THE social life of Assam is in for a boil over Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016, a proposition to grant citizenship based on religion, in Assam. Public anxiety became visible when the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) visited the state.
Assam has always been a sensitive place when it came to questions of ethnicity and nationality. However, the intensity with which people reacted to the bill was never seen in the recent history of Assam.
People and organisations representing all communities in Assam have anxiously participated in the public hearing at Guwahati and Silchar. The reactions over the bill are still hitting the shores with same vibrancy, even after the JPC left Assam. Many organisations have started agitations and mass campaign programmes. Artists, writers and literary figures have not only advocated their stand on the bill but also are coming onto the streets in opposition of the bill. A never before seen situation where 21 editors of regional electronic and print media groups have openly opposed the bill, a remarkable reaction, has occurred. All these reactions have touched the masses and the bill has become the centre of public debate across the state.
The CPI(M) and all Left democratic organisations squarely opposed the bill primarily because it goes against the basic tenets of Indian constitution. There is no provision for citizenship on the basis of religious identity in Indian constitution. It is to be remembered that the debate over granting citizenship on the basis of religion is not new to the country. It was discussed in the constituent assembly, but was thoroughly rejected. Now through this bill, the BJP is again trying to tinker with the secular character of the constitution. In a sovereign state, no one has the right to ride over the constitution.
THE ASSAM ACCORD
The second reason of opposing the bill is specific to Assam. The Assam accord fixes March 24, 1971 as the cutoff date for identification and expulsion of foreigners in Assam. The accord makes it mandatory that the government of India identify and expel any illegal immigrant who has entered Assam on or after March 25, 1971.
We should not forget the history behind fixing of this date. The leadership of Assam agitation, in 1979, under the joint leadership of All Assam Students Union and Asom Gana Sangram Parishad, demanded the National Register of Citizenship (NRC) to be the basis for identification and expulsion of foreigners in Assam . CPI(M) and other Left forces instead demanded March 24, 1971 to be the cutoff date because Bangladesh was carved out of Pakistan only in 1971. It cannot be expected that it would take the responsibility of those immigrants who have migrated before its formation and insistence on this demand would result in agony, conflict and violence. So CPI(M) and Left forces, from the very beginning, demanded March 24, 1971 to be the cutoff and 1951 was neither practical nor desirable.
For taking such position, CPI(M) and other Left mass organisations faced severe attacks. The emerging student organisation of that time, SFI, had to pay a heavy price in this period. No doubt, Assam agitation had historical mass support, millions of people participated in it for six long years and faced repression from police and armed forces. But it is also true that the divisive and undemocratic elements penetrated the movement, and were quite active in that period. How RSS made inroads into the movement and did divisive politics, is now published in the form of a book. A section of agitators got communally charged and resorted to the heinous Nellie massacre. No one can deny the cruelty of a section of agitators against the Bengali-speaking people of different parts of the state. A section of agitators became undemocratic and violent and at least 49 CPI(M) activists got killed and many others had underwent severe brutalities.
The massive “Assam Movement” ended on August 15, 1985 with tripartite agreement, now known as the Assam Accord, between the central government, Assam government and leadership of the movement. Interestingly, the Accord came to a similar conclusion as has been advocated by the CPI(M) from the beginning. The cutoff year for identification of foreigners was fixed at 1971.
On principle, even the Left, which had faced brutal atrocities, accepted the crux of the Assam Accord as it was crafted centering 1971 as the cutoff year, which was their official position since the inception of the movement. It has been 33 years now, since Assam Accord has been signed, but without any remarkable results. No practical way out was found to deport the few foreigners identified from Bangladesh.
The central government has not held any bilateral discussions with Bangladesh for deportation while in Article 5.8 in Assam Accord, the government promised to take all necessary measures to expel foreigners. Those foreigners who came to Assam on or after March 25, 1971 have been identified and are being held in detention camps in inhuman conditions.
Already, there is chaos and bias in identification of the foreigners. Erecting barbed wire fencing the India-Bangladesh border is not yet completed. But none of this was actually a Himalayan task. All this led people of Assam to feel let down by the government of India.
Assamese and tribal communities are being constantly haunted by the fear that at any time, they would become minority in their own land if some urgent steps are not taken by the government. On the other hand, minorities are being harassed and ill-treated in various parts of the state only on the basis of mere suspicion.
UPDATING OF NRC
That being the situation, people of Assam from all sections and communities started searching for a practical and logical solution to the problem of identification of foreigners.
Gradually, one common opinion got crystallised that updating the 1951 NRC taking March 24, 1971 as the cutoff date can be a logical solution. This proposal got acceptance of all communities. Assamese-speaking and tribal population have the impression that such an arrangement will halt illegal emigration and will help identify foreigners.
