Assam: Defining issue

Print edition : March 27, 2020

People whose names were left out in the draft NRC queing up to collect forms to file appeals, in Mayong, on August 10, 2018. Photo: Anupam Nath/AP

The recommendation of the high-level committee on the Assam Accord on the definition of “Assamese people” has caught the BJP governments at the Centre and in the State in a bind.

Who can be considered an “Assamese” in the State of Assam who can enjoy constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards under Clause 6 of the Assam Accord? A consensus on this has been elusive since the signing of the accord in 1985. It seems now that the Narendra Modi government, too, has developed cold feet on the recommendations in the report of a high-level committee which it constituted to find an answer to this question.

One of the members of the 14-member committee told Frontline, on condition of anonymity, that the recommendations included taking 1951 as the base year to define “Assamese people” and the reintroduction of the Inner Line Permit (ILP) in Assam. While there was no dissent note by any committee member, two differing recommendations were learnt to have been incorporated in the report on the percentage of reservation of seats for the Assamese people in elected bodies, including panchayats, the State Assembly and Parliament.

Although the content of the report is yet to be made public, there are indications that the recommendations to take 1951 as the base year and the reintroduction of the ILP appears to have put the Modi government, the Sarbananda Sonowal government in Assam and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on a sticky wicket.

This explains why Union Home Minister Amit Shah asked Chief Minister Sonowal to accept the report on his behalf instead of inviting the committee members to New Delhi to hand it over to him directly. The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) did not respond to a series of communications by the committee, headed by Justice (retired) Biplab Kumar Sarma, informing it that the report was ready for submission. After failing to get any response, Justice Sarma went on record saying that the report was with the Assam Accord department and that the MHA could collect it from there.

Three members of the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) in the committee skipped the event on February 25 to hand over the report to Sonowal. The student body’s stance was that since the MHA, the nodal ministry for the implementation of the Assam Accord, had constituted the committee, the Central government should have received it and not the State government. After the event, Justice Sarma said that the Union Home Minister had requested him to submit the report to him through the Chief Minister.

The thorny issue before the committee was to decide on a definition of the “Assamese people”. The AASU members on the committee are learnt to have recommended 100 per cent reservation for the Assamese people and other indigenous communities in the elected bodies, including the existing reservation for the Scheduled Tribes (S.Ts) and the Scheduled Castes (S.Cs). Other members recommended 67 per cent reservation for the Assamese people, as defined by the committee, besides the existing constitutional reservation for the S.Ts and the S.Cs.

The BJP-led governments at the Centre and in the State have been harping on Clause 6 to dispel the fears of those who oppose the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), 2019, in the State. Both governments have been saying that the recommendations of the high-level committee would be implemented in toto. Addressing a rally organised to celebrate the signing of the third Bodo Accord, Prime Minister Modi said in Kokrajhar on February 7 that Clause 6 of the Assam Accord would be implemented without delay. During the debate in Parliament on the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019, Amit Shah had urged the high-level committee to submit its report at the earliest and assured prompt measures by the Centre to protect the linguistic and cultural identities of the indigenous people of Assam in accordance with Clause 6.

If the Centre accepts the recommendation to take 1951 as the base year for defining an Assamese, those who came to Assam after this cut-off year and are Indian citizens by the provisions of the Assam Accord and their descendants will not be eligible to contest elections in the seats to be reserved in elected bodies or qualify to apply for government jobs to be kept reserved in reference to Clause 6. Many migrant families of erstwhile East Bengal, who came to the State between 1951 and 1971, have been returning their mother tongue as Assamese in successive population Censuses. They also have studied in Assamese-medium schools set up by them, take active participation in Assamese literary and cultural activities and are treated as Indian citizens as per the Assam Accord.

The percentage of Assamese speakers has declined to 48.38 in the 2011 Census from 48.80 in 2001 and 57.81 in 1991. The percentage of Bengali speakers has increased to 28.91 in 2011 from 27.54 in 2001 and 21.67 in 1991. In other words, 1951 as base year will lead to the creation in the State of two categories of citizens, one category eligible for reservation under Clause 6 and the other deprived under it.

The AASU says that Clause 6 was inserted in the Assam Accord to compensate for the State taking the burden, on behalf of the country, of “illegal migrants” from erstwhile East Pakistan for a period of 20 years from 1951 and not for taking the burden of “illegal migrants” from Bangladesh for 43 years from 1971 to 2014, the cut-off date for citizenship mentioned in the CAA. The student body is standing its ground that Clause 6 cannot be bargained away for the CAA.

Opposition parties and other organisations staging anti-CAA agitations in the State insist that the core clause of the Assam Accord is Clause 5, which calls for the identification of “illegal migrants”, irrespective of their religion, who came to Assam after March 24, 1971, deletion of their names from the electoral rolls, and their expulsion. They argue that the CAA will encourage more influx of “Bangladeshi migrants” into the State, rendering any protection under Clause 6 ineffective.

The Modi government also cannot be expected to accept the recommendation to reintroduce the ILP in Assam as it would lead to the exclusion of the State from the purview of the CAA. It will go counter to the BJP’s efforts to grant citizenship under the CAA to Hindu Bangladeshis who came between March 25, 1971, and December 31, 2014, and have been excluded from the updated National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam. Assam Minister for Health, Finance and Education Himanta Biswa Sarma has been claiming that there could be around five lakh Hindu Bengalis whose names have been excluded from the updated NRC in the State.

A bunch of petitions challenging the CAA are currently pending before the Supreme Court. The apex court said in its order on January 22 that it would hear the petitions relating to Assam and Tripura separately.

Himanta Biswa Sarma, who is also the convener of the BJP-led North East Democratic Alliance, said that the committee had submitted the report in a sealed cover and, therefore, the State government would give its view on it if the Centre asked for it. The MHA would go through the report and check if the recommendations are in conformity with Supreme Court judgments, constitutional provisions and law of legislatures, he said.

He also told journalists that the committee had defined the term Assamese. However, the Assam Assembly has to take the final decision on the definition of Assamese people. This indicates that the ruling party is not comfortable in taking 1951 as the base year for definition of “Assamese people”. Assembly elections in the State are due in 2021.

Past efforts

The G.K. Pillai Sub-Committee set up by the MHA in 1998 reached a consensus on taking 1951 as the base year for definition of Assamese people but it failed to reach an agreement on the quantum of reservation of seats for the Assamese people in the elected bodies. In 2000, the AASU pushed for taking 1951 as the base year for the definition of Assamese people. It insisted that for the districts where no NRC data were available, the 1952 electoral rolls or electoral rolls of an earlier available year could be taken. Not much progress was made over the years as the Cabinet subcommittee set up by the Assam government in 2006 failed to arrive at any conclusion on the definition of Assamese people.

In 2015, the then Assam Assembly Speaker Pranab Gogoi after holding consultations with all political parties and different organisations, including the AASU, recommended that 1951 be taken as the base year for the definition of Assamese people. However, the then ruling Congress government headed by Tarun Gogoi opposed his report.

While it is uncertain when the report of the high-level committee on the implementation of Clause 6 will be made public and what the Modi government’s stand on it will be, any more delay on this could weaken the efforts of the Central and State governments to push Clause 6 of the Assam Accord as the core clause instead of Clause 5. The clamour for ILP will also grow as it is the Modi government, by extending the ILP to Manipur to keep that State out of the purview of the CAA, that created the perception that this colonial-era restrictive regime is a safety valve against any existential threat to ethnic communities from “illegal migrants”.

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