Khamoi Village, Myanmar. Photo: Kuku Christina.
By Khriezo Yhome
By virtue of its geographical location, India’s Northeast forms part of three strategic subregions–––the Himalayan subregion, the Bay of Bengal subregion and the Mekong subregion. The three subregions form India’s key strategic spaces in safeguarding its primacy and in its strategic outreach in the wider region.
Each subregion has its unique characteristics in terms of opportunities and challenges it presents with many commonalities and overlapping issues and interests. Even though the subregions form part of the wider Indo-Pacific region, there are specific reasons why they require attention and it is these factors that increases the significance of the Northeast in Delhi’s strategic calculus.
For many years, subregional initiatives in India’s neighbourhood have existed without realising the goals set for themselves due to lack of political will in the capitals of member states. This has been changing in recent years.
A few factors explain why subregional initiatives in India’s neighbourhood have found relevance in recent years. First, the limitations of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) mechanism in addressing regional governance issues has pushed India and its smaller neighbours to explore alternative arrangements.
Second, China’s strategic penetration into the subregions has prompted New Delhi to protect its interests in the neighbourhood, while this has pushed the smaller nations to hedge against the growing rivalry between India and China. Beijing’s growing influence has become a common feature in all these subregions. A countervailing strategy of India has been to strengthen bilateral and multilateral security engagements with nations in the subregions and beyond.
Third, as a response to the emerging strategic scenario, New Delhi launched the ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy and the ‘Act East’ policy that have received positive responses from the smaller neighbours in the subregions.
Closer economic engagement with Southeast Asia and the wider Indo-Pacific region has been one of the key elements in India’s eastward drive. India’s engagements are also seen from within the framework of “balancing Asia.”
India’s strategic interests in other parts of the Indo-Pacific region are shaped by geopolitical concerns to maintain a strategic equilibrium in the emerging regional order through its participation in ASEAN-led forums, such as the East Asia Forum or the ASEAN Regional Forum and entering into various mini- and pluri-laterals such as the four-nation Quad forum involving the US, Japan, India and Australia.
In the subregions too, economic cooperation is emphasised, given the huge complementarity that exists among nations in the subregions, whether in cross-border trade and connectivity. From a strategic perspective, it is also about protecting India’s strategic interests in the neighbourhood.
India’s ties with nations in the subregions are different from the relations with other nations in the wider Indo-Pacific region. India has and continues to have difficult relations with several nations in the three subregions owing to the discomforts of proximity and the difficulties of asymmetrical relationships.
Subregional initiatives neutralise the asymmetric relationship between India and its smaller neighbours and allow for going beyond bilateralism, which is often mired in political difficulties. Moreover, assessing strategic challenges from the bilateral prism narrow one’s view, while the subregional approach allows for taking a holistic view of issues and help frame a more effective response.
An important feature of the three subregions is that they are all connected geographically, except Sri Lanka, which is an island nation. There is, thus, overlapping of nations in these subregions that blurs defining the boundaries of a subregion as their interlinked security, development, and ecological issues are interlinked.
Development and opening up of India’s Northeast fit in well in the operationalisation of the Act East policy and the Neighbourhood First policy as it is surrounded by the Mekong subregion to the east, the Bay of Bengal subregion to the south, and the Himalayan subregion to the north-west.
For a long time, a host of factors including political, security, and infrastructure issues have greatly impeded New Delhi’s ability to leverage the potential of the Northeast region in regional diplomacy. India’s frontier policy must consider its wider subregions as they provide both land and maritime options to access the East and have emerged as key spaces in India’s connectivity efforts.
Active participation of the frontier states in subregional initiatives is critical. In the backdrop of the prolonged suspicion harboured by the local population towards policies emanating from New Delhi, the practice of working together with a shared vision is a work in progress. In subregionalism, the role of provinces in regional diplomacy is emphasised.
Cooperative federalism could be an effective instrument in pushing forward cooperative subregionalism. The principle of cooperative federalism stresses the role and significance of provincial governments and taking along states in regional diplomacy. This also helps create relations between the bordering provinces of neighbouring countries to enter in initiatives for mutual benefits.
New Delhi’s strategy of involving its partners in the subregional development and security is a departure from the past policy of keeping external actors out of its neighbourhood. The growing convergence of strategic interests in the Indo-Pacific region has opened new areas for Japan and India to coordinate closely in these subregions, particularly in the development of infrastructure in India’s Northeast and cross-border transportation projects to boost connectivity between India and its neighbours.
As India pushes its subregional approach further, it is imperative for the development of frontier regions such as the Northeast as it forms an integral part of India’s subregional strategy and plays a critical role in the effective implementation of cross-border initiatives.
The author is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation (ORF), a New Delhi-based public policy think tank.
On 2nd November 2018, the Supreme Court of India had directed the state of Assam to complete the process of reuniting separated families in detention centres within a period of 10 days. There were at the time 47 declared foreign nationals who were supposed to be transferred for the purpose of being reunited. Studio Nilima, an organisation that calls itself a “collaborative network for research and capacity building”, has pointed out in a letter to the Commissioner and Secretary of Assam’s Home and Political Department that more than a year and a half since that SC direction, two minor male children of declared foreigners are being held along with their fathers in the District Jail in Goalpara while the respective mothers are in the District Jail in Kokrajhar.
A protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act in Assam
A proposal to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955, one of the key components of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s manifesto, was introduced for the third time on 9th December 2019 despite strong social and political opposition. The Bill sought to address the concerns of non-Muslim refugees who had come to India from East Pakistan. These people were conceived as an inalienable part of the Indian national consciousness, who had been forced to reside in a land that had become a foreign country after partition and who were forced to migrate to India from Pakistan since partition in 1947 and subsequently from Bangladesh post 1971 because of religious persecution. This engagement with partition and refugee-hood was part of a larger commitment of the Indian leaders engaging with post-colonial national reconstruction shared across the political spectrum in India since the years immediately after independence. This is reflected in the assertions of leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and also in the deliberations of the Provisional Parliament after independence. When the colonial government decided to transfer power in India it decided to partition the subcontinent into two states – Pakistan and India. While Pakistan and its Muslim League leadership envisaged itself as a theocratic state which claimed Islam to be the State religion, India imagined itself as a secular state where the state would not have any religion as its own. But the politics and the experiences of the people at the grassroots manifested in a violent partition of the subcontinent had a deeper impact on the construction of citizenship in post-colonial India, a process that has entered the construction of citizenship over more than seven decades in Assam reaching a recent crescendo during the just concluded process for enrolment of the National Register of Citizens, 2015-2019 and the notification of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 in January, 2020.
Unburdening a divided legacy
While inter-provincial borders of the colonial era became international boundaries, perceptions about population migration also underwent a change. Inter-provincial migration which was easy and mostly unrestricted became restricted by the legal regimes. Though there was no restriction on movement of people from East Pakistan to Assam in the initial years after independence. Gradually the provincial governments and the Government of India began to discourage return migration of Muslims from Pakistan to India between 1948 and 1950. This is reflected in the correspondences between Jawaharlal Nehru and leaders such as Sardar Patel who pointed out that there was a rising discontent among Indians in general and refugees in particular about the inflow of Muslims into India from Pakistan. The East Pakistan situation was very critical as there was a steady exodus of Hindus who constituted 31 percent of the total population in 1947 and were reduced to 22 percent in 1951. As people migrated, the entire subcontinent was in flux, especially in the east and the west of India bordering the two wings of Pakistan. One of the epicentres of intense activity in the east was Assam which shared more than 885 km. border with East Pakistan. Nehru, in his letter to the Chief Ministers on 1st April, 1948 was quick to point out that, “the exodus of non-Muslims from East Bengal continues. We are naturally as much bound to help these refugees as any from western Pakistan.”
But despite utmost attempts from India, the conditions continued to deteriorate and hostilities between the displaced Hindu refugees, coming from East Bengal and the Muslim returnees from Pakistan had obviously grown despite the best efforts of the Prime Minister to downplay the differences between the Hindu refugees and the Muslims. As partition introduced the ‘foreigners’ dimension into politics the debate only became more intense and anxiety-ridden. The situation became critical as the initial trickle of people wanting to migrate to India from East Pakistan became a flood by 1949 as the political atmosphere in East Pakistan became increasingly hostile to the minority communities across the border. The hostile situation on the ground for the East Pakistani Hindu population was as much reflected in official correspondence between the ministers of the central government and other leaders of Congress party, who were located in the provinces, sharing a border with East Pakistan, in the local press and also as such in debates of the Constituent Assemblies of India and Pakistan.
As the Home Minister, Sardar Patel also endorsed the grim situation when in a debate on the refugee situation and rehabilitation in the Subjects Committee at the Congress Session he pointed out that,
…the problem of East Bengal is difficult. There are about 15 million Hindus there. They are weak and soft. The people of the Punjab were different. They were strong, they could assert themselves and fight.
The people of East Bengal are in a sad plight. Nobody wants to leave his own hearth and home without any reason. After all, in India they would have to starve. It is because of conditions in which they live there are bad that they migrate to India…
Though the Punjab situation had stabilized by 1948 as, in the language of Sardar Patel, “there was not a single Hindu or Sikh left in West Pakistan” indicating that the population transfer or exchange was more or less completed, in the east, it was a different scenario. This increasing hostility faced by the non-Muslims in particular in East Pakistan was at the core of public and political debates informing the refugee verses immigrant dichotomy emerging in the formative post-colonial years and reflected in the legal debates on citizenship in India through the deliberations and decisions of the Constituent Assembly, a representative body of 385 members representing both the British Indian provinces and the Indian princely states.
