How do we understand India’s recent Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC)?
Apart from Nepal, all South Asian states emerged from the colonial rule. In 1947, when the British left the subcontinent, all of them got new independent identities. Bangladesh came into being in 1971. In between, Sikkim was merged with India. In that sense, Nepal is the oldest, never-colonized nation-state in the sub-continent. Looking at the current debates in India on who are Indians and who constitute India, there are two historical inflection points.
One was in 1947 when India and Pakistan were born. The other landmark is the 1971 creation of Bangladesh. Who is an Indian? All those living in India during the time of British departure are Indians. The nation-states emerged after 1947, and there is constant churn in the Indian subcontinent about this idea of citizenry and who belongs where. Populations are still in a flux. Plus, even the Indian union’s international boundaries are being challenged in places like Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh. At the same time, externally, after 70 years, the sub-continent is still in the making.
In 1947, about 10 million people migrated to India, in what was the biggest population movement in history. Then millions of refugees were forced out in 1971 from today’s Bangladesh when it was East Pakistan. India was the natural home for all these populations. In a sense, the current move is to settle the population. But is it possible to ignore that some people have been living in the same place for the past 70 years?
What do you make of the implantation of the NRC in Assam?
The NRC came out in 1980s when Rajiv Gandhi and Prafulla Kumar Mahant negotiated in the wake of the Assam movement (1979-1985) against immigrants. Assam had received many people from Bangladesh and those threatened by other population movements in the rest of India. Who is son of soil (Bhumiputra)? That was the core issue of the Assam movement in the 1980s. Rajiv Gandhi negotiated with them, and the idea for National Registration of Citizens was born.
Since then the Assamese have been asking for the implementation of the Rajiv-Prafulla accord that decides who is Assamese and who is not. The Supreme Court then asked the Indian government to start the registry. According to the NRC, you have to prove your birth and prolonged stay in a place.
That created problems because besides the indigenous people and minorities, many outsiders have come and settled in Assam. But as these outsiders could not produce the requisite documents, two million people are not registered. It was hard in terms of time and money, and created anxiety among minorities. This is precisely the moment the two-third BJP majority government decided to act. Why this particular moment? They wanted to isolate the minority community.
The Indian government says it wants to kick out illegal immigrants. Who are these illegal immigrants?
The countries adjoining Assam are all Muslim countries. Recently, the influx of Rohingya refuges to Bangladesh and from Bangladesh to India has highlighted the salience of the NRC. This is strange. India has always been open for refugees and those from Tibet and even Pakistan have been welcomed. The people who came to India in 1947 were not refugees but forcefully displaced because of partition. They became refugees after a government Act. The NRC in Assam is complicated by the fact that outgoing chief justice of India Ranjan Gogai is also Assamese. Instead of taking a judicial stance, he looked at the issue from national security perspective while deciding about Rohigya and the NRC.
Therefore the NRC was implemented with a legal background, perhaps as the fulfillment of the Rajiv-Prafulla agreement as the native populations saw it.
What about the fate of around 500,000 Nepali-speaking people in Assam?
When the NRC process was going on in Assam, so was the election campaign. The election gave overwhelming majority to Modi-Shah party. I remember Amit Shah speaking in Darjeeling wearing a Nepal cap and addressing the Nepali-speaking population, called Gorkha population. Nepali identity in India is always riddled with problems because there is Nepali homeland for Nepali-speaking people, which is Nepal.
The idea of homeland always creates a problem for people residing in another country that speaks a foreign language. If you have a homeland where your language and family and ancestors originate, you belong to them, you belong there. Therefore, it is interesting the way Gorkha identity was invented in Darjeeling and many parts of India and even in Burma. People would play on the idea of homeland. So, as Amit Shah said during the elections, Gorkhas need not fear, as they are Hindus. He could have said you have been here for over 70 years, and hence you are our citizens. But he did not say that.
What are the difficulties in registration for the Nepali-speaking community in Assam?
From our side, we need to be politically correct while describing the Nepali-speaking people across the border. We assume they are Nepali and we create problems for them. The Nepali-speaking population faces the crisis of citizenship in the Northeast, even with the NRC. The Citizenship Amendment Act will not capture them because they are not refugees. Nepalis went there a century ago as economic migrants. They settled there and contributed to the Indian economy. The new CAA talks about forced refugees coming from a couple of neighboring countries and it is not applicable to Nepali-speaking community. But the NRC does matter to them.
