Print edition : March 01, 2019

A torchlight procession activists of 70 ethnic groups of Assam took out in protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, in Guwahati on January 23. Photo: PTI

Mizoram Chief Minister Zoramthanga, Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad K. Sangma and Asom Gana Parishad president Atul Bora at a convention of political parties of the north-eastern region on the Citizenship Amendment Bill, in Guwahati on January 29. Photo: PTI

Protests erupt in Assam and other north-eastern States over the passage of the Citizenship Bill as ethnic communities fear that it will replace their language and cultural identity markers with religion.

OPPOSITION to the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019, in the north-eastern States appears to have snowballed beyond New Delhi’s imagination. The growing protests reflect a deep sense of fear of being marginalised and losing linguistic and cultural identities if illegal immigrants from Bangladesh are granted citizenship instead of being detected and expelled.

This apprehension has stirred regional parties, students and youth and civil society organisations to raise a united voice against the Bill that seeks to make Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian “illegal migrants” from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan legal immigrants, eligible to apply for Indian citizenship.

Thousands of protesters marched through the streets of Aizawl and other parts of Mizoram, some of them holding placards that read “Hello China, Bye Bye India”. This was followed by a total boycott of the Republic Day function in Mizoram.

With Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bharatiya Janata Party national president Amit Shah at the forefront of the campaign for the Bill, the ruling BJP in Assam has chosen to ignore the writing on the wall. At a rally in Slichar town on January 4, Modi said: “Our government is working to get the Citizenship Amendment Bill passed in Parliament.” The Bill was passed by the Lok Sabha on January 8. On February 2, addressing a rally at Thakurnagar in West Bengal, Modi reiterated his government’s resolve to push the Bill through in Parliament and asked the Trinamool Congress to support the Bill in the Rajya Sabha.

Aggressive postures adopted by the BJP and the Sangh Parivar in support of the Bill, despite protests in the north-eastern region, indicate that they see the proposed amendment to the citizenship law as an opportunity to push the Hindutva agenda. “A Hindu cannot be considered an illegal immigrant in India” is the argument put forth by the saffron party and other constituents of the Sangh Parivar. Ten regional parties, including constituents of the BJP-led North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA), met in Guwahati on January 29 at the initiative of Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma, Mizoram Chief Minister Zoramthanga and Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) leaders and decided to jointly oppose the Bill. Representatives of the Janata Dal (United), the BJP’s ally, were also present at the meeting.

The BJP took the lead in the constitution of the NEDA in 2016 in order to have a “Congress-mukt” north-east. The fact that key constituents of the alliance such as the National People’s Party (NPP), the major constituent of the ruling coalition in Meghalaya; the Mizo National Front (MNF), the ruling party of Mizoram; and the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party, the BJP’s coalition partner in Nagaland; joined hands with the AGP and other regional parties to oppose the Bill indicates that the BJP is losing its grip over the NEDA on the eve of the Lok Sabha election. The AGP quit the BJP-led government in Assam and snapped its ties with the BJP and the NEDA on January 7, a day before the Lok Sabha passed the Bill.

Amidst these developments, the news of a meeting of a delegation of the North East Students’ Organisation (NESO), a banner organisation of the student bodies that includes the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), with Congress president Rahul Gandhi with a request to the Congress to vote against the Bill in the Rajya Sabha has triggered a political storm in Assam. This was the first time since the Assam Movement, spearheaded by the AASU, that the student body met Congress leaders to seek their support.

AASU seeks Congress help

The State unit of the BJP flayed the AASU for cosying up to the Congress and seeking the opposition party’s support. “It was unfortunate that the AASU has taken refuge in the Congress, which was responsible for the death of 855 people during the Assam agitation,” Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal and the BJP’s State party president Ranjit Kumar Dass said in a reaction to the development.