Fleshing the difference
One of the earliest debates to have a detailed engagement with citizenship, the impact of partition and the demographic upheavals of East Pakistan and the future of non- Muslim ‘displaced/refugees’ migrating from East Bengal/ East Pakistan to Assam resonated in the deliberations on the proposed electoral roll envisaged for the first general elections after independence in the arguments and proposals of Jawaharlal Nehru himself. Nehru, who was in favour of holding elections “as early as possible in the year 1950” and argued in favour of facilitating the obvious incorporation of ‘refugees’ into the electoral roll and therefore by obvious implication, into ‘citizenship pointed out in his reply to the demand by Rohini Kumar Choudhuri, a member representing a general seat from Assam, whether the rights of refugees should be protected even if by “ special provision” as against ‘vague migrants who may come in.’ Nehru pointed out that, “it was intended that they should vote…” This position is the first major assertion of the distinction that the Indian state had always maintained a pro-refugee position in post-independence post-partition. It was in view of the difficult situation that, Nehru and other leaders of the Constituent Assembly, while speaking on the issue proposed that, “…a person who has migrated into a province or Acceding state on account of disturbances or fear of disturbances in his former place of residence shall be entitled to be included in the electoral roll of a constituency if he files a declaration of his intention to reside permanently in that constituency.” Though the debate in the Constituent Assembly was primarily restricted to the necessity of the filing of a declaration by the refugees who would come to India after 31st March, 1948, on the question of refugee rights to secure a place in the voters list of independent India, there was no dispute. Though this provision on the gestation period prior to the refugee securing the status of the voter, was also adopted after much opposition and incorporated into the statute after much debates, there was a consensus that the refugee rights to secure voter-ship in independent India was on board. Seven months later when the Constituent Assembly met to debate on citizenship, it was Rohini Kumar Choudhury, again, who championed the citizenship claims of the refugees coming to Assam, more so the partition victims. Rohini Kumar Chaudhuri who represented a general seat from Assam in the Constituent Assembly was aware of the difficulties posed by partition on the lives of the non-Muslims in East Pakistan and its impact on India in general and Assam in particular. Its significant that in pressing his amendments to the draft of Articles, 5 and 6 he demanded citizenship for those persons who migrated from East Bengal to Assam,
because they found things impossible for them there….Can anyone imagine for a moment that there is no fear of disturbance in the minds of these East Bengal people who had come over to West Bengal and Assam?…Has that sense of security now after a period of two years been enhanced by the fact that Pakistan has been converted into a theocratic state?…The fear is latent in the minds of everybody. The moment any Hindu or a person of any minority community raises a protest against any action which is taken there, disturbances would immediately follow…. I want citizenship rights to this class of people who have originally belonged to Sylhet in the province of Assam, who long before the partition, have come to the Assam Valley as citizen ‘of that province and are staying in the present province of Assam… I want to make it perfectly clear that I want citizenship rights for those people of East Bengal who had gone over to West Bengal or Assam out of fear of disturbance in the future or from the sense of insecurity and – also for those people who have come over from Sylhet, who at the time of coming had no fear of disturbance or anything of that kind, but who on account of fear of disturbances now have decided to live here.
But even at that critical moment of his exposition on the future of citizenship in India and Assam, Choudhury did not lose sight of the obvious distinction between the refugee and the immigrants as he opposed the inclusion of Bengali Muslim immigrants into the new citizenship register by declaring that,
“I would exclude those persons who came only three years ago, who set up the civil disobedience movement forcibly occupied land which was not meant for them and forced the benevolent and benign Government to have recourse to the military to keep peace in the province. …I desire to exclude those persons who surreptitiously introduced themselves into my province and who now having mixed themselves with their own brethren, now desire to have citizenship rights…I desire to exclude these people because they had not long ago set up the struggle for Pakistan, they had not long ago taken an active part in compelling the politicians in India to agree for partition…I only want that those classes of persons whom I have mentioned should be included and should get citizenship rights and those classes of persons whom I want to exclude should not get the right of citizenship…”
For Choudhury, the only Assamese Hindu representative from Assam who spoke on citizenship rights, his presentation was seminal as it was supported also by Mr. Dharanidhar Basu-Matari representing the Tribal people of Assam and Mr. Nibaran Chandra Laskar, representing the Bengali Scheduled Castes from Assam, representatives of three most important components of non-Muslim society in Assam. It was a spectacular joint front, unprecedented in history and steeped in the tenuous communal history of Assam, especially the anti-immigrant sentiments of the Assamese middle class and attempts by them to reconcile this history with post-colonial reality. It is important to remember that the Congress ministry in Assam which came to office after the elections of 1946 had launched a vigorous anti-immigration drive and had also had to resort to forceful eviction drives and counter measures against the Civil Disobedience that was launched by the Muslim League in Assam in March, 1947, a fact which resonated in the assertions of Choudhury.
When the Constitution of India came into force in 1950, the sentiments of the Assembly clearly reflected itself in within the Constitutional framework accommodating the interests of the displaced/refugees in post-colonial India, though the term ‘refugee’ exactly did not find a mention in the bulky constitution that came to govern the nation-state. But between 1947 and 1950, as India was giving itself the Constitution, East-Pakistan was in the throes of a violent conflagration which was singularly targeting the non-Muslim population. A summary of the incidents presented in a memorandum submitted by one of the Hindu members of parliament in Pakistan to the prime minister, Nurul Amin in December, 1949 drew his attention to
“indiscriminate requisitioning of Hindu houses, godowns, shops, educational institutions and other immovable properties all over East Pakistan. It pointed out that in Dacca alone 3 thousand Hindu houses had been requisitioned. The licence of Hindus holding fire arms were cancelled and the arms were seized. Large number of houses and lands throughout Pakistan were forcibly occupied by Muslims. Temples were desecrated. Large number of reports of crimes against Hindu women were brought to the notice of the authorities but were ignored. Forced conversions and forced marriages after abduction were also mentioned. Large number of dacoities during which attacks on women had taken place had become a feature of rural life in East Bengal. Muslim mobs on the pretexts of keeping an eye over disloyal Non Muslims raided Hindu houses. In the rural areas forcible removal of crops, plucking of fruits from trees, cutting of bamboos and catching fish from the tanks belonging to Hindus had become most common. The attitude of the Government and the police towards these complaints from Hindus was complete indifferent and some district magistrates openly preached against the Hindus. The Minority Boards agreed upon by the Neogy-Mohammad Pact were either not brought into existence or were not allowed to function. Local Boards and Municipalities where Hindus held the majority seats were arbitrarily suspended.
