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The Citizen Finds a Home

Identity Politics in Karbi Anglong

Gaurav Rajkhowa (gaurav.rajkhowa@gmail.com), Ankur Tamuliphukan and Bidyut Sagar Boruah are research scholars at the English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, and Delhi University, respectively. They work together as part of Unki research collective based in Guwahati.

On a fact-finding trip to the Karbi Anglong district of Assam, the authors find that the “crisis of citizenship” is a structural phenomenon rooted in the history of capitalist development and community dynamics in the state. The current political dispensation of establishing the “Hindu” Bengali as the “citizen” is not only a breach of the universal principles of “citizenship,” but also has deeper implications for the unresolved ethnic conflicts in the state.

The authors acknowledge the invaluable help and comments from Sanjay Barbora and Surjyasikha Pathak over the course of writing this article.
 

The “citizen,” it seems, is once again in crisis. In keeping with its long-held position on the matter of providing asylum to Hindu refugees fleeing religious persecution in the Asian neighbourhood, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government introduced the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, in the last Parliament session. The bill explicitly promises Indian citizenship to all Hindus, Sikhs, Parsis, Jains, Buddhists and Christians living in India, who are refugees from religious persecution in “Muslim” countries—Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan—and reduces the stipulated period of residency to six years. Its real import, however, lies in its exclusions of the Muslims from this amendment. As critics have pointed out, the bill attempts to attach to the universal principles of “citizenship” a specific religious identity. Their prescriptions, likewise, look to restore “citizenship” in transcendence over specific identities (Garg 2016; Suryanarayan and Ramaseshan 2016).

The effects of this proposed amendment, however, are not restricted to mere legalities. In Assam, for example, the issue of “illegal immigrant” has had a long and tenuous history. Even though the proposed Citizenship (Amendment) Bill promises to have a significant effect on politics in Assam, there has been a renewed effort to evict encroachers from reserved forests and national park areas (Assam Tribune 2016). The government as well as the media have liberally played upon the slippage between “illegal encroacher” and “illegal immigrant” in its representation of the Bengali-speaking Muslims in the main. They are presently bearing the brunt of the eviction drives. Although the new-found enthusiasm in these initiatives seems to have emerged from the changed political dispensation in the state since the 2016 Legislative Assembly elections, but their unfolding is embedded in the longer history of migration and ethnic conflict in Assam.

The observations from a fact-finding visit by the authors to Diphu in the Karbi Anglong district between 25 and 27 August 2016, provide a nuanced understanding of the ongoing “crisis of citizenship” (Tamuliphukan et al 2016; Boruah et al 2016). The authors begin by acknowledging the fact that historically the notion of citizenship in Assam has had a precarious existence. Caught amidst the chronic failure of the state’s welfare apparatus, an inherent suspicion towards mass political participation, and persistent challenges to state sovereignty, the “crisis of citizenship” is potentially a structural feature of the nation state in Assam.

‘Hindu Bengali’ as the ‘Citizen’

The fact-finding visit to Diphu was held in the context of the “surrender” of 51 cadres of an organisation called “Banga Sena,”1 during 11–17 August 2016, before the district collector of Karbi Anglong. Alleged to be involved in acts of sabotage in Bangladesh in 2003, the Bangladesh Rifles handed over a list of 29 camps of the Banga Sena and the Bir Banga Sena situated along the India–Bangladesh border; while another list of 39 camps was provided in 2004 (Bhattacharya 2004). Earlier, in 2003, some 400 activists were arrested in a protest at a border outpost in North 24 Parganas district in West Bengal. In Assam’s Karbi Anglong district, they held their first meeting in Borbil in 2007, but were later denied permission for subsequent meetings. They, however, conducted a slew of meetings elsewhere in the state over the past year-and-a-half. In the summer of 2015, a meeting was held in Amsoi (Nagaon district), then in Coochbehar, and finally in Guwahati in January 2016 on the occasion of Subhash Chandra Bose’s 119th birth anniversary.