On January 30, in protest against the Bill, family members of 76 martyrs of the Assam Movement returned the mementos that the Sonowal government presented to them in December 2016. The Assam Movement, spearheaded by the AASU in 1979, culminated in the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985. The Sonowal government had presented the mementos and a cash award of Rs.5 lakh as one-time financial assistance to each martyr’s family. The members of the martyrs’ families assembled at the AASU headquarters at Swahid Nyas in Guwahati and marched under the banner of the Sadou Asam Jatiyo Swahid Pariyal Samanway Rakhi Parishad to the office of the Kamrup (Metropolitan) Deputy Commissioner and handed over the mementos to the officials there. Family members of other martyrs returned their mementos in their district headquarters. The BJP maintains that the Congress and the communists engineered the protests. The Congress and the Left parties have also been taking to the streets demanding withdrawal of the Bill.

The AGP, however, said that it was forced to seek the Congress’ support as the BJP did not pay heed to the protests. “All eyes are now on the Congress to see what role it will play in the Rajya Sabha to prevent the passage of the Bill,” said AGP president Atul Bora. The AGP’s position has left election watchers speculating whether a political realignment was in the offing ahead of the Lok Sabha election.

The AASU played a key role in the installation of Sonowal, a former president of the student body, as Chief Minister. Sonowal, who was the petitioner in the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act, 1983, was conferred the honorific “Jatiyo Nayak” (national hero) after the Supreme Court scrapped the Act in 2005. After the Modi Cabinet cleared the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019, on January 7, AASU and NESO adviser Samujjal Bhattcharya described Modi, Sonowal and the BJP as traitors. “They promised that the Assam Accord would be implemented in letter and spirit and Bangladeshis would be driven out. By passing the Bill in the Lok Sabha, they have proved that they want to create a vote bank of Bangladeshis,” he said.

Responding to Sonowal and the BJP’s criticism of the AASU’s meeting with Rahul Gandhi, Bhattacharya said: “We have urged Rahul Gandhi and other leaders of the United Progressive Alliance and the NDA’s [National Democratic Alliance] constituents that are opposed to the Bill to be present in the Rajya Sabha and vote against the Bill.”

The student leader reiterated: “Our position is very clear. The Assam Accord must be implemented, and all illegal Bangladeshi migrants, irrespective of whether they are Hindus or Muslims, who came after March 24, 1971, must be identified and expelled. The Bill not only violates the Assam Accord but also wants to destroy the secular fundamentals of the country.” Sonowal, Sarma and other BJP leaders have been shown black flags by opponents of the Bill, and the State witnessed stray incidents of direct confrontation between BJP workers and protesters in different parts.

Delegations of the AASU and the NESO met leaders of the opposition and the BJP’s allies in the NDA and urged them to vote against the Bill. Leaders of 70 other organisations, led by the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti and the Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chatra Parishad, and a delegation of journalists and intellectuals led by Prof. Hiren Gohain met Rahul Gandhi separately and urged him to oppose the Bill.

The BJP is pushing its campaign for the Bill in Assam and West Bengal with an eye on the Lok Sabha election. The eight north-eastern States have 25 seats and West Bengal has 42 seats in the Lok Sabha.

Sonowal and State Health Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma are leading the campaign in defence of the Bill in the State but are silent on the opposition to the Bill by constituents of the NEDA and the BJP units in Meghalaya, Nagaland and Mizoram. The BJP-led coalition government in Manipur, headed by N. Biren Singh, has passed a Cabinet resolution urging the Centre to exempt Manipur from the purview of the Bill.

In a bid to counter the campaign that the Bill was violative of the Assam Accord and posed a grave threat to the existence and identity of Assamese and other indigenous communities, Sonowal, Sarma and other BJP leaders argued that expansion of the list of Scheduled Tribes (S.Ts) and the constitutional safeguards in Clause 6 of the Assam Accord, such as reservation of seats in the Assembly, local bodies and employment, would turn Assam into an S.T.-majority State, “an invincible fort of indigenous people”, and therefore, indigenous people in the State need not fear the Bill.

