NRC final draft: Why citizenship debate deflects attention from important issues facing Northeast

Citizenship promises equality without reference to land, labour and indigenous rights. It favours regimes that live by extracting surplus.

 |  7-minute read |   13-08-2018
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Soon after most hesitantly accepting the reality of Bengali domination in Assam, Trinamool Congress's erudite MP, Sugata Bose, speaking in a public debate on TV, rushed to quickly qualify the statement. This domination by the educated Bengali elite (the bhadralok) is counterbalanced or perhaps offset, Bose insisted, by the contribution of at least one million poor Bengali peasants, migrating mostly from Mymensingh in Bangladesh pre-1971, to the economy and agriculture of Assam.

But listen to the counter-viewpoint from the defenders of Assamese indigeneity (khilonjia). For them, the 'settler colonialism' of the Bengali elite cannot be bailed out by reference to the productive contribution of poor Bengali peasants — for the simple reason that the peasant is under the hegemony of the Bengali bhadrolok.

assam-690_081218031453.jpgThe Bengali elite hegemonises over the Bengali peasant and the poor Bangladeshi migrant labourer. (Source: Reuters)

The Bengali peasant might be poor and precariously living in the char river islands of the Brahmaputra, but they refuse to side with indigenous people. A recent statement from tribal activists points out that "The commons of indigenous tribal communities of Assam were converted into an open sanctuary for 'industrious' peasants from east Bengal."

Isn't Tripura a glaring example of that?

In a 2016 interview, Manipuri activist, Babloo Loitongbam, pointed to Tripura as an example of how vulnerable indigenous communities can die a slow death. The Act East policy and the upcoming highway to South-east Asia which would rip open hitherto protected communities in the Northeast is only expected to make things worse.

The Bengali elite  hegemonises over the Bengali peasant and the poor Bangladeshi migrant labourer, who now becomes the vote bank of Bengal-based political parties. It turns out that Bose is trying to legitimise Bengali chauvinism by invoking the productive capacities of the peasant and the migrant worker.

What about mainland India, what about New Delhi? As we know, for the Northeast, 'India' or the 'mainland' is a supra-domineering neo-colonial force, closely tied to big capital, controlling the economy or, as in Assam, the revenue from tea and oil. Through the draconian AFSPA, 'India' legally and openly — I mean, through Parliament — suspends the rule of law! India has absolute control over the life and death of Northeasterners.

India contemptuously treats the Bengali-Assamese divide as a local phenomenon, and as of no consequence to the flow of money, profits and arms. Or, this divide is simply replaced by the Hindu-Muslim divide, iterated as the secularist-communalist (BJP/Congress) divide, a mainland import.

Now if the targeted chauvinistic killings of Bihari labourers in the Northeast is any indication, then here too it is not difficult to see how India opportunistically bails out its neo-colonial hegemony by invoking the contribution of Bihari labourers.

Pitting migrant labour against indigeneity then allows the dominant chauvinism to thrive. Chauvinism operates through a democratic, labour-oriented veneer.

The missing category here is of course the Assamese elite and its minority chauvinism, recently emboldened by its closeness to the Narendra Modi government. This is, if you like, the elephant in the room. This elite works by declaring the Bengali and Bihari worker as 'outsider'. If the Bengali and the Indian elites want to hegemonise the respective segments of the migrant labour population, the Assamese elite operates by labelling them all 'outsiders', as carriers of anti-Assamese hegemonic identities.

Migrant labour is again pitted against indigeneity, this time by minority chauvinism.

That is, the oppressed character of Assamese nationalism does not make it want to stand alongside labour which is not just oppressed but is, given its 'outsider' migrant character, super-exploited and socially castigated. The Assamese elite or the Meitei elite in Manipur does not want to build ties with Bangladeshi or Bengali labour by cutting through the hegemonic hold of the Bengali elite. It would rather allow this hegemonic hold to fester so that it can do outsider/insider politics and legitimise its own chauvinism.

Keeping indigeneity and labour separate and at loggerheads suits vested interests.

The fact of the matter is that while Indian, Bengali, Assamese, Manipuri (both tribal and non-tribal) elites might themselves be in an unequal or even neo-colonial relationship with each other, they all share a common parasitic stance towards the labour which sustains productive activity in society.