In the course of their visits and meetings, the authors observed that the organisation had adapted to the specificities of the political situation in Karbi Anglong. In a distinctive pattern of “recruitment,” the organisation was trying to draw members from local communities. The group that surrendered in August, for instance, comprised 48 Karbi and three Nepali youths. Additionally, conversations with the surrendered revealed that the above-mentioned meetings in 2015–16, too, were attended by many Assamese, Bodo, Karbi, and Nepali cadres. More than the groups’ alleged involvement in armed activities in Bangladesh, what formed the focal point of the fact-finding group’s enquiry was their positioning within the imagined nation called Bangabhumi and its discourse.

With many of the ethnic “recruits”/cadres complaining about the meetings being conducted entirely in Bengali, which is incomprehensible to most of them, it appeared that these groups are excluded from the national discourse. While the tokens they held as evidence of their membership of the organisation, such as the identity cards issued in the name of the Bangabhumi National Army, and badges imprinted with the “Sri” that was emblazoned with the Bangabhumi flag, which they were instructed to wear in public, indicated that they were to be identified within the nation.

It was not about enlisting their loyalty to the nation state of Bangabhumi. Rather, these practices were attempts to establish the “Bengali Hindu” identity of a citizen, by relegating his/her ethnic particularities.

Alongside the grandiose reiteration of the Hindu Bengali identity through these various tokens/display of citizenship, there were also attempts to suggest to the “recruits” the proximity of their leadership to the state. These ranged from the narratives about an arrested leader/hero who was let off in the course of the night of the arrest itself, to providing railway fare exemption coupons to the cadres/recruits for their trips to Guwahati to attend party meetings. While nothing was known about the reason for the leader’s arrest and subsequent release, the respondents did acknowledge that the coupons were duly recognised by the railway ticketing authorities. However, this is a common occurrence in the country in general, with large groups travelling to political or religious meetings being treated with leniency by the authorities habitually. The point, however, is not the exact circumstances in which these may have happened. What is significant is that they are drawn into an overarching narrative of a privileged relationship between the organisation and the state, and with it the promise of proximity to the sites of political power which in the commoners’ perception is analogous to “citizen.” The “Hindu Bengali” thus comes to be represented with all the paraphernalia of a “citizen,” ranging from appearances to access to privileges and the vicinity of power. Thus legitimised, this citizen may then establish skewed and unequal relations with other “ethnic” interests who do not enjoy a similar access and substantive participation in the processes of citizenship.

‘Refugee’ as the ‘Citizen’

In Assam’s current context, the “citizen” is realised in the slippage from “refugee” to “illegal immigrant” by elevating one ethnic identification above and/or against others. The legitimacy of the “refugee” is underwritten by the authority of the state: theirs is a demand that “must” be accommodated, as opposed to other ethnic demands. Concurrently, there has been a shift in the discourse on Hindu Bengali immigrants in recent months. An important aspect of their assertion is about being recognised as “refugees from religious persecution” rather than infiltrators/illegal foreign nationals in contrast to the Muslim evacuees.

This attempt to cast all Hindu migrants from Bangladesh as victims of religious persecution received much play in the 2016 Assam Assembly elections. The BJP in its campaign endorsed two positions on the immigrant’s question. While the chief ministerial candidate Sarbananda Sonowal endorsed the 1971 cut-off established through the Assam Accord, the former Congressman and now BJP minister Himanta Biswa Sarma endorsed the deportation of all immigrants arriving after 1951, and the simultaneous granting of refugee status to all Hindu migrants, albeit without full voting rights (Bhattacharjee 2016). At a meeting of the Karbi Anglong Bangali Samaj (KABS) held in Lanhing on 22 August, the BJP member of the Legislative Assembly from Hojai, Shiladitya Deb, argued for the case of Tripura, where the influx of Bangladeshi Muslims could be thwarted primarily by the “deshpremik (patriotic) Hindu Bengalis, notwithstanding the alleged marginalisation and continued exploitation of the indigenous communities of Tripura at the hands of these selfsame deshpremiks.

While the claim to a refugee identity has always figured prominently in the political discourse of the Hindu Bengali community in Karbi Anglong, their demands have shifted significantly over the years. The KABS, for instance, was set up in 1999 as a democratic organisation to resist arbitrary harassment of the community members in the guise of being “D voters,” and to protest targeted violence by contemporary insurgent groups operating in the area. In 2005, the organisation actively demanded changes to the landownership policy to accommodate Hindu Bengalis, and further in recent times, the reservation of five Bengali-dominated constituencies in the Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council.