In February 1950, there was a repetition of the pattern of Calcutta killing in East Pakistan. Unfortunately, this was widespread. The atrocities which began in August 1949 all over East Pakistan continued almost for a period of 3 months.
These incidents led to a fresh wave of migration and thousands of Hindus poured into West Bengal, Assam and Tripura.”
The number of displaced almost touched about half a million people by April, 1950.But even in such a grave situation, while people belonging to the minority communities in East Pakistan poured into India, a large number of Muslims, who otherwise had no political threat to their lives in Pakistan also came into India. It was a scenario to which the Government of Assam drew the attention of the central government since 1948 and the Government of India was not prepared to overlook as it not only aggravated the economic pressures on partitioned India and Assam but also created a serious security scenario forcing the Government of India to promulgate an ordinance to prohibit the entry of such Muslim migrants from East Pakistan into Assam and India. While the non-Muslim migrants were classified as ‘displaced’ or referred to as ‘refugees’ the latter were clearly identified as ‘undesirable immigrants’ in official discourse, including the Ordinance that the central government promulgated to overcome the grave scenario, pending the passage of a bill in the provisional Parliament to that effect. Though the arguments came from diverse ideological backgrounds and different readings of history, this classificatory difference between ‘displaced’/refugees and illegal immigrants continued to dominate the debates on migration/immigration cutting across ideological lines.
When the Government brought in the bill to regularize the ordinance through the Undesirable Immigrants (Expulsion from Assam) Bill 1950 to the Parliament to “provide for the expulsion from Assam of undesirable immigrants”, as distinguished from “persons who on account of disturbances or disorder in Pakistan’or any other country have come to take refugee in Assam…”, almost all the members of parliament dominated by the Congress party joined ranks. Almost all the members speaking on the bill especially those from Assam, prominent being Shri Rohini Kumar Choudhury, Shri Surendranath Buragohain, Shri Dev Kanta Barooah, and Shri Kuladhar Chaliha supported the bill and desired its passage into an Act. There is no doubt that the Bill, on becoming an act with the title Illegal Immigrants (Expulsion from Assam) Act, 1950 promulgated on the 1st of March, 1950, contributed to create a legal foundation for a differential between Non-Muslim and Muslim migrants into Assam based on a difference in understanding the causes of migration distinguished on religious lines, the focus on violence or apprehensions about it and its diverse manifestations on the non-Muslims in East Pakistan and its resultant insecurities and apprehensions. Members were extremely concerned with the fate of the migrants who had come to Assam from areas which formed part of East Pakistan as the situation was not as favourable for the refugees in East Pakistan. Apart from Rohini Choudhury, Mr Surendranath Buragohain took to the floor to assert the difference between the refugees and immigrants. Rohini Choudhury led the debate by asking the Minister,
“to make it clear by a clause that the word ‘immigrant’ in the Bill does not include the refugees who have come to Assam…But I may say that for a single refugee who has come to Assam three times that number have come from Eastern Pakistan who cannot by any means be called refugee…who have come in for economical reasons or for the reasons of exploitation.”
Considering the location of Assam as the third partitioned province of colonial India, it was perhaps important to make the difference considering that the minority Hindus from Sylhet would naturally want to come to India, more so to Assam as the displaced. It was not to any surprise that Shrimati Sucheta Kripalani was quick to point out that “it is very natural that these people, Hindus who were formerly people of Assam and who are now citizens of East Bengal, when they are persecuted they would try to enter our land.” Perhaps the most vociferous was Mr Deb Kanta Barooah, also from Assam, who was even more categorical to point out that,
“although the dictionary meaning of the word ‘immigrant’ is anybody who comes from one country to another, in this particular case the word ‘immigrant’ means only Pakistani Muslim immigrants from Eastern Pakistan and does not include the refugees of whom a census was separately taken in Assam. We have learnt from Shri Rohini Kumar Choudhury that 1,20,000 displaced persons, who left East Bengal for fear of persecution have come to Assam. We must draw a line between these two types of people-People of Pakistani origin and nationality who owe no loyalty to our country and to our State, and people who for their love of India and patriotism have been persecuted in Pakistan and have taken shelter in Assam.”
These interventions from the debate led the Government of India to insert a proviso into one of the sections of the bill that sought to make the distinction between persecuted displaced minority community person/refugee East Pakistan and illegal/ undesirable migrants from East Pakistan who had ‘subsequently come to reside in Assam’. The mover of the bill, Gopalaswami Ayyangar, in his reply was firm in pointing out that, the sword of eviction and the clause of ‘undesirability’ under the Act, when promulgated, would not apply to people, “who subsequent to the partition of the subcontinent on the 15th of August, 1947, have migrated in fear to Assam, because of disturbance in Pakistan or their fear of their being badly dealt with in Pakistan.” Therefore when the Act came to be promulgated, the proviso to Section 2(b) read,
‘Provided that nothing in this section shall apply to any person who on account of civil disturbances or the fear of such disturbances in any area now forming part of Pakistan has been displaced from or has left his place of residence in such area and who has been subsequently residing in Assam.’
Though most Indian leaders including Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel were generally opposed to the migration and settlement of refugees from East Pakistan in India, on principle, trying to talk to their east Pakistani counterparts or on many occasions making insensitive statements about East Bengal refugees, with the hope that these refugees would not migrate to India or even if they had migrated, they would go back to Pakistan, they also fell in line with the dominant pro-refugee and anti-immigrant sentiments of their political compatriots turned fellow Members of Parliament.
