Nandita Haksar: ‘We do not seem to realize that the cultural diversity of 220 communities in the Northeast is a resource for development’
A jumble of assertions has engulfed India over the passing of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and plans for a National Register of Citizens (NRC). Similarly, the normally harmless exercise of updating the National Population Register (NPR) has now become controversial.
A majoritarian government with a brute majority in Parliament seems to have plunged the country into social turmoil of a kind not witnessed in the past six decades. Students are up in arms on the most docile of campuses and middle-class folk have been holding protests in the streets.
Civil Society spoke to Nandita Haksar on what to make of these developments. A civil rights lawyer, activist and a close observer of life and politics in the Northeast, Haksar’s is a clear and knowledgeable voice. Excerpts from a lengthy conversation at her home in Dona Paula in Goa where Haksar now lives with her husband, Sebastian M. Hongray, an author, human rights activist and a Naga.
As a human rights activist who has worked extensively in the Northeast on people’s rights, how do you see CAA-NRC-NPR?
As a human rights lawyer I have one major concern which goes beyond the current debates on the NRC in the Northeast or for the country as a whole.
The census has always been about collecting information for the purpose of governance and control over population. The old census was a part of data collection; the new kind of census using new technologies (mainly based on artificial intelligence) leads to the creation of metadata. Edward Snowden has shown us how metadata is being used for worldwide surveillance. And he has also demonstrated how dangerous it is for citizens because there is no legal framework in place for the protection of individuals (or nations) who are victims of breach in data security.
Coming to the Northeast, we have seen how the collection of data for the NRC led to disenfranchisement of thousands of men, women and children and illegal detentions, families torn apart and people living with fear, insecurity and uncertainty.
There is no legal framework for redress of the grievances of the magnitude that we have seen with the NRC in Assam. There is no remedy for the 1.9 million people left out of the NRC in Assam except to approach lawyers individually and, till their turn comes, endure endless pain, insecurity and humiliation.
Courts are equipped to deal with individual violations of fundamental rights, not with violations on this massive scale.
As far as the Northeast is concerned, I have three or four things to say.
I first went to the Northeast in 1982. I remember the first petition filed by someone in Manipur against Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). Half that petition was on the issue of Nepali migrants. It is true that India has a special agreement with regard to Nepali migrants but, from the perspective of Northeast tribal communities whether it is Nepali Hindu, Bangladeshi Hindu or Muslim or Chakma Buddhists, all these migrants threaten the fragile ecology and diversity of cultures in the Northeast.
In India many people in civil society have refused to acknowledge the problem as the tribal peoples of the Northeast see it. The problem is simply this: many communities feel endangered by relentless migration from across the international border.
In 2011 my husband and I decided to drive across the Northeast for four months. We touched on all the borders. When we went to the Bangladesh border we could see people streaming in. While I feel deep empathy for migrants who are forced to leave their homes because of religious persecution, climate change, or economic deprivation, we also need to balance their interests with the interests of citizens. I see it as a conflict between human rights and humanitarian concerns.
However, the non-tribal communities living in the Northeast have other concerns. The Muslims living in the Northeast have faced discrimination and prejudice. They have also been targets of violence, the most well-known example is the Nellie massacre. But in Nagaland we saw how brutal and savage an attack on Muslims can be when Nagas lynched an alleged Bangladeshi and murdered him on suspicion of rape but did not so much as protest against a pastor from Kerala who had been involved in the rape and sexual assault of children under his care in Jaipur.
And that is what the anger is about among the people of the Northeast?
Yes. There is anger as well as insecurity. The tribal peoples of the Northeast, like the people in the rest of the country, have been very generous in welcoming refugees and migrants. For instance, in 1971, the erstwhile queen of Tripura opened her palace gates and welcomed Bangladeshi refugees, both Hindus and Muslims. As a result of that, the Tripuri became a minority. Tripura is an ancient kingdom with a long history.
Today, the queen’s son, Pradyot Bikram Manikya Debbarma, with great dignity, has asked the Supreme Court to implement an Assam-like NRC to stop illegal infiltration into the state. He wants to say that he belongs to a kingdom which did welcome refugees but nobody wants to become a minority in their own home – culturally and politically. So I would like to stress that the arrival of migrants into the Northeast is a genuine problem. The people of the Northeast are voicing a genuine concern.
Against this background, the idea of extending the NRC to the rest of India or even the CAA and the NPR is disconcerting. The experience of the NRC, the building of detention centres and so many people incarcerated in the Northeast expose the fact that all these laws are not being made in the interest of the people, Northeast or otherwise, but for some other agenda.
The prime minister has said the people of the Northeast would be protected by Inner Line Permits and so on, but again the Inner Line Permit so far does not apply to states with a border with Bangladesh, that is, Tripura and Meghalaya.
So the Northeast leaders are asking either for National Registers as a way to document the illegal migrants or asking for Inner Line restrictions as a means to protect themselves from migrants and outsiders (which includes Indian citizens). But when they demand an NRC they seem to be in conflict with those who are protesting against an NRC on the ground that it is a tool for discrimination against Muslims. We have often seen bitter conflicts between tribal communities such as the Bodos and Muslims. And in the Northeast each community is backed by armed insurgents so the conflict becomes deadly.
For instance, in Manipur there are more than 20 armed groups representing Nagas, Kukis (mostly Christian), Meitei (representing Vaishnav and Sanamahi) and Meitei Muslim or Pangals (Muslims of Manipur).
