Game of Citizenship

Samhita Barooah

These days I am hearing every buzz is about the Citizenship Amendment Bill 2016. Whether one is for the bill or against it? How does it impact people’s lives so on and so forth? Will it marginalise the hegemonic few or will it be a reliever of misery for many across the borders? Speculations are drawn in scores, bets are laid across opinions, cartoons are carved out of this bill and communities are divided around this bill. Some are ready to trade their identities, some believe in the validity of the new found authority around the bill, while many are acting as fence-sitters whose real faces will be unveiled during the deciding moments.

Citizenship provides a person with certain rights and entitlements. These include the right to reside, work, vote and pay taxes which define the basic structure of a democratic nation and decision making. These days money and religion play a major role in getting votes, rest of the factors follow with the others. But such privileges remain within the patriarchal domain where some votes are engineered through family honour, traditions, ignorance and gender norms. A woman’s citizenship is in fact the most interesting context which remains fluid, futuristic and fascinating. Does citizenship ensure equity is another question?

Now why is the CA Bill problematic within the context of Assam specifically, North East India particularly and India generally? This bill provides measures to ensure citizenship rights to people from 6 religious denominations and 3 countries in India’s neighbourhood. If it was opening up the citizenship norms then it should have been for all communities of the world like any other country. The speculations are at the South Asian level, where one is anticipating genocide-like-situation in some of the neighbouring countries, where from one side we are maintaining political and peaceful ties but at the same time luring some of the citizens on grounds of religion. Collective ecological rights of people, communities and ecosystems are equally crucial in every aspect of the context of citizenship. There is also a need to know about what common people from the different countries mentioned in the Bill want. Government of India is making way for their flagship programmes like ‘Make in India’ through these legislations but how does it impact local communities attached to their ecosystems for centuries. It is interesting to see how politics can transform policies and people’s citizenships as well for personal and political gains much more than any other thing.

Indian constitution promotes secularism, diversity and multicultural freedom but the laws and implementation procedures have turned into polarised domains of the powerful few. There is a fear of people, policies, practices and prison which limits human understanding on some of the most critical issues. While we are debating about citizenship amendment bill, domestic wage earners, construction workers, agricultural workers are worried about their contested identities on the grounds of religion, language and socialisation. A woman’s identity, safety, security and community agency remains elusive in this situation of statelessness. Most women compromise with their bodies to be marked in a particular identity without their will or wishes. Women are vote banks for some, sex slaves for many and reproductive bonded labourers for most of the patriarchal individuals and communities but hardly considered a complete citizens.

‘Clause 6 of the Assam Accord envisaged that appropriate constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards, shall be provided to protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people.’ Somebody recently asked in a public forum whether Assam should safeguard their religious identity or linguistic identity? The fall out events around the CA Bill is such that one finds themselves at crossroads to choose any one identity. Political, social and cultural workers in Assam are constantly referring to Jati which translates as caste in the Indian context but understood as a linguistic community in Assam. Women particularly find themselves as corollary terms in this linguistic identity through her dress, performing arts, culinary and weaving skills and at times as human shields of sacrifice and support for agitating youths. The next term is Mati which translates as land or territory which remains a fragile concept with fragmentations of hills, valley, rural, urban, migrant and indigenous context. Women in Assam hardly find themselves within the paradigm of Mati as individuals but mostly as members of their family or community collectives. In recent years, women’s land ownership and territorial identities have become relevant to changing political and cultural constructs. Bheti is the third category where women in Assam find themselves rooted as a tree to uphold their indigenous roots, traditional customs and domestic custodianship which may not translate into her ownership and decision making. So one tends to understand how are women located within or outside the purview of the CA Bill? In some NE states women are facing dire consequences for making personal choices of intimate life partners which affects their customary and citizenship issues, but in Assam such issues are yet to be known. There seems to be a comfortable lull of deliberate ignorance for some women and for others, partial amnesia remains an easy way out of the citizenship cauldron. It sometimes feels like a woman watching a cock fight which rises and ends with election fever every year and women either changes sides or resolves the fight with their votes, skills and attitudes. But power sharing in these struggles doesn’t reach women as they are running homes, lighting up kitchen fires, weaving gamusas and badges, saving resources, growing food and processing them for families, festivities and even for the fights which seems escalating with every passing day. Citizenship Ammendment Bill may create multiple vulnerabilities for women to some extent when it comes to displacements, resettlement and rehabilitation processes. The tussle between being a law abiding Indian and free thinking Assamese is overwhelming for the people of Assam. But all said and done, I would definitely oppose divisive forces, power games of the vote bank politics and terror tactics of any armed actor in this ‘game of thrones’ for citizenship.

Samhita Barooah

Samhita Barooah

Samhita Barooah is a Researcher and Travel Writer.