Many mutinies: On protests against amended citizenship law

The Citizenship Amendment Act may have opened up old faultlines in the Northeast

Updated - December 20, 2019 10:20 am IST

Published - December 16, 2019 12:02 am IST

After erupting in revolt against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), Assam and other Northeastern States have substantially calmed. People will withdraw to their daily lives soon, but mistaking it for normalcy as the Centre characteristically does in such situations would be dangerous. The Northeast is inhabited by diverse populations, sharing borders with several neighbours. Assertive ethnic politics, including secessionism and resistance to migration into the region, has been a defining character of the area. Grievances of indigenous populations are genuine, but it is difficult, even counterproductive, to try to resolve them by privileging one group over another. Applying a religious test to such an exercise, as the CAA seeks to do, is mindless and dangerous. The Northeast’s ethnic divergences have been delicately — and barely — managed with the collaboration of local power-brokers and grant of special property and cultural rights to communities. The BJP’s inability in appreciating diversity has long ceased to surprise anyone, but its insistence on aggravating dormant faultlines and inflaming new passions is baffling. The CAA has wrecked the Assam Accord of 1985 and exhumed sleeping hostilities.


Prime Minister Modi’s declaration of his government’s commitment to cultural and linguistic rights of Northeast communities, once the region went up in flames, was welcome, though late. It takes meaningful gestures, not copious words, to hold together diverse populations in the pursuit of common goals. It is a pity that the BJP, despite its ambitions to make India a superpower, cannot comprehend the elementary truth that triggering numerous mutinies across the nation is an impossible route to that. After the subterfuge on Kashmir, which involved responsible government functionaries lying to the public, the trust deficit of this government among vulnerable communities has multiplied. The BJP has made inroads in the Northeast and is in power in all seven States. In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, it won a majority of the region’s 25 seats. The party mistook its victories for an approval of its Hindutva politics, it now appears. Hindutva seeks to subordinate all identities to an overarching Hindu identity, but societies cannot be shoehorned into such narrow politics. The CAA seeks to provide a legal imprimatur to the BJP’s blatant politics of turning the Northeast’s ethnic faultlines into a religious one, by excluding Muslims alone. By pitting Bengali-speaking Hindus who have moved around in the region against their Muslim counterparts, the party hopes to reinforce itself in West Bengal also. The current tempest will soon pass, but this turmoil will not cease. To undo the misadventure of CAA, the Centre must show courage and hold back, and the leadership must demonstrate statesmanship. That will serve the nation well.

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