For many northeastern migrants in Bengaluru, CAA-NRC a ‘grey’ area

Many members of Bengaluru's northeast community support the NRC, but acknowledge that the issue is complex

On 14th December, thousands thronged the Town Hall in Bengaluru in protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). The organisers printed the Indian Constitution’s Preamble on a banner that dangled off the neoclassical building as protestors kept gathering. But after speeches by prominents like Rajya Sabha MP Rajeev Gowda and author and historian Ramchandra Guha, the protestors appeared to be clearly divided.

On one side were those from Assam sloganeering, “Bangladeshis go back”, while on the other were Muslims chanting around Azaadi (freedom). At one point an Assamese protestor looked at his friend and asked, “Inko kis baat ki azaadi chahiye?” (What freedom do they want?)

This month, both houses of the Parliament cleared the Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2019, which ostensibly fast-tracks Indian citizenship for non-Muslim immigrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. What started off as a court-mandated move in Assam to separate “foreigners” or “outsiders” from natives, is now tainted with an anti-Muslim subtext so stark that it casts India in the image of its neighbouring states.

After a series of protests in the northeastern states, the citizenship quagmire engulfed the entire country, especially the youth. Largely, the protests have questioned the exclusion of Muslim immigrants from citizenship. But many from Bengaluru’s northeast community were protesting for a different reason – against fast-tracking citizenship for any immigrant, irrespective of their religion.

The Assamese protestors were quick to disassociate themselves from any sectarian sentiment. “The northeast doesn’t discriminate on the basis of religion, we just want to preserve our culture,” a protestor, Kalom Potom, 21, said. “We want the CAA scrapped because it grants immigrants citizenship and threatens the already scarce resources in our states.”

A number of protestors echoed his view, and those who didn’t speak up simply raised their posters: ‘Assam is not a dumping ground for illegal migrants’.

The protests transcended CAA to talk about the National Register of Citizens (NRC), a controversial exercise to identify illegal (read undocumented) immigrants in Assam. NRC is hotly contested since the process and paperwork to prove one’s ancestry, and therefore claim to citizenship, is so complex that it’s impossible for many to navigate it.

It is NRC, and the subsequent othering, that exacerbated the fears of Muslims. In a situation where both Hindus and Muslims need to prove their citizenship, Hindus can naturalise based on the CAA but Muslims can’t. So, combined with NRC, the CAA appears to be especially detrimental to Muslims.

Read: FAQ on Citizenship Amendment Act and NRC

“We are not infiltrators from Bangladesh or Pakistan but how many poor Muslims can prove that? What if the state simply drives us out?” Hasina S, a protestor, said.

Protestors from the northeast, however, said that they see merit in the NRC – a historical demand of theirs to deport illegal immigrants. But they acknowledge that the issue is complex.

Akash Basumatari from Assam said, “NRC is required for states like Assam and Tripura where there is rampant illegal immigration.” Basumatari believed that migration has changed the demography of the states so much that there’s fierce competition for resources, indigenous languages are facing extinction, and instances of land encroachment are becoming rife.

Yet, he recognised that people migrate for economic reasons. He demands a more robust immigration policy by raising some counter questions of his own: “Why only Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan? What about the Tamils in Sri Lanka? How does someone prove persecution? And why the arbitrary cut off date of 31 December 2014 (for CAA)?”

Potom seemed more cautious, struggling to reconcile the issue of “illegal migration” with the protection of human rights. “There are problems with implementation,” he rued, remembering how the NRC declared a decorated army veteran as a foreigner.

But a bigger worry for him, if not now, then a couple of years from now, is the prevalence of othering. “Once people are brainwashed and start thinking that if you don’t look like us, if you’re religion is not ours, you have to be out, the minorities suffer the most. And that includes northeast Indians in any part of the country”.

Concerns that transcend borders

The push for NRC and CAA in many states means that the issue of illegal “foreign” migrants is not just an outcry from border states. States like West Bengal, Punjab, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh have refused to implement CAA, but it’s unlikely that Karnataka, a BJP-ruled state, would offer relief.

Bengaluru BJP MPs have been requesting for an Assam-style verification of citizenship on grounds of a “security and internal security threat” due to the influx of illegal migrants as well. Their demands have already been met as Karnataka will open its detention centre in January. But the concerns seem more ideological than factual.

For instance, the 2011 census data shows that, contrary to popular opinion, most migration in Bengaluru — 32 percent — was from the neighbouring western and southern states. And the number of people of Bangladeshi origin in the entire state of Karnataka was just 4420. As India becomes more and more urban, and people migrate to cities in search of work, the question of illegal immigrants is especially relevant to cities.

The question of citizenship

Irrespective of their opinion on the citizenship law, college students from campuses in Bengaluru started responding after Delhi Police’s violence in Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University last week. The Indian Institute of Science (IISc), typically apolitical and unconcerned about what happens outside its leafy environs, also woke up from its research-induced slumber.

Protest on CAA at IISc last week. Pic: Apekshita Varshney

A group of students across departments joined an impromptu day-long protest on December 16th, displaying banners in compliance with the University’s silence code. Surjadipta De Sarkar, a PhD scholar at the university, said that the students were representing themselves. “Opinions differ on CAA and NRC, but we are united in thinking that this is an example of state viciousness and injustice,” he said. In part, many protestors here had gathered to condemn the violence in northern universities.

Who makes up Bengaluru or any other city is almost a philosophical question. The crucibles of civilisation, cities are often thought of as places where density and anonymity affords a freedom unseen elsewhere. It’s also what leads to the economic and social progress of cities.

The idea of a ‘citi’zen, too (historically a resident of a city), has been hotly debated. For Aristotle, the honour was limited to Greek born adult males, and excluded women, slaves or foreigners, yet there’s little disagreement to his philosophy around citizenship – not merely a means to “being free, but freedom itself.” 

 As we wait for the courts to deliberate on both sides of the CAA, it might be worthwhile to deliberate on this idea of citizenship. An example from the UK shows that when citizenship was given proper discrete attention in school, pupils were encouraged to become active participants in the local community.

In many ways the protesting Indian youth is showing that it will not be repressed by a dominant political narrative; it wouldn’t be too bad, then, to bring more nuance to that argument, to debate on the understanding of citizenship itself.

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