Labour might so often overlap with indigeneity but the claim around indigeneity made in politics might itself be in a parasitic relationship with the labouring poor.

This is not to deny that the Bangladeshi or Bihari/Indian labour is often racist towards indigenous people, thereby making an alliance between indigeneity and labour that much more difficult.

My submission here is that the ongoing discourse on citizenship in the Northeast is not the best for fighting the dominant and minority chauvinisms. While how things are finally going to play out with the National Register for Citizens (NRC) cannot be predicted, this discourse can only make things worse for solidarity between indigeneity and labour.

There is an intrinsic problem in the liberal idea of citizenship.

The notion of the citizen promises equality, equality to labour as much as to the elite. It makes labour as much as the elite all part of a generic 'equal members of society'. Sounds very egalitarian. But, as we know from the teachings of a certain old man Karl Marx, 'citizen' glosses over the differentiation within society: the dependence of the elite, and of society as a whole, on labour does not show up. Hence, a discourse is easily constructed around the imminent dispensability of the labouring masses, labour as outsider, as though 'society' supposedly can go on normally without these 'outsiders'.

I had pointed out earlier that the July 2016 uprising of Dalits in Gujarat after the Una atrocity gained its power precisely since the labour of the Dalits was not sectoral but concerned the reproduction of society as a whole. The immediate strike by Dalit workers, where they refused their 'caste occupation' to lift dead carcasses, brought society as a whole to a halt. Such is the power of labour. The citizenship discourse pulls a curtain over it.

una_081218031644.jpgThe Dalits in Gujarat rose in anger after the Una flogging

The citizenship discourse allows the Assamese elite to talk and vigorously gesticulate as though it is not dependent on migrant labour which can supposedly be thrown out any time. That so much of this is pure rhetoric, meant to keep the sectarian pot boiling, does not get exposed within the terms of this discourse.

Without reference to indigeneity or productive labour, anyone can become a citizen and end up gaining disproportionate access to land, resources and property. No wonder then that a law, like the Modi government's proposed Citizenship Amendment Bill 2016 can through a right-wing Hindutva fiat selectively allow a certain section (Hindus) to gain citizenship without respecting the rights of the indigenous communities and of the productive labouring masses. This abstract entitlement to citizenship where anyone favoured by the state can become a citizen, creates a corrosive competition between different communities, a rush to the chauvinistic bottom.

Far from any solidarity between indigenous communities and labour, it creates conditions for chauvinistic elites to emerge and hegemonise the labouring poor by segmenting them along communal lines.

Mainland radicals, human rights NGOs and the global liberal elite too are busy offering citizenship as a way out of the detention centres and possible deportation. In imagining an Assamese chauvinist elite who can just dump the underclass into 'detention centres', they legitimise the current discourse. In emphasising on 'statelessness' or 'bare life', they work with an abstract notion of the rights-seeking migrant labour who now stands opposed to both indigeneity and productive labour. They end up undermining the power wielded by the migrant labour over society which is dependent on their labour: through this route they actually ensure that labour does become 'bare life', a self-fulfilling prophecy. This finally delivers migrant labour to the cold embrace of 'humanitarian intervention' by human rights global honchos. That is why declarations of a humanitarian crisis in Assam sound very suspect.

Citizenship is a red herring. It promises equality without reference to land, labour and indigenous rights. It favours regimes that live by extracting surplus. The Northeast is increasingly colonised by those who extract, accumulate and control surplus, backed by the colonial Indian state. This must be kept in mind today.

NRC's 40 lakh 'non-citizens' might be undocumented and without papers, but they, or at least, a big section within it might be the ones who sustain society, those who produce surplus and not siphon it off - in the end, such should be the criteria for citizenship, and not anything else. Such an approach can bring together the 'claims' of indigeneity and labour in one place and turn things for the better in the Northeast.

The 'thick' claims of indigeneity and labour must trump over the 'thin' ones of citizenship in the Northeast.

Also read: Madhya Pradesh Assembly polls: How Shivraj Singh Chouhan brought BJP back in the race


Saroj Giri Saroj Giri

Saroj Giri is a social commentator.

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