What do you do then?
As members of civil society we can only try and understand the problem, disseminate information and when necessary protest on the streets as so many people, mainly students, have done. Besides students, Muslim organizations such as the Popular Front of India have also mobilized Muslims to join the protests.
We need conversations on the nature of citizenship in an era of globalization. We also need a law for the protection of refugees taking asylum in our country, which is transparent and non-discriminatory. There is also need for a policy for the protection of migrants, both within the country and from outside.
None of these policies will work unless the government at the centre is committed to democratic values and promotion of human rights.
Do you think this phase is damaging our prospects of building a modern state?
I think part of the problem is global. We adopted the capitalist model of development, which creates wide gaps between the rich and poor, rural and urban. It leads to concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. Some of the injustice and inequity of a capitalist model was mitigated by the idea of a welfare state. But there has been a roll-back of the welfare state and now development does not serve the interests of the people. The vulnerable sections of society like the communities of the Northeast suffer the most.
In this model it is still possible to see the Northeast’s enormous cultural and ecological diversity as an economic resource but that has not happened. In these circumstances, identity movements are the response to the threat of extinguishment.
But even before the present crisis I don’t think the Northeast was very much part of the Indian vision. Part of my work was to try and include the people and communities living in the Northeast in our vision of India.
And to some extent we have succeeded, haven’t we? After all, so many people from the Northeast now work all over India.
I do not think it is a mark of success if young people, with little or no education, are forced to leave their homes in search of a job. Villages in the Northeast do not have young people and old people have no one to take care of them, to fetch water, chop wood or give comfort.
I documented the lives of some of these migrant workers in my book called The Exodus is Not Over: Migrations from the Ruptured Homelands of Northeast India (2016). One of the people I wrote about was a young woman, Atim, who worked as a waitress and after she read her own story she said: ‘I did not realize our lives are so sad.’
But if there is any success it is that a generation of young people from all over the Northeast has got a good education and they have become teachers in our universities. They have voiced the concern of the Northeast people and they have become visible in the intellectual landscape of our country.
But these are also people who are the force behind the growth of regionalism which can be destructive of a pan-Indian nationalism.
But if every state in the Northeast is going to ask for an NRC, aren’t we going to witness turmoil? The NRC in Assam was a failure. It was a botched exercise.
Not all people in the Northeast are asking for an NRC; the Muslims are demanding that it be scrapped. This has led to a potentially explosive situation.
We see today in the Northeast that the tribal communities and Hindus of the Northeast want the NRC while Muslims see it as a tool to disenfranchise them and are protesting against it.
The all-India protests against the plan to have an NRC have focused on one dimension: the discriminatory nature of implementation, the special protection for non-Muslim refugees and some people have said it is part of a plan to make India a homeland for Hindus much as Israel was conceptualized by Zionists as a homeland for the Jewish people.
For those of us who visualize India as a homeland for all religions and communities, as a living example of unity in diversity, the idea of India as a homeland for one community is abhorrent.
But even for those committed to the idea of India as unity in diversity we have to find a way of making all communities feel at home; the people of the Northeast do not feel they belong fully. The diversity they represent is seen as an obstacle for development. We do not seem to recognize that the cultural diversity that 220 communities living in the Northeast have, could be a resource for development, not to be preserved but to be allowed to flourish.
We need to understand that this is cultural wealth and intellectual property, which needs to be developed. Then we will not look at the Northeast as a backward economic area but as a culturally rich resource, which is part of (India’s) economic development.
This is something even the people of the Northeast don’t realize. None of the movements, the Assam movement or the movements in Mizoram or Nagaland, has looked at culture as a resource.
So you are saying that we may be missing an opportunity in not recognizing the value of culture in the Northeast and integrating it into development?
Precisely. If the tribal communities of the Northeast had not felt alienated from the rest of the country, they might not today be asking for Inner Line protection, which was, in fact, a method the British colonial rulers used to isolate them.
But, currently, the slogan against ‘outsiders’ is a rallying cry which helps mobilize people without any further thinking of solutions to the problem of development and a vision for the future.
The alienation leads to anger and the anger is directed against migrants, the most vulnerable section of society.
The problem is made more complex by the fact that the Northeast region is the most politically sensitive part of the country with international borders with Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar, and just 22 km of land – the Siliguri Corridor or the Chicken’s Neck – linking it to the rest of the country.
Added to this is that this is an ecologically fragile area where the impact of climate change is having very serious consequences for the people.
How do you assure people their identity and their control over land will be retained without affecting migrants?
I do not think the people in the Northeast have much control over their natural resources, their lands, forests, mineral wealth, rivers. The number of people displaced by development projects has increased. Walter Fernandes has documented the extension of displacement in the Northeast.
One of the first cases I took up was about the negative impact of the cement factory set up by the Northeast Council in Ukhrul district of Manipur. Here the best paddy fields of the Tangkhul Nagas were affected and cultivators became landless and they joined the factory as workers just to have cash so they could afford to buy a pair of shoes.
The gap between the rich and poor is widening. The number of landless tribal people are being transformed into the migrant workers whom we see all over India. These people are the disenfranchised citizens of our country – they have voters’ cards but cannot afford to go to their constituency on election day.
So, the youth find their culture and society being swamped by the outsider and they themselves are forced to live like outsiders in other parts of the country and abroad where they are often targets of prejudice.
I think the present Government of India has not only divided the country and polarized it along communal lines, it has made us less human.