Assam’s anger

The people of Assam and other north-eastern States are up in arms against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, which they believe will undermine the Assam Accord, alter the demography of the region and impact their culture and language.

Published : Dec 18, 2019 07:00 IST

Protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in Guwahati on December 12.

Protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in Guwahati on December 12.

Assam and other north-eastern States of India have raised a red flag against the Narendra Modi government’s midnight tryst with its dream of Hindu Rashtra. The apprehension that the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019—which was passed in the Lok Sabha on December 9—will encourage fresh influx of Bangla-speaking Hindu Bangladeshis to Assam and overwhelm the Assamese and other ethnic language speakers of smaller nationalities apart from granting citizenship to those who have already entered the State illegally and have been staying there for the past 43 years, from 1971 to 2014, has reached a crescendo in Assam. The passage of the Bill in the Rajya Sabha on December 12 dashed all hopes of the region’s people that Parliament would come to their rescue and defeat the amendments to the citizenship laws pushed by the Modi government.

The apprehension has been building up ever since the Modi government pushed the citizenship Bill in Parliament in 2016 even as the Supreme Court-mandated exercise of updating the National Register of Citizens (NRC), 1951, with a cut-off date of March 24, 1971, was on in full swing in Assam. The process of updating the NRC kept alive the hope of implementing the Assam Accord of 1985 and identifying all “illegal migrants” from Bangladesh, both Hindus and Muslims, after this cut-off date. The new Act, however, shatters this hope as it will institutionalise the ideological position of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) that Muslim migrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan are “infiltrators” and Hindu and other non-Muslim minorities from these countries are “refugees” in India. The Assam Accord, which makes no distinction of “illegal migrants” on religious lines or as “refugees” and “infiltrators”, and the NRC, which was updated in the State on the basis of that accord, stood as major impediments to the Modi government in realising the Sangh’s dream of making secular India a Hindu Rashtra.

The eastern-most part of the country shares 98 per cent of its boundary with India’s neighbours and 2 per cent with the rest of India. The entire region is currently a stronghold of the ruling BJP and its allies in the North-East Democratic Alliance (a political coalition of the BJP and regional political parties).

Unprecedented and spontaneous protests against the new citizenship laws saw thousands of people in Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura defying curfew and other prohibitory orders and taking out protest rallies even after the Army, which was called in to assist the Assam Police, carried out a flag march, and the police and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) resorted to lathi charge and fired bullets and tear gas shells. The scale and intensity of the protests were such that the situation went out of hand and caught the civil administration in New Delhi and Dispur off guard.

This was a clear and loud message that the north-eastern part of India did not approve the game plan of the Modi government and the BJP-RSS combine to tamper with the Preamble of the Constitution and grant citizenship on the basis of religion.

ILP and Sixth Schedule areas

The exclusion of areas where Inner Line Permit (ILP) is applicable (Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Mizoram and recently Manipur) and areas under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution (dealing with the administration of the tribal areas in Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram) from the purview of the Act only amplified the apprehensions of the Assamese and people of other ethnic nationalities of the region that there would be more influx of people from Bangladesh and pose an existential threat to their language, culture and identity. This explains the unprecedented protest in Assam and the massive resistance in the region demanding the withdrawal of the Bill. The north-eastern States of Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland are protected under ILP system and require visitors to obtain permits to enter them. Union Home Minister Amit Shah said that ILP protection would be introduced in Manipur too before implementing the Act.

Expansion of ILP areas, however, presents a paradox: of India softening its international borders with its ASEAN neighbours, and Bangladesh and Bhutan, to facilitate trade, commerce and peoples’ movement under the Act East and Neighbourhood First policies but hardening the boundaries within the north-eastern region and imposing restriction on the movement of people and goods within the region.

‘Desperate bid’

All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) adviser Samujjal Kumar Bhattacharjya described the exclusion of ILP and Sixth Schedule areas as a desperate bid by the government to weaken the united movement of the people of the north-eastern region against the Act. “If the Act is bad for ILP and Sixth Schedule areas, how can it be good for Assam? If it is bad for seven districts of Assam, how can it be good for the remaining 26 districts of the State? The Act is bad for the entire country. It is also bad for the north-east region. It is unconstitutional, divisive and communal as it seeks to grant citizenship on the basis of religion in violation of the Indian Constitution and we will never accept it,” the student leader asserted.

He also pointed out that the people of the region could see through the conspiracy to divide them and said that the North East Students’ Organisation (NESO), an umbrella body of students’ organisations of the region, had decided to continue the opposition to the Act. According to him, the people of the region fear that a change in demography in Assam will affect the entire region and that ILP and Sixth Schedule areas will not be immune to influx for long.