When the aggravation of violence on non-Muslims in East Pakistan and against Muslims in some provinces of India led the Prime Ministers of India and Pakistan to meet in April 1950 it forced the Government to bring a motion in Parliament to discuss the critical situation in East Bengal in Parliament. Probably for the first time, Jawaharlal Nehru, initiating a discussion on the motion Re: Bengal Situation on the 7th of August, 1950, stood in Parliament to point out that,
my opinion is that the Hindu minority in East Bengal feels – it is an important fact how they feel- insecure and , therefore they cannot settle down, you might say and there is a tendency to come away or even if they remain, they do not know how long they will remain. That is a fact…,
and further pointing out that,
…10 million people, nearly a crore of Hindus are still in East Pakistan. It is a very large number. It is true that a large number of middle class people have come over; it is also true that specially after these February– March disturbances, people like teachers came over. Schools were closed; educational institutions ceased to function, so that the normal life of the minority community was completely upset there. There were children without schools and school masters without children and so on…
But that was only the tip of the iceberg. As the Hindu middle class left their homes in East Pakistan, the brunt of violence fell on the lower classes and the Dalits who were still holding on to their homes which came to be detailed in the resignation letter of the Dalit leader Jogendranath Mandal of East Pakistan from his post of Cabinet Minister of Pakistan and subsequent statement on his migration to India who pointed out that,
“neither the East Bengal Government nor the Muslim League leaders were really earnest in the matter of implementation of the Delhi Agreement…Commission of thefts and dacoities even with murder is going on as merrily as before. Thana officers seldom record half the complaints made by Hindus. That the abduction and rape of Hindu girls has been reduced to certain extent is due only to the fact that there is no caste Hindu girl between the ages of 12 and 30 living in East Bengal at present. The few depressed class girls who live in rural areas with their parents are not even spared by Muslim goondas. I have received information about a number of incidents of rape of scheduled caste girls by Muslims. Full payment is seldom made by Muslim buyers for the price of jute and other agricultural commodities sold by Hindus in major market places. As a matter of fact there is no operation of law, justice or fair play in Pakistan, so far as Hindus are concerned.”
The situation in East Pakistan was not a secret and the Government of India was aware of the situation on the ground across the border as the Prime minister in a statement on the exodus of people from East Pakistan between 1947 and 1949 had pointed out, in March, 1950, that, “1,600,000 people had thus been forced to come away from East Bengal to West Bengal during the period ending on 31st December, 1949.” While Nehru was keen to present a sober and a balanced picture of the background for the incessant migration scenario in the subcontinent by 15th November, 1950 when he rose to speak on the President’s address to Parliament and pointed to the refugee situation he assured the members of Parliament that,
…the hon. Member referred to the question of citizenship. There is no doubt, of course, that those displaced persons who have come to settle in India are bound to have their citizenship. If the law is inadequate in this respect, the law should be changed.
The Government of the day had indeed come a long way since April of the same year when the Prime Minister was steadfast in advocating the repatriation of the refugees from East Pakistan and was reticent to ensure their rehabilitation in India.
In lieu of a conclusion
While many individuals and organizations have charged the present Government and the passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill with the violation of the Constitutional spirit, mandate and the principle of secularism that was far from the truth for it was as much the realization of the Nehru’s promise to Parliament of 15th November 1950 as also the wishes of the founding members of the Constituent Assembly and the Parliament belonging to Assam itself. The protests that followed the passage and notification of the Act probably reminded the Indians that despite the passage of time, the wounds of partition and the antagonisms of an earlier era have not healed. Probably the promise of the midnight hour and the sentiments that nurtured the Constitution making and the provisions of the basic documents according to which the country would be governed had long been forgotten. Though the attempts of the post-colonial government has been to move beyond the predicaments of partition of India in 1947 it is something that we are yet to reconcile with.
The writer is a faculty member at Department of History, North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong. Opinions expressed are personal
Two images are emblematic of the Baghjan oilfield blowout in upper Assam: a dead Xihu (Gangetic River Dolphin) floating on the once-pristine waters of the Maguri-Motapung wetlands, and a young couple looking at the blaze from a distance, their backs to the camera, but the alertness in their pose telling us about their anxiety. Exactly two weeks after a gas leak, on June 9th, the Baghjan oil field caught fire (but even before that, on May 27, the well was leaking gas and condensate). Flames rocketed sky-high, aided by condensate, a highly flammable substance. Because of the heat and pressure underground, condensate remains in gaseous form, but once outside, it transforms into a liquid base, a thin film coating water bodies and fertile agricultural lands. Some of it is being picked up by using country boats by Oil India Limited (OIL), the company that runs the oilfield. Interestingly, though, OIL had initially informed that ‘ongoing operations were suspended as the well started releasing natural gas in an uncontrolled manner’. The information on condensate leaking out was omitted.
When director Bhaskar Hazarika’s film Aamis released last November, after a stellar festival run at such reputed places as Tribeca Film Festival, the Covid-19 pandemic was still a month or so away. However, the film already presciently contained aspects of the coronavirus crisis that would go on to occupy all of humanity this year – namely, our interactions with wildlife, the cultural significance of varied eating practices, and the very way we traverse across the binary between edible and inedible. Following the story of Sumon, a Ph.D student researching the culinary cultures of North-East India, and Nirmali, a married pediatrician, the viewer very soon turns unknown corners, and descends deeper into something much more transgressive than extra-marital affections.
Anthropologist and author Dr Dolly Kikon answered questions from East Wind on her latest work on migrant workers from Nagaland, and on broader issues related to freedom in times of neoliberalism. Excerpts from an interview.
