India recently passed the citizenship Amendment Act 2019 under which illegal immigrants who are Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from the south Asia neighboring nations of Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, who entered India on or before 31 December 2014 can become legal citizens of India. The Act excludes any such benefit to Muslims. The Act has been vehemently protested from the very conception. The protests continue unabated even after it is passed, and is currently spreading like wildfire across the country. The entire state of Assam and other northeastern states like Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh has been the major points for the protests till yet. Such has been the extent of the protests that Internet both broadband and mobile remain suspended in Assam and parts of Meghalaya. Curfew and section 144 has been imposed in almost all the places of protests. But people continue to defy the curfew and come out in large numbers, especially in Assam. 4 people have been killed while more than a dozen injured.
While discussing the protests, two dominant narratives are now highlighted, first that the Act by using religion as a pre-requisite for citizenship challenges the very ethos of the Indian constitution and what it stand for. It is also against the secular values of the nation, which the constitution guarantees to protect. The Act, by law now classifies immigrants or ‘persecuted’ people on the basis of religion. (The Act itself does not mention the word persecuted). This is being highlighted as the dominant narrative of the struggles in India by the mainstream media. States like Delhi, Maharashtra, West Bengal, etc. are highlighted as proponents of this narrative.
The other narrative, which people of Assam and other northeastern states are following has nothing much to do with religion but more to do with identity and land rights. They do not want ‘any illegal immigrant’ irrespective of their religion. As most of the states with constitutional protections and sixth schedule statuses are kept outside the purview of the Act, the majority of the protests are happening in Assam. Other states like Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, and Manipur is now joining in the protests.
Now certain trends are being noticed in the media –
- By dividing the strikes into narratives, a section of the media is also seeking to hijack the Northeastern narrative or just bulldoze the whole thing. Many seem to be eager to highlight the Assamese people as xenophobic for not wanting ‘persecuted refugees’, and that the movement is inward-looking. They think that the protests in other parts are by default better due to the values it stands for like ‘secularism’ and ‘constitutional ethos’.
- Such blanket narratives not only harms the movement but also ignore the historical and lived realities of the people of Assam. Assam and states of northeast after the formation of Bangladesh in 1971, steadily kept receiving influx of immigrants/refugees from across the border. Now they have reached a point where they cannot share the burden anymore. People in Assam have lived with their experiences and have seen with their own eyes, the attack immigration brings on their language, land and culture. Thus, the movement is also about protection of their ethnic identity.
- Various media personnel including those from the northeast use the reason of Assam voting for BJP and supporting the NRC as justifications to their narrative of portraying the Assamese people as xenophobic. The Assamese people when they voted for BJP did it with a hope for systematic eradication of the whole illegal immigration business. They were tired of political parties milking the issue for political mileage in every election. They hoped NRC fix that once and for all by maintaining a registrar of citizens and migrants who have come to Assam before 1971. This was a commitment done under the Assam Accord. Instead what Assam got was a badly carried out exercise which left out millions from the list. But the govt betrayed the Assamese people because they themselves rejected the NRC when they found that more Hindus are missing in the list. Now they have brought in the CAB to protect those left out Hindus. It’s pretty evident even though they keep trying to hide direct connections to it. While both the exercises are connected, those bulldozing the ‘secularism’ narrative have not tried to find out the reasons for Assamese people’s support to NRC and opposition to CAB.
- And it also clearly highlights the lack of understanding of the media. It is beyond their imagination that people of Assam and NE are more proud of their ethnic identity than religious identities. The movement is a clear depiction of that.