Interview: Hiren Gohain

Hiren Gohain: CAB serves the agenda of Hindu Rashtra

Print edition : January 03, 2020

Hiren Gohain. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

Interview with the noted public intellectual Hiren Gohain.

Dr Hiren Gohain has been in the forefront of the protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAB) in Assam. The octogenarian scholar was charged with sedition for opposing the Bill. Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline:

What are the fundamental flaws in the Bill?

The Bill has an element of fraud in it. It violates the idea of citizenship in our Constitution, which makes no distinction on the basis of religion. Amending the Citizenship Act to accommodate primarily Hindus and not Muslims goes against the grain of Indian citizenship. This Bill has been introduced without regard for the feelings, sentiments and attitudes of the people of Assam, the citizens who are the permanent residents of Assam. It must be noted that there has been no movement, no demand for it from any quarter of the country. It has been imposed by the Bharatiya Janata Party-Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh [BJP-RSS] combine in a unilateral manner in order to serve its long-standing agenda of Hindu Rashtra and create a permanent issue to cause polarisation. Also, it goes against the letter and spirit of the 1985 Assam Accord which made 1971 the cut-off year. This cut-off date is not something arbitrary but based on real considerations and fairly weighty reasons. The 1971 date was unanimously accepted by all the communities of Assam, whether the original residents or later immigrants. Cancelling it now will trigger tensions among different communities. So, the Bill is neither legally appropriate nor in the interest of the nation.

How do you view the insistence of the Narendra Modi government, the BJP and the RSS on differentiating infiltrators from refugees among “illegal immigrants”?

Normally, one does not think of lakhs of refugees. The very numbers raise apprehensions in the minds of people peaceably settled in the State. And refugees, if they are genuine, can claim the status by approaching the authorities. Up to 1965 or so, there was such a process in place whereby people coming from across the borders were given such status by the State government and rehabilitated. But one cannot imagine or justify continuation of this process for decades. And to the best of my knowledge, many of these people have crossed the borders in search of better prospects. Only a minority among them might have been driven out by religious persecution. It must be kept in mind that several prominent Hindu leaders of Bangladesh have strongly condemned the idea behind the Bill, which might stoke Islamist extremism in Bangladesh and threaten its secular character. People may not be aware that on two occasions the Supreme Court of Bangladesh had ruled that the Constitution of Bangladesh was unambiguously secular.

Will a combination of the proposed pan-India National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the CAB result in many Indians being rendered stateless?

Yes, from whatever has been said in public by [Home Minister] Amit Shah and other BJP leaders, it appears that they propose to target Muslims and maliciously deprive them of citizenship. This serves two purposes. Mobilising people on rampantly communal lines and diverting them from bread-and-butter issues and jobs.

Are you worried that the Citizenship Bill and the movements against it may expose the linguistic and religious fault lines in Assam?

If the communities preserve a modicum of good sense, they should not fall into the trap, and much depends on the wisdom of the leadership. The ruling BJP will try its best to roil up differences and provoke suspicion and ill-will among the communities. But once they give in to these temptations there will be unimaginable consequences. All should learn a lesson from the events of the Assam movement.

Will constitutional safeguards allay the apprehension of Assamese and other indigenous people or will it lead to more exclusions in the absence of a clear definition of indigenous people?

First of all, the term “indigenous” has not been defined. And when the Assamese claim they are indigenous, it is not quite in the sense that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has defined it. The Assamese believe that they are a historically evolving nationality or sub-nationality. And, therefore, they have a kind of prior claim to the resources of the State and government services. They share this claim with other communities who better fit the UNHCR definition. I think it is safer to propose safeguards to all permanent residents prior to 1971.

How do you foresee the influence and relevance of regional parties such as the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) against the backdrop of the anti-CAB agitation and the changing political equations regarding the Bill?

The AGP has practically lost its independent identity, thanks to the total surrender of the leadership to the designs of the BJP. The AGP came into being through, and after, the “Assam anti-foreigner movement”. And the priority of the party has always been independent identity and culture and the political primacy of the people of Assam. It is a historical fact that immigrant Muslims have chosen to identify themselves as Assamese and even after the atrocities of the Assam movement, many immigrant Muslims have come to accept the AGP as their party. Former Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, for example, has a large following among immigrant Muslims.

Sushanta Talukdar