What brought you to this study of migrant workers from Nagaland in the hospitality sector?
DK: I began to think about the issue of migration when I was finishing my first book “Living with Oil and Coal: Resource Politics and Militarization in Northeast India” (2019 University of Washington Press, 2020 Yoda Press India). Across the villages and small towns in Nagaland, many young people were leaving the land and becoming migrants. Particularly I was curious why the majority of young people joined, or desired to join the hospitality sector. Was it convenient? Was it easy to find work? What drove them to this sector I wondered. In addition, it also helped that I received a postdoctoral fellowship from the Swedish government to embark on this topic. However, this project would have not been possible without the generous help and support of well-wishers and people who were willing to talk to us. In particular, The People Channel’s director Rozelle Mero trusted us with this topic and opened the doors of her agency to talk to us. Her insight and honesty were humbling.
Is there any estimate of the number of such workers working outside the Northeast?
DK: Currently, the migration pattern from Northeast India is being taken state wise. For example, the highest rate of out-migration is from the state of Assam followed by Manipur. In the same manner, there are focused studies that show the population of migrants from Northeast India in specific cities like Bengaluru or New Delhi. Our study was an anthropological ethnographic work where we focused on the lived experiences of migrants. We used the national census and literature including reports to gauge the number.
Why is such work attractive to those who seek careers in the field? What are the choices among which they choose this?
DK: This is a good question and I am glad you asked me because that is what the book contains. Each chapter of the book describes and analyses why the hospitality industry is attractive and the kinds of choices and challenges that migrants face. I would really encourage people to pick up the book and read it.
It would seem that aspirations have changed with time. Does freedom mean something else now… something different from what it did to previous generations of Nagas?
DK: Well, I am sure people change, times change, and societies change. Yet, I would like to be cautious to say that joining and working in a neoliberal economic set up where we are made to serve others is a form of freedom in any way. Instead, we might want to ask why are young people getting into such a workforce where they are extremely vulnerable. The majority of the young migrants’ are constantly seeking to move on, to go someplace else and not ‘get stuck’. Unlike the previous generation of Naga people, the younger generation does not want to work on the land. Their dream is not to become a subsistence cultivator, it is something else, perhaps like seeing the world and exploring places.
What remains of the pre-capitalist past in Naga society?
DK: It is in the past as you aptly put it. The only time it is revived is at events like the Hornbill Festival! Or at some carnival or cultural event where performers are enacting a bygone period of our people. For now, we are living in a period where the market forces and extractive regimes such as plantation economies and mining are extremely attractive options for the people.
Dolly Kikon is a Naga Anthropologist. She is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Social and Political Sciences and teaches Anthropology and Development Studies at the University of Melbourne, Australia.
The following day, I hire a taxi to go sightseeing. The taxi driver, who, during the course of the day, takes on the role of guide, asks me: ‘So, you are from India?’ When I smile and nod a ‘yes’, he informs me: ‘Even though I also live in India, I don’t consider myself Indian.’ He belongs to the Sanamahi religion of the Meiteis of Manipuri. I ask him the reason for his discontent, and he responds: ‘India treats us differently. We don’t feel safe under Indian security.’
The following is an excerpt from Insider/Outsider, an anthology of writings on the issue of belonging in Northeast India. This is part of an account on the miya experience in Assam, by Shalim M Hussain.
When I ran away from my boarding school in Barpeta Road in 1993, there were no telephones in my village. The village police outpost was sent a telegram instead. The distance between my village Sontoli and Barpeta Road is a little less than fifty kilometers and can ideally be covered in an hour and a half. However, the river Brahmaputra passes between Sontoli and Bahari the nearest bus stop and it takes a motor boat more than an hour to complete a one-way trip. Today auto-rickshaws and electric rickshaws ply between Sontoli bazaar and Sontoli ghat but two and a half decades ago one had to cycle or walk to the ghat and wait for one of the two ‘line’ boats or country motor boats to carry them to the other side. When the telegram with my missing report reached home one January evening in 1993, my father hired a motorboat and immediately left for Bahari. He had booked an entire motorboat only thrice in his life, once when he brought my mother home in 1986, then when my maternal grandfather passed away on 21st March 1991 (on the same day prime minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated) and in 1983, almost exactly ten years before I went missing, on a fact-finding mission after the Nellie massacre.
The day the telegram was sent, my friend Rose and I decided that we had had enough of boarding school. We were both a little over five years old and had been at school for only a month. His parents and my grandmother lived in Kalgachia, a village 27 kms south of Barpeta Road, and their families knew each other quite well. I don’t remember now who suggested the idea but we decided to run away one Saturday afternoon. The National Highway 27 connects Barpeta Road to Sorbhog. From Sorbhog a narrower, almost perennially potholed, road leads south to Kalgachia. I had very little knowledge of the roads then but my companion was street smart and said that he could easily lead me to my grandmother. We dressed in our ‘outing dress’- shorts, shirt and sweater vest, socks and black school shoes- and waited for the school gate to open. At around 12 in the afternoon which was time for our nap, the washer-man came with the laundry. He usually bundled the clothes in a large bed sheet and pushed it to the school gate on a handcart. He then opened the gate, carried the bundle on his head and walked into the school building. It took him about an hour to sort out the clothes and this was our window of opportunity. Rose and I waited until the dhobi was in the hall and then casually walked out of the gate. We walked hand in hand through the market and from Simlaguri took the right turn. We were now on the National Highway and on our way to Sorbhog. I have very vague memories of what happened next but I remember a lot of rain and lightning. The first showers of the year were upon us and we were not properly clothed for a walk, much less a daring escape.
