Citizenship Act protests: Crack in the hard shell of majority govt?

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Published: December 29, 2019 6:06 AM

Granting the Assamese what they want — a cultural definition of citizenship — will incite similar revolts in every linguistic ‘nation’.

In worrying about the “the Muslim Question”, the entire political system has missed the potent danger lurking in the unresolved Assam question.

The unrest continues, though not as fiercely as during the week of December 16. The hard carapace of a single-party majority government could be cracking. The reaction has been, as is usual in such cases, to blame some minority — outsiders, foreigners, troublemakers. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was accommodative in his Ramlila Maidan speech last Sunday but since then has begun to hold the demonstrators responsible for police injuries and damage to property. To be fair, he should also regret the loss of life and collateral damage to bystanders and relatives of young people, arrested or injured.

Yet the serious danger is of a massive misunderstanding of the issues at stake on part of all sides. The restless public believes that the fundamental issue of who belongs as a citizen of India is being answered by the government in ways in which the non-Hindu, especially the Muslim population of India, is at risk of losing their citizenship. The government denies that such is the intention of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. It does want to conduct two sets of surveys, one for the National Register of Citizens and the other, surfaced recently, for the National Population Register. Since for almost 99% of people resident in India there would be an overlap between the two, the duplication is puzzling. The trust in the government having been breached since the NRC in Assam (still an unfinished exercise), people suspect the worst.

But the greater danger is not from what is happening across India. It is from what is happening in Assam. Put crudely, the worst you can say about the CAA-NRC ‘combo’ is that the intention is to create Indian citizenship excluding all Muslims. The Assamese agitation is much more radical. It is to establish a citizenship of Assam for the Assamese alone. This does not mean those born in Assam or long resident there. Assamese are to be defined much more narrowly than that. This was the demand in the 1980s which Rajiv Gandhi was forced to concede.
This way of defining nationality is not based on religion but on rootedness in local/ national culture from birth and by ancestry. Since the BJP has long held that Assam was infiltrated by Bangladeshi Muslims, they pushed the NRC ordered by the Supreme Court for Assam with enthusiasm. But the results of that exercise have infuriated both the Assamese and the BJP as the number facing disqualification — 19 lakh — is too small for both parties. The CAA having moved the deadline for qualification for refugees from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan from 1971 ( in the Assam Accord) to 2014, the Assamese feel betrayed.

Granting the Assamese what they want — a cultural definition of citizenship — will incite similar revolts in every linguistic ‘nation’. Maharashtra for Marathis, Tamil Nadu for Tamils etc. The slogan would be ‘Karnataka for Kannadigas, foreigners out’. This is, of course, a secular definition of citizenship since it is not religion but cultural belonging which is the criterion.

In worrying about the “the Muslim Question”, the entire political system has missed the potent danger lurking in the unresolved Assam question. Neither the Hindu Rashtravadi nor the Secular, Constitutionalist doubts that India is one. The Assamese have been agitating for the idea of multiple Indias since the mid-1970s. Could they be right?

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