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.