peoples, concern grew that non-Assamese populations would overwhelm its culture. The conflict leading up to the separation of Bangladesh from (West) Pakistan added to the tensions, generating greater population flows.

In 1979 a student movement grew in Assam calling for ‘detention, disenfranchisement and deportation of all foreigners’. The matter was ‘resolved’ by the celebrated Assam Accords between the Indian government, then led by Rajiv Gandhi, and leaders of the Assam Movement.

The premise of the Accords is that that there are ‘foreigners’ who have entered India, mainly from Bangladesh, who need to be identified and deported. Article 6 of the Accords calls upon the Indian government to design, ‘…safeguards, as may be appropriate… to protect, preserve and promote the culture, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people’.

The Accords lay unimplemented for three decades: tacit admission of the difficulties of working out who ‘belongs’ in Assam. Other measures – improvement in local governance, enhanced protection for Assamese linguistic and cultural rights, and fairer distribution of government employment – kept the issue at bay, while foisting discrimination against non-Assamese, suspected of being ‘foreign’.

The matter came to a head with the recent attempt by the government to ‘fully implement’ the Accords, via a National Register of Citizens. This attracted criticism for its suspected intention (generating support for Prime Minister Narendra Modi ahead of the 2019 election campaign), poor design (lack of due process), creation of an unbearable burden of proof for those coming before the ‘Foreigners’ Tribunal, conscious bias against Muslims, and failures to understand consequences.

Up to four million (forty lakh) people run the risk of being classified as Declared Foreigner (DF), Doubtful Voter (DV) or PET (persons with cases pending at Foreigners Tribunals). The appeal process appears arbitrary, staffed with officials lacking training and expertise necessary to make determinations. The unknown impact of what may happen to those excluded is alarming, especially with reports of the building of detention centres. These consequences are augmented in a region where the expulsion of nearly one million Rohingya on similarly motivated actions in Myanmar has already created a humanitarian disaster impacting many countries.

Undertaking actions without catering for consequences harms peace and stability. The lack of regional discussion about those deemed ‘foreigners’ makes a bold statement that human lives do not matter. The fall-out could destabilise the region, placing a swathe of the population, bigger than that of many countries, beyond protection of the law, since nationality is a gateway to exercising other rights.

In view of the dire impact it is worth asking whether governments ought to be able to determine who belongs among long-standing populations. This could prove disruptive if neighbouring governments enact reciprocal laws treating minorities as having lesser rights.

India has a right to protect its borders against encroachment. Safeguarding Assamese culture is laudable in the face of homogenisation and disappearance of diversity across the world, especially among vulnerable populations.

However, fundamental problems remain for implementation of the Accords. The passage of time creates settlers’ rights that cannot be dismissed, irrespective of the legality of their arrival. Evoking sub-national identities also risks fragmenting India. If Assam is for the Assamese and others are deemed foreigners, what happens to migrant communities in other states?

The founders of India constructed an intricate fabric of unity, emphasising an inclusive national Indian identity, with regional autonomy for states to pursue and protect their own cultures and languages. This basic structure of India is already under pressure from a ruling party that avowedly emphasizes one religion; it could be ripped apart by such moves.

The way forward lies in four simple steps:

Retract the NRC process on the basis of procedural flaws that place a significant burden on some of the poorest populations in the country.

Renew dialogue across communities, especially those with legitimate fears of the submergence of Assamese culture. An active and inclusive range of stakeholders is crucial. While it is legitimate to restrict the extent to which those who have not been resident in the territory can participate, this has to be backed by a process that provides all with a fair chance of demonstrating their residence.

Naturalize all long-term residents with full citizenship rights. Borders are only relevant once delimited and policed, not forty-seven years later (the cut-off date under the NRC is 1971). The only guarantee of stability is through granting amnesty to all current residents, with an understanding that this one-off process respects the precautionary principle of doing no harm to vulnerable populations which may not be able to meet evidence thresholds they have no access to.

Finally, the Indian government must instigate steps to build long term regional peace and security. As a legitimate aspirant to the UN Security Council it is imperative that India act in a manner that fosters regional long-term peace and stability. This means avoiding short term measures that compromise peace, collaborating with partners to guarantee the sanctity of existing boundaries, and paying attention to the unfolding humanitarian disaster caused by statelessness in the region.