But this argument has not found favour with the opponents of the Bill. The AGP legislator Ramendra Narayan Kalita asked the State’s Parliamentary Affairs Minister, Chandra Mohan Patowary, whether the government had decided on a definition of the term “indigenous”. The Minister informed the Assembly that the term “indigenous” had not yet been defined. The previous Congress government had formed a Cabinet subcommittee headed by the then Revenue Minister, Bhumidhar Barman, but no consensus could be reached on the definition.

Another effort was initiated by the previous Speaker, Pranab Gogoi; 53 organisations submitted their representations to him. Although Pranab Gogoi prepared a report, a consensus could not be reached, Patowary said. When Kalita demanded to know how the government planned to implement Clause 6 of the Assam Accord if the definition of indigenous had not yet been decided, the Minister said that the government would soon decide on the matter.

On January 9, the Modi government tabled the Constitution (S.T.) Order (Amendment) Bill, 2019, which proposes to include Koch-Rajbongshis, Tai Ahom, Moran, Matak, Chutiya and 36 Adivasi/Tea-tribe communities in the S.T. list. But protesters have pooh-poohed such claims.

Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland are already S.T.-majority States with 98 per cent of the Assembly seats reserved for S.T. communities, but the governments in these States have passed a Cabinet resolution opposing the Bill.

In Manipur, the BJP-led coalition passed a Cabinet resolution urging the Centre to exempt Manipur from the jurisdiction of the Bill. As a mark of protest against the Bill, the acclaimed film-maker Aribam Syam Sharma returned the Padma Shri award conferred on him in 2006.

In Assam, organisations representing the S.T. communities have been spearheading protests against the Bill as they apprehend that the Bill poses the grave danger of indigenous communities being marginalised by demographic change caused by illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

The Sangh Parivar’s efforts to push the Bill are seen as part of the larger design of imposition of their construction of a religious identity for Assamese and other ethnic communities. They are running the campaign that the Assamese people must embrace Bangladeshi Hindus to prevent them from being reduced to a minority by Bangladeshi Muslims. In the BJP’s political lexicon, Bangladeshi Muslims include not just the post-1971 illegal Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants but also Muslim immigrants from erstwhile East Pakistan who came to Assam between 1951 and 1971. The Sonowal government and the BJP leaders insist that the Bill seeks to grant citizenship to those Hindu Bangladeshis in Assam who had immigrated up to December 31, 2014. They alleged that opponents of the Bill were spreading the lie that the Bill would facilitate new immigration. However, the Bill does not have a cut-off date, which has triggered apprehension that if enacted it will encourage large-scale migration of Hindu Bangladeshis to Assam.

Language and culture are the most prominent identity markers for the Assamese people, and both these markers are multicultural in nature. The Assamese language and culture have flourished with elements from different ethnic languages and cultural practices. Notably, aspirations for the promotion of their own language and cultural identity markers of different ethnic communities have also strengthened the two identity markers of the Assamese people as new elements have emboldened the Assamese identity construction and Assamese nationality construction. Therefore, the attempts to replace these two identity markers with religion have fuelled apprehensions of marginalisation among different ethnic groups which have their own distinct culture. This explains the participation of all the communities in the protests against the Bill in the north-eastern States.

The Assam government informed the Assembly that from 1985 to August 2018, 626,793 cases were registered against “foreigners” in the State. Of them, 103,764 were declared “foreigners” by various Foreigners’ Tribunals, and 108,815 were declared to be Indian. A total of 29,829 “foreigners” were expelled from 1985 until January 20, 2019. These numbers are sure to keep the political pot boiling in Assam and other north-eastern States.

The political developments centring around the Bill in the region is a warning to the BJP that it can ill afford to look at them merely as part of the electoral number game. If the dissenting voices are ignored, the ground will be left wide open for secessionist tendencies to take root.