Rose was smart. He suggested that we walk slowly if there was a flash of lightning or if there were cars on the street. When the road was empty we could run. We stopped to let vehicles pass and because of the heavy downpour our clothes were wet and our shoes had started making squishy noises. The streets in Sorbhog didn’t have streetlights, so there were long stretches of dark nothingness when our imagination took over. I am not sure if it’s a fake memory but at one point I might have seen lightning hit a cow. I vaguely remember the cow jumping in the air and falling on its back and a large red spot forming on its belly. When I was back in school in 1994, someone noticed the white birth mark on my right arm and asked what had caused it. I told him that on a dark evening in February 1993 a lightning bolt had grazed my arm. That was also why I had straight stiff hair, I said. Anyway we got as far as Sorbhog, close to where the Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya now stands. There we suddenly felt strong hands on our shoulders and turned around to see a man standing behind us.
Apparently he had been following us for some time and our lack of an older companion and our clothes, particularly our shoes, made him suspect that we were runaways. He held us firmly by the shoulders (at this point we were too tired to run any more) and asked where we were from and where we were going. We told him about our relatives in Kalgachia and then because we were so cold and scared, we gave him the name of our school. The gentleman, Mr. Sadananda Das put two and two together and took us home. He lit a fire in the cowshed and made us take off our wet clothes. His wife gave us blankets and served rice and boiled eggs while Mr. Das cracked jokes to make us feel more comfortable and hung our clothes on a string over the fire. We had walked almost 12 kilometers and it was almost eight at night. Our legs were swollen and we were running high temperature. At night when I woke up to pee, Mr. Das was awake. He remained awake all night so that we couldn’t attempt another escape. In the morning he took us to the police station. Already the telegram to my parents had been sent from the Barpeta Road police station and as we were walking to Mr. Das’s house from Sorbhog, we saw a car stop on the highway. My grandmother, great-aunt and aunt and Rose’s parents came running out of the doors. Our great escape was over.
I remember February 1993 with great fondness (though my memory of the actual events gets foggier every year) to remind myself that there is good in the world. The night Sadananda Das took Rose and me into his home, there was a small commotion in his locality. His prudent neighbours said that it would be better if we were taken to the police station immediately. Some of them said that it might not be a good idea to let two Miyah boys (our accented Assamese was a dead giveaway) stay in his house for the night. Communal tensions were on an all time high in India then. The fear and distrust caused by the Babri Masjid demolition and the Bombay riots had travelled to Assam too. The Assam Agitation had ended only eight years ago but the wounds still remained exposed. Besides, there was another practical fear. The neighbours were scared that if Rose and I took seriously ill at night or worse, Mr. Das would be in trouble. The good gentleman, however, stood his ground. He would take us to the police station in the morning after we had had dinner and a good night’s sleep, he said. Had Mr. Das not rescued us from the street, had he not shown us basic human decency, Rose and I would have had to walk the remaining 15 kilometers to Kalgachia. I don’t know if we would have survived the long walk.
My parents kept me home for a few months and then, after repeated requests, the school decided to take me back. Rose’s parents admitted him to a school in Kalgachia. We haven’t met since. In 1993 the fragile peace in Assam began to unravel. In October around 50 people were killed in ethnic violence between the Bodos and the Muslims in the nearby district of Bongaigaon. In July 1994 violence erupted between the Muslims and Bodos in Barpeta. Around 100 people were killed, including many Muslims who had been sheltering in a relief camp in Bansbari, just twelve kilometers north of Barpeta Road. As school children in the sheltered atmosphere of boarding school we didn’t get wind of the violence that was happening almost literally outside the school campus. Our minds were occupied with more quotidian concerns: the school was being moved out of its temporary premises to a new location close by. Every Sunday after mass at the colonial-era St Joseph’s Church we walked in line to the construction site of the new school building. We ran around the half-completed corridors, carried bricks and established a close friendship with Hazrat and Shabkhatun, two of the labourers. Since we were not allowed to go outside the school campus or interact with the people of Barpeta Road (except during the annual sports week or during festivals when we were chaperoned by the warden), the only Bengal-origin people I met during the early years of my schooling were these friendly labourers. Hazrat worked off and on as the school was slowly built storey by storey over the next five years but Shabkhatun became a permanent fixture. When she was not doing manual labour, she was appointed as a cleaner. My brother who joined me at school in 1995 developed a very familial relationship with Shabkhatun and she would share her lunch with him. It was very plain stuff, usually rice and mashed brinjals but it tasted like home he said.
It was during my final year in school that I understood the seriousness of the 1994 violence. Ten years had passed and many of the children who had memories of that turbulent year were, like me, appearing for the Classs 10th board exams. Some of them had lived ‘beyond the railway lines’. The railway tracks cut Barpeta Road into two parts- the town and the rural suburbs. On one side was our school and on the opposite side, hidden behind a thick row of betel nut trees was the great beyond. All we knew about the village beyond the railway tracks was that terrible things had happened there. During my final years at school I had started quizzing and it was for a Quiz competition that I crossed the railway lines and realized for the first time that civilization didn’t end at the railway station. After this initial visit I kept visiting the village, especially because my best friend in school lived there in the staff quarters of the Gram Sabha. In August and September 2017 I was travelling in Barpeta Road after a gap of almost a decade. I was meeting poets from the Bengal-origin Muslim community who had decided to call themselves ‘Miyah Poets’ and were writing remarkable poems on their lived experiences of poverty, exclusion and disillusionment. These were intensely political poems, guided by a deep feeling of angst and desire for self-expression. One of the first poets I met and interviewed was Abdur Rahim, a young school teacher who lived beyond the railway lines.