‘Extreme betrayal’

The people of Assam had pinned their hopes on “Jatiyo Nayak” (national hero) Sarbananda Sonowal, the Chief Minister, who often reiterated his promise to protect jati (nationality), mati (land) and bheti (foundation). The ruling BJP, in fact, has been using this catchline tactfully to manufacture the consent of the Assamese and indigenous electorate for its political line of segregating “illegal migrants” on religious lines. They seemed to have realised the real intentions behind the smokescreen and see Sonowal’s support for the Act as only an endorsement of the BJP and RSS doctrine of considering the Assamese and other ethnic nationalities as Hindu sub-nationalities instead of distinct linguistic ethnic nationalities with multicultural and multireligious identities.

The AASU dubbed Sonowal’s support for the controversial Bill as extreme betrayal and “Jatiyo Lajja” (national shame). It was the AASU that conferred the title “Jatiyo Nayak” on Sonowal after the Supreme Court scrapped the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act (IMDT), 1983, on a petition filed by him in 2000 in his capacity as president of the student body. The Act was seen as an impediment to the implementation of the Assam Accord as the onus of proving that someone was an “illegal migrant” was on the state.

Significantly, the scrapping of the IMDT Act by the Supreme Court keeps alive the hope that the apex court will scrap the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, too. The AASU and the Congress have already moved the Supreme Court challenging the Act.

The decision by a few non-BJP-ruled States not to implement the new Act in their States is expected to embolden the agitation in Assam and other north-eastern States. The chances of the resistance spilling over to the rest of India, too, cannot be ruled out.

Clause 6 of Assam Accord

The assurance by the Central and the State governments that the Assamese have nothing to fear thanks to the constitutional and legislative safeguards under Clause 6 of the Assam Accord, which seeks to protect, preserve and promote their cultural, social, linguistic identity, and heritage, has failed to cut much ice with the public. The AASU and other organisations have rejected it on the grounds that the safeguards under Clause 6 were committed with Assam agreeing to take the burden of “illegal Bangladeshi migrants, both Hindus and Muslims” for 20 years from 1951 to 1971.

“But the Modi government now wants to impose more burden of illegal Bangladeshi Hindu migrants of 43 years from 1971 to 2014 on us through the Citizenship (Amendment) Act which we will never accept. All illegal migrants, both Hindus and Muslims, who came after March 24, 1971, must be identified and expelled in accordance with the Assam Accord,” said AASU general secretary Lurin Jyoti Gogoi. He said by their attempts to make the cut-off date in the Assam Accord infructuous and destroy the secular fundamentals of the Constitution with a “communal Bill”, the Modi government and the BJP-RSS combine were playing with fire. “The Modi government ignoring our legitimate demand for the withdrawal of the Act has only established the fact that New Delhi considers us second-class citizens and our State and the region as a mere colony for exploitation of natural resources,” alleged the AASU leader.

Former Rajya Sabha member Urkhao Gwra Brahma said the Act lacked clarity with regard to the exclusion of Sixth Schedule areas. There are 10 autonomous councils under the Sixth Schedule in the States of Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura. “What will happen to residency claims of illegal immigrants who will be eligible to apply for citizenship under the amended Act in Bodoland Territorial Area District [BTAD] and other Sixth Schedule areas? As BTAD areas are excluded, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, will not be applicable and then will these illegal immigrants produce residential address of areas outside?”

Pramode Boro, president of the All Bodo Students Union (ABSU), described it only as an attempt to divide the resistance movement. “The Sixth Schedule areas do not debar any Indian citizen from taking land on lease, doing business, having voting rights or engaging in government services. So how does the exclusion of Sixth Schedule areas prevent new citizens from outside the protected areas from infiltrating these protected areas and changing the demography?” he asked. The ABSU, which has revived its movement for a separate State of Bodoland, is one of the 30 organisations led by the AASU in the agitation against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act.

Responding to the developments, the noted public intellectual Hiren Gohain told Frontline that it was important to oppose any designs that take away freedom from domination by any particular religion. “When in 1947 India won independence and Indians their freedom, it covered a pretty wide area of concern. Apart from individual rights, Indians won freedom from domination by any particular religion, which, for example, was not the case for Pakistan. Thirdly, nationalities that have emerged throughout the colonial period and whose growth has been stunted by various colonial constraints felt that they have now the scope within India to develop their potentialities to the fullest. We must remember that the federal character of the Indian Constitution owes itself to the recognition of this historic reality. The founding fathers of modern India, like Mahatma Gandhi, not only believed in but also repeatedly proclaimed the idea of unity in diversity.”