Again, Muslims and Hindus of Bengal origin thought having such a document at hand will release them from all social disdain, because they are already exhausted by the arbitrary marking of “D” (Doubtful) voter.
Despite strong public opinion, the NRC updating process was not smooth due to lack of sincerity and initiative of the state government. Finally, the matter went to the Supreme Court and after its intervention in 2015, the gigantic and knotty work of updating of NRC started.
But, suddenly, the issue of “original inhabitant” was brought up by the government, just to make the process unnecessarily complicated. The state government and the ruling party had also tried all possible means to disturb and slow down the NRC updation process. However, people of Assam fully cooperated with the tedious process of NRC with utmost patience.
The Supreme Court even condemned the chief minister of Assam for dilly-dallying the NRC process. The Assam state government and registrar general of India tried many times to postpone the schedule of publication of the NRC list.
Recently, the registrar general of India was warned by the Supreme Court over undue intervention. But, finally with the intervention of the SC, once again, on January 1, 2018, the first draft list of the NRC was made public, though with lots of errors. Now, everybody in Assam is eagerly waiting for an error-free final draft list of the NRC to be declared on June 30.
POLITICS OF THE AMENDMENT BILL
The BJP government doesn’t want to solve the foreigners’ issue and hence doesn’t let the NRC to be updated. Just after the NRC updating process started in 2015, BJP in the centre brought up the Citizenship Amendment Bill in 2016, despite severe opposition from the people of Assam. Due to the objection of the opposition parties in parliament, finally, a joint parliamentary committee was set up. Since the inception of the JPC, people of Assam demanded that the JPC should come to Assam instead of taking the decisions in Delhi alone. However, the JPC, with a majority of members from the BJP, had refused to come to Assam and started functioning from Delhi itself. Only after the mass unrest on the issue in Assam, did the JPC finally go to Assam with a three-day public hearing programme between May 7 and 9, two days at Silchar and one day at Guwahati. This visit of JPC brought the issue of the bill to the forefront of the politics in Assam.
At Guwahati, most of the organisations from Brahmaputra valley opposed the bill, in contrast with Silchar, where most of the organisations from Barak valley supported the bill.
However, the issue now is not limited to public hearing on the bill. Since the day of public hearing, the people of Brahmaputra Valley started coming onto the streets opposing the amendment. Hundreds of organisations have given memoranda against the bill.
The matter is no more an issue of political organisations alone. All social stakeholders, literary forums, local clubs, women organisations and literary figures have joined the street agitations against the bill.
The demographic changes in Assam in the last few decades also have whipped up the sense of insecurity. Though emigration is not the only cause of such demographic change, it needs to be objectively scrutinised.
If the Bill gets approved in its present form, all non-Muslim emigrants till December 3, 2014 will get citizenship. But, in future too, with only changing the “Foreigner’s Order” by administrative steps, the cut-off date can be extended to any future date.
However, it is also to be noted that some section wants to give such an impression that if the bill gets passed, the entire Hindu population of Bangladesh will come to Assam. That is also an exaggeration. The entire Hindu population of Bangladesh can’t come to Assam. Such exaggeration will only make people emotionally charged and will encourage chauvinist tendencies.
In Barak valley, many people are supporting this bill. We should not forget that the tragic past of partition is still alive in the memory of many Bengali-speaking people. Many families came from ‘Sylhe’ district of East Pakistan to settle in Barak valley of Assam. Before the formation of Bangladesh – in East Pakistan – atrocities or threat of atrocities on a part of the Hindu population was there.
So, some sort of empathy for the Hindu population for present day Bangladesh is not very strange, particularly, when they are of the same language and religion. Even after accepting that empathy, it can be said clearly that no more emigrants can be accepted in Assam. The consensus over the cut off as March 24, 1971 in both the valleys, Brahmaputra and Barak and among all communities can’t be put into jeopardy at any excuse.
After being in power for four years, Modi government has failed miserably to deliver anything for people. So, the politics of communal division is the only card left with them. They are playing that card in different styles in different regions. This bill is one of them, particularly targeting Assam, West Bengal and Tripura.
The BJP does not care that the peace, harmony and communal integrity in a state or region can be at peril for its narrow political interests. People of Assam or India have to stand above chauvinism and all kind of sectarianism to defeat that political ploy of BJP. If today people of Assam or these three states fail to do so, there is high probability that communal tension or conflict will hamstring the harmonious life of different communities. That will be the biggest success for the communal politics of BJP. Therefore it is high time that people from all communities should oppose the Citizenship Amendment Bill unitedly without giving any space to any kind of divisive tendency.