The NRC is a cumbersome process, a kind of proof that you are working here, you own land, you belong to this land. But people are always on the move for jobs. The Nepali-speaking community is a pioneering community establishing Assam as an agriculture land. But the Nepali-speaking population also lack documents required to claim citizenry. Three to five lakhs is a big number. Where do they go? If your name is not there, you will be immediately sent to a camp. I do not know how many people went to camp but the possibility is imminent. You become aliens in your own place where you have been for over half a century. Under normal citizenship law, if you live in a country for 1-15 years, you are entitled to something. The current registration is very problematic. For example, an elder brother is included but the younger brother is not, a wife is but her husband is not, a father is but his daughter is not.
In Burma, Nepali speaking Burmese have started giving themselves two names: One Burmese name and another Nepali name. Why? In census, if you say you are a Nepali, the Burmese authorities can say that since you are from Nepal you have to go back. In both Assam and Myanmar, they have a homeland, i.e. Nepal, and the government can say you have to go back. Then they become stateless because even we do not recognize them. So the NRC is basically creating statelessness. It is a fascist mentality, manifest of a tension between identity politics and citizenry politics.
But, theoretically, what is the harm in keeping a registry of your people?
Theoretically, it looks fine. But there are different ways of doing it. Some argue that it is like a demonetization process because everybody has to be in a line to prove their citizenship. Is it possible?
Is the CAA singularly targeted at Muslims? Otherwise, why are the Christians, who are seen by hardcore Hindus in Nepal as a threat to their identity, exempted under India’s CAA?
At the heart of the current dispensation in India is the BJP and many of its leaders especially Modi and Shah who have been socialized as RSS Pracharaks. There is a big debate on whether the BJP is RSS. But the intellectual and cultural sources or understanding of Indian history and civilization comes from the RSS. They believe that India is a Hindu-majority country. Their orientation is that Gandhi and Nehru cheated on India by giving Pakistan to Muslims but not ‘Bharat’ to Hindus.
But it has a colonial legacy. There is no Christian India. Christians are not a threat to them but Muslim Pakistan is. Again, they think Pakistan is for Muslims but there is no parallel state for Hindus.
So there is a psychology of loss or loss of self. They want to create a Hindu- self. This is precisely what has happened in Kashmir. When Kashmir was negotiated, it was given special status and was always seen as Muslim-majority. Their reading was that giving special status to the Muslim majority would undervalue the Hindu-majority in Jammu. Even in local areas, there are Muslim pockets. Muslims are a threat for them.
But if there is no minority, there is no democracy. If there is no dissent, there is no democracy. If all things are the same color, there is no democracy. Democracy in Pakistan has a problem because everybody is the same. Diversity and pluralism are the fundamentals of democracy.
Is there a possibility of the Modi government’s religious experiments being repeated in Nepal?
What happens in India always affects us. Both good and bad things flow from the south. But there are differences between Nepal’s idea of Hinduism and India’s idea of Hindutva. In our society we practice Sanatani Hinduism. It means our local customs and practices inform the idea of Hinduism. For example, eggs and meet are offered at our Ganesh temples. In India, religious rituals and practices are different. So what we are practicing is Hindu Santan tradition. Ours is not sanitized Hinduism or pure Hinduism, but mixed with different cultures. Hindutva is politics. We do not do politics in the name of religion here.
We did try politics based on religion by introducing the threat of Christians but that did not play out well. But in India, Hindutva is propagated against Islam. In India religion is divisive or a fault-line, just like in the US race is a fault-line. In our country, religion is not a fault line so far. But if we learn bad things from India, it could become a fault-line.
There are fears that if the Muslims who are being persecuted in Northern India enter Nepal as refugees it could create security problems.
When you push someone against the wall, what will they do? They will find ways to get out. We have an open border. Nepal has always welcomed people. In Nepal, foreigners are never suspected. Its character is welcoming that is why tourism is booming. I talk from experience. When foreigners traveled in rural areas we were never suspicious. In 1965, we welcomed Tibetan refugees. In 1971, we welcomed refugees from Bangladesh. We also welcomed Bhutanese refugees. I expect people will come. But to change the refugee question into national security question is an easy way out. It is a linear argument to say Muslim refugees are a national security issue. Big powers could ask us why we welcomed the people they chased out. On humanitarian ground, we should be ready to welcome them. I see it from a liberal framework. The government might decide otherwise but people should be welcoming