In a discussion with the authors, four-time member of Parliament Jayanta Rongpi noted that starting with 200 families in the 1960s, the Hindu Bengali community has now grown to become the second-largest community in the district. The idea that the community should now claim landownership and electoral reservations in a Sixth Schedule area is quite unsettling. While KABS adviser Kishore Choudhury punctuated his claims for the legitimacy of the organisation’s demands with lamentations about the worsening of situations for the Hindu Bengali community ever since the beginning of the movement for a Karbi Anglong Autonomous State.

Differentiated Citizenship

Capitalist development in Assam is historically characterised by a high mobility of mercantile communities and labour. Similarly, clearing of wastelands and forested areas for agriculture has been by conscious policy decisions, and/or due to displacement by riverine erosion, ethnic conflicts or developmental projects. As a result, class relations have historically been articulated through a peculiarly communitarian logic. The postcolonial state sought to administer this mobility through the fixity of spatially ordered ethnic categories, leading to demands for political and administrative autonomy based on the agendas of citizenship and ethnicity, through the 1980s and 1990s.

The movement for an autonomous state of Karbi Anglong gained strength in the 1980s with the attempt to make a case for differentiated citizenship for the Karbi community to preserve their cultural distinctiveness and ameliorate their marginalisation in bureaucratic/political representation by the Assamese majoritarianism, and economic exploitation by the Bengali and Marwari merchants and moneylenders. At the same time, the leadership of the Autonomous State Demand Committee (ASDC) also attempted to articulate Karbi as a nationality rather than an ethnic identity. In doing so, the movement engaged with the complexities of multi-community political representation in the subsequently formed the Autonomous Council.

Against this, the state has defended the citizen, and by extension, the community of those who perform this citizenship by categorising all such articulations of the nationality question as either second-order, “ethnic” identifications, or as threats to the normal exercise of the rights of citizenship. This apparatus responds by selectively transforming political demands into formalised procedures of administering communities, resources, or security threats.

In the last two decades, the migrant question has become extremely complex, owing to fundamental changes in the agrarian landscape resulting in new patterns of migration from and to the state; colossal population displacement; and vacillating autonomy movements in the face of the gradual dereliction of the welfare state, and the renewed attacks on the idea of differentiated privileges for differentially situated citizens. In recent years, these transformations have led to heightened ethnic tensions, with conflicts breaking out frequently in different parts of the state.

In this light, Rongpi’s apprehensions and Choudhury’s legitimisation of the recent turn of events represent the fissure in the current discourse of illegal immigrants/refugees. In this context, re-signifying the Hindu Bengali as a “secular” category (refugee) masks the community’s ongoing social proximity with the bureaucracy and dominant economic interests. The claim to the term “refugee” enables an already economically dominant community to demand political representation as well. Moreover, with “refugee” being a potentially countable category of population, there is room for a minimal justification for political representation, be it directly as reserved constituencies or indirectly as political negotiation.

Citizens’ Insecurities

In recent years, the updated National Register of Citizens (NRC) is perceived as a redefined measure for identifying the illegal Bangladeshi migrant and thereby resolve the “problem” once and for all. But, Anupama Roy points out that,

The NRC marks continuity with a notion of citizenship that can be traced to the Assam Accord, the contestations around the amendment of the Citizenship Act in 1986, and subsequently the Supreme Court judgment in the Sarbananda Sonowal case 2005. (Roy 2016: 50)

The Assam Accord of 1985 referred by her played out between two opposing tendencies of establishing a principle of “graded citizenship” (Roy 2010: 105) versus the protection of the cultural identity of the Assamese. On the other hand, the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) (IMDT) Act invoked an exception to the Foreigners Act, 1946 in delineating procedures for detection of foreign nationals that were relatively more cumbersome for the juridical and administrative authorities to implement. Most importantly, both these measures ultimately emerged as reinforcers of the central government’s sole authority in arbitrating on questions of citizenship (Roy 2010: 100). The festering antagonism over the IMDT Act was resolved when the Supreme Court in 2005 declared it to be an unconstitutional measure. This, however, inaugurated a new regime of the security state that aims to, first, identify aliens on the basis of religious, ethnic and linguistic markers; and then, treats them as dangerous or “infiltrators” to national sovereignty and not just illegal migrants.