Arrests and detentions

In Assam, the police arrested peasant leader Akhil Gogoi of the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti and several of his colleagues. The organisation, along with many other outfits, has been at the forefront of the agitation against the Act. Left and democratic parties and student and youth bodies, which are protesting against the Act, have condemned the crackdown on protesters and demanded the immediate withdrawal of the Army, the restoration of mobile Internet services and the release of Gogoi and others.

The Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chatra Parishad (AJYCP) described Gogoi’s arrest as an attempt to divide and weaken the united protest and demanded his immediate release. The organisation has warned of intensified resistance against any crackdown on the agitators.

The AASU also warned the Sonowal government against the attempt to crack down on the movement but stopped short of demanding Gogoi’s release even though the KMSS leader has been calling for a united movement and has extended his support to a north-east bandh call by the NESO and the AASU.

The snide remarks by State BJP president Ranjit Kumar Dass and Ministers Himanta Biswa Sarma and Siddhartha Bhattacharyya that the opposition to the Bill on the streets was not on the scale they had expected have only added fuel to the fire. As the number of protesters on the streets swelled and picketing in front of the houses of leaders, Ministers, legislators of the BJP and its ally, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), and stone-pelting by a section of the protesters increased, many leaders of the district and local units of both the parties across the State began deserting them to escape people’s wrath.

Revolt in AGP

The AGP faces a strong revolt within. The party’s founder president and former Chief Minister, Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, who is the lone survivor of the signatories of the Assam Accord, dubbed the party leadership, including the three party Ministers in the Sonowal government, as “traitors”. Assembly elections in Assam are due in 2021 and both the AGP and the BJP may find it difficult to regain the support they have lost owing to their support to the controversial Act. The Congress party’s sustained opposition to the Act is likely to help the party regain its support base.

Even as Assam continued to burn, the Bill received the President’s assent on the night of December 12, paving the way for granting Indian citizenship on the basis of religion. However, the Modi government will find itself in a maze of cut-off dates for the determination of eligibility for citizenship. Going by the Act, the cut-off date for eligibility to obtain citizenship in India is December 31, 2014. Any Hindu migrating to India from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan without valid travel documents after this cut-off date will be treated as an “illegal migrant”. This contradicts the ideological position of the ruling BJP, the RSS and the Sangh Parivar that a Hindu can never be treated as an illegal immigrant in India.

The opposition to the Act is snowballing into a larger movement in the region. NESO leaders maintain that Assam must be saved to save the north-eastern region. The narrative that “New Delhi treats Assam and other States of the region as mere colonies for exploitation of natural resources and the indigenous people as second-class citizens” has returned to the centre stage of the political discourse on “illegal migration” in the region. This has the potential to turn the region into a fresh breeding ground for secessionist elements and insurgency if New Delhi loses sight of the peaceful and democratic protests and turns a deaf ear to the demand for withdrawal of the controversial Act.

Assam is poised for a long-drawn-out agitation against the Act, with the AASU and 29 other organisations of ethnic communities calling for a continuous agitation from December 16-18, beginning with a mass satyagraha at the headquarters of all districts, sub-divisions and development blocks in the State on the slogan,“Withdraw CAB or arrest us”.

Second anti-foreigner agitation

The agitation against the Act has triggered another anti-foreigner agitation in the State: the first one lasted for six long years from 1979 and culminated in the signing of the Assam Accord. However, the Assam Movement carries the scar of the Nellie massacre of 1983 in which over 1,800 men, women and children of pre-Partition Muslim migrants, who spoke a Bengali dialect but wrote Assamese as mother tongue in successive censuses, were massacred on a single night. Hindu Bengalis also became victims of the movement’s supporters.

The marked difference this time is that organisations representing migrant Muslims and Hindu Bengalis are strongly opposed to the Act and demand its withdrawal. In a joint statement, several organisations representing Bengali Hindus dubbed the Act as “unconstitutional, divisive and against the interest of the Hindus”.

Leaders of the resistance movement have made it clear that it is not against any “linguistic or religious community” but a united movement of all the communities against the “divisive, communal and unconstitutional legislation with which the BJP-led government wants to grant citizenship to illegal Bangladeshi migrants to create a vote bank”. Several top leaders of the BJP, its student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, and leaders of the party’s district and panchayat units have resigned following attacks on their houses by a section of the movement’s supporters. The ruling BJP has alleged a conspiracy by a third force in the movement and demanded a high-level probe into this.

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