Rahim asked me to meet him at a printing press his friend and fellow Miyah poet Shahjahan ran in Barpeta Road. I wanted to get their poems on tape, so we travelled to his house deep in the village. The monsoon was receding but the earth was still soggy. The road that led to Rahim’s hamlet was unmetalled and it was a little difficult for Rahim to guide his motorcycle through the mud. The house was built on a raised plinth, almost one and a half meters high and looked new. There, seated on his front yard Rahim told me of October 1994. He was six years old when many houses in his village, including his, were set on fire. All the members of his family abandoned the burning house and took shelter in the tall grass. They couldn’t salvage much, except some valuables and their ‘documents’. These documents- land revenue receipts, identity cards and land deeds were the only proof that they were genuine citizens of India and like all Bengal-origin Muslims who live under the constant ignominy of being called illegal migrants in their own country, they valued these strips of paper as much as their lives. They remained hidden in the grass without food and water while their world burnt around them and it was only after the violence had subsided that they returned home and started work on rebuilding their homes and futures. When crowds of arsonists walked by the tall grass, Rahim’s parents stuffed his mouth with a gamcha to stop him from crying. At one point Rahim’s father went to their neighbours begging for food. Most of the neighbours, Bodos, were scared of taking them in but one family offered them a plate of soaked leftover rice.
Rahim said that it was necessary to talk about witnessing mob violence at such a young age and growing up with a constant feeling of dread and uncertainty, even if only through the medium of poetry. Rahim writes his poems almost exclusively in Assamese, though a few of his Miyah poems are written in the dialect he speaks at home. In 2016 when Miyah poetry started taking shape on Facebook, many of the poets wrote in Assamese or their regional dialects. It was a novel step, given the linguistic status of the Bengal-origin Muslims in Assam. We record Assamese as our language in the census reports and all documents, are educated largely in Assamese medium schools (English medium schools in the villages are a recent phenomenon, having started only in the early 1990s) and use Assamese for correspondence though we continue to speak our local dialects at home. This creates a great divide. Uneducated Bengal-origin Muslims are repeatedly harassed by the state authorities as probable ‘illegal migrants’ based on their lack of familiarity with the Assamese language while the educated ones can evade such discrimination. However, accepting the Assamese language or being fluent in it doesn’t necessarily allow Bengal-origin to belong to the ‘mainstream’ Assamese community. Sometimes this attempt at assimilation is mocked as insincere. ‘Our use of Assamese in public and our own dialects in private is sometimes viewed as double-facedness’, said Rahim, ‘and that puts us in a dilemma. What do we do? A couple of generations ago when we were all illiterate and couldn’t speak Assamese we were accused of clinging on to our Bengali roots. Now that we have grown into and whole-heartedly accepted Assamese language and culture, we are accused of putting on a show.’
The fear and uncertainty Rahim had faced in 1994 was faced by my mother and her family in 1983. She was still in college and the Nellie massacre had just happened. All sorts of rumours started spreading in Kalgachia- that arsonists were coming to the village looking for Miyahs, that counter attacks were being planned, that opportunists were going from village to village collecting protection money etc. Not knowing what to believe, my grandfather took his wife, children and his old father and hid in the fields at a distance from his home. They remained there for two days until my eldest aunt’s husband proposed a better idea. He would take them to his place in the evening and bring them back very early in the morning. It was important for people to know that the house was not abandoned, or it would be taken over by arsonists. A small stream of the River Beki separated my mother’s village from her brother-in-law’s, so the journey had to be made on my grandfather’s fishing boat. For the next fortnight as the situation in the state went from bad to worse, this was their regular routine. My mother had just begun college but classes were cancelled because of the violence and it took her four years to complete a course which usually took two years then. My mother and aunts hardly talk about that frightful fortnight in 1983 but when they do, they always refer to it as the year of ‘gondogol’ or chaos.
The events of 1993 and 1994 are in the distant past and since I didn’t witness either of them personally, I can’t write about them from a personal point of view. What I do remember quite vividly was the first time I took the word ‘Miyah’ seriously. It happened in the summer of 2007 when I was house-hunting in Guwahati. This, however, was not the first time I heard it used as an insult. When my father was still alive and my siblings and I were in boarding school, he would sometimes take us to school after our vacations. On one journey after the summer vacations, Abba bought three bus tickets- my brother and I had one seat each and my sister who was five or six years old then sat on my father’s lap. Now, public transit etiquette in rural India dictates that children should always sit on the lap or on someone’s knee, whether it is a parent’s or a stranger’s. An old gentleman boarded the bus at Chenga, the immediate bus stop after Bahari and asked my brother or me to offer our seat to him. This was our first adult experience of feeling the plastic seat under our butts and we were obviously not too eager to part with the honour. The man got angry and said in a low voice, ‘Look at these Miyahs! They breed so fast that their children are like a bunch of coconuts!’ I had never seen my father so humiliated in his life. He stood up and demanded an apology. The older gentleman raised his voice. The other passengers stepped in and broke what would probably have been a fight. Thankfully the old man got off the bus soon, but my father sat through the rest of the journey with a terrible sadness on his face.