Offering the promise of accuracy and reliability of a technocratic regime of surveillance (Roy 2016: 50), the NRC seemed to separate the politics from the legalities of the illegal immigrant question. But, the optimism has been somewhat premature. For those expecting that the conclusion of the NRC process and the subsequent identification of illegal immigrants would “return” Assam’s authentic citizens to it, are disillusioned. The proposed amendment to the Citizenship Bill threatens to effectively grant citizenship to a significant section that is supposed to be left out of the NRC, thereby compromising the NRC’s foolproof mechanism. Organisations protesting this “conspiracy” to disenfranchise the legitimate indigenous citizens of Assam, have affirmed their faith in the NRC process (Sentinel 2016). However, the argument has not quite found traction in public discourse. This presents a curious situation—on the one hand, people have been quite proactive in getting themselves registered in the NRC; but on the other, there seems to be relatively little concern about the possible subversion of its ends. It would seem as if “the wide-spread acceptance of the NRC among the Assamese people is indicative of a consensus among the Assamese people on the resolution of the question of citizenship” (Roy 2016: 50).

But the instance of Karbi Anglong makes it evident that the issue is not so straightforward. It might be more productive to read this apparent lack of enthusiasm by asking, instead: “why does this idea of a bureaucratically ratified citizenship presumably hold so little promise?” Despite of the immense technological and bureaucratic resources mobilised, initiatives such as the NRC are unable to
“resolve” the problem of the genuine citizen. Rather, its procedures of identifying and classifying illegal immigrants from genuine citizens only provide the new coordinates for the field of ethnic conflict in which the struggle for the privileges of citizenship will play out.

Conclusions

The state’s attempt to resolve the crisis of citizenship seems unable to transform the social antagonisms set off as effects of contemporary patterns of capitalist development. Paradoxically, it is in its failure that the new figure of the citizen is most productive. In this frontier of the Indian state, the figure of citizen cannot claim transcendence above the field of ethnic identities, rather it is one more identity within it. At the same time, this citizen is able to establish unequal relations of political representation with other “ethnic” identities.

It is not because of the teeming migrants that citizenship is in “crisis” in Assam today—citizenship has always been precarious in its authority and whimsical in its guarantees here. Complicit in the exclusion of vast sections of the population from the substantive processes of politics, one fears the citizen becomes a figure of political dependency rather than emancipation. At this juncture, the efficacy of the figure of the “citizen” brought about by these changes needs to be scrutinised, particularly in light of the unresolved ethnic conflict in Assam for the last few decades.

Note

1 Banga Sena was set up on 26 March 1982 by Kalidas Baidya as part of the movement for an independent Bangabhumi, to be comprised of the districts of Jessore, Khulna, Kushtia, Faridpur, Barisal and Patuakhali in Bangladesh. The organisation finds support primarily among Hindu Bengalis who fled to West Bengal, Assam and Tripura in the wake of the Bangladesh war in 1971.

References

Assam Tribune (2016): “Two Killed, Several Injured in Kaziranga Eviction Drive,” 19 September.

Bhattacharjee, Nilotpal (2016): “BJP, AGP in Migrant Divide,” Telegraph, 6 March.

Bhattacharya, Pallab (2004): “BDR, BSF Agree to Bust Camps,” Daily Star, 11 January.

Boruah, Bidyut Sagar, Gaurav Rajkhowa and Ankur Tamuliphukan (2016): “RSS aru Karbi Jangusthir Hindukoron,” Amar Asom, 29 and 30 September.

Garg, Lovish (2016): “If India Wants to Remain Secular, the New Citizenship Bill Is Not the Way to Go,” Wire, 21 September.

Roy, Anupama (2010): Mapping Citizenship in India, Delhi: Oxford University Press.

— (2016): “Ambivalence of Citizenship in Assam,” Economic & Political Weekly, 25 June.

Sentinel (2016): “AASU, Tribal Literary Bodies Oppose Centre’s Move,” 29 September.

Suryanarayan, V and Geeta Ramaseshan (2016): “Citizenship without Bias,” Hindu, 25 August.

Tamuliphukan, Ankur, Gaurav Rajkhowa and Bidyut Sagar Boruah (2016): “Bangasena, RSS aru Karbi Anglongor Rajniti,” Amar Asom, 20 September.

Updated On : 4th Dec, 2018

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