Divisive demarcation

The Narendra Modi government’s new Citizenship Bill, which seeks to enable non-Muslim minority groups from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan to acquire Indian citizenship, faces strong opposition in Assam.

Published : Nov 09, 2016 12:30 IST

Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal.

Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal.

THE Centre’s move to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955, and grant citizenship to migrant non-Muslim minorities from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan has hit a roadblock in Assam. Political parties, intellectuals and student and youth bodies have taken to the streets protesting against the Bill introduced for this purpose in Parliament, which they fear will undermine the provisions of the historic Assam Accord.

The accord, signed in 1985, stipulates that all “illegal migrants”, irrespective of their religion, who have entered the State after the cut-off date of March 24, 1971, are to be identified and expelled from the country. Clause VI of the accord promises constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards to protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social and linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people. This clause, however, has remained unimplemented for want of a consensus on the definition of “Assamese people”.

The tripartite accord was signed by the Centre, the State government and the All Assam Students Union (AASU), which spearheaded the anti-foreigner agitation (1979-1985) in the State. AASU gave birth to the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), which formed the first government headed by a regional party in the State in 1985. The AGP is a constituent of the current Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led coalition government in the State, which is headed by former AASU president Sarbananda Sonowal.

Section 2(1)(b) of the Citizenship Act defines an “illegal migrant” as a foreigner who entered India (i) Without a valid passport or other prescribed travel documents, or (ii) With a valid passport or other prescribed travel documents but remains in India beyond the permitted period of time.

The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, which was tabled in both Houses of Parliament, proposes that persons belonging to six minority communities—Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians—in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, who have been exempted by the Central government by or under clause (c) of subsection (2) of Section 3 of the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920, or from the application of the provisions of the Foreigners Act, 1946, or any order made thereunder, shall not be treated as illegal migrants.

The Bill also proposes to reduce the aggregate period of residential qualification for citizenship for those eligible from 11 years to six years in the case of non-Muslim migrants from these three countries.

Those opposed to the Bill fear that grant of citizenship to Hindu (Bengali-speaking) Bangladeshi migrants will change the State’s demography and reduce the Assamese-speaking people to a minority in their own State. This demographic change will pose a grave threat to the Assamese language, identity and culture, they caution. They argue that the State has already taken the burden of all “illegal migrants” who came in until March 24, 1971, in accordance with the Assam Accord and, therefore, cannot take an additional burden of post-1971 migrants.

Political parties and organisations such as AASU and the Asom Jatiyabadi Yuba Chhatra Parishad (AJYCP) are against granting citizenship on the basis of religion. They maintain that it will destroy the communal harmony in the State. AASU, the AJYCP, and the Krishak Mukti Sangram Parishad took out separate torch-lit marches opposing the Bill and cautioned the BJP-led governments at the Centre and in the State against any attempt to tamper with the Assam Accord and the cut-off date of March 24, 1971.

The BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) have backed the Bill, saying that “Hindu Bangladeshis cannot be treated as illegal migrants or foreigners anywhere in India”.

The State unit of the Congress termed the introduction of the Bill as “a hasty decision”. The opposition party said it was “extremely concerned” as the move to amend the Act would “disturb the age-old communal harmony in the State and leave a long-term impact on the identity, culture and economy” of Assam. The State Congress has constituted a committee headed by former Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi to examine the ramifications of the proposed amendment and submit a detailed report to the All India Congress Committee for formulating the party policy on the issue. The party’s State unit said that it was committed to implementing the Assam Accord.

The previous Congress government in the State headed by Tarun Gogoi, in a Cabinet decision on July 16, 2014, decided to request the Centre to formulate “a policy of granting asylum to those persons who were subjects of British India at the time of Partition and who have had to face religious persecution and discrimination later compelling them to come to India for shelter”. However, the Gogoi government took care not to mention the religion of those facing religious persecution in Bangladesh.

Eleven Left and democratic parties of the State—the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India, the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), the Samajwadi Party, the Nationalist Congress Party, the Asom Sangrami Mancha, the Aam Aadmi Party, the Janata Dal (Secular), the Liberal Democratic Party, the Forward Bloc and the Revolutionary Communist Party of India—have unitedly opposed the Bill and demanded that Assam be kept out of the purview of the proposed Act.

Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal has come under flak for not clarifying his government’s position on the issue. Of the BJP’s two coalition partners, the AGP has opposed the Bill while the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) has supported it.

While Sonowal has chosen to evade questions on the Bill, the Number 2 in his Ministry, Health and Education Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, has justified the proposed legislation by saying that the Assamese people have nothing to fear as granting of citizenship to Hindu Bangladeshis will result in an increase in the population of Hindus in the State, which, he claims, will “prevent Muslims from becoming the majority community in the State”.

Although the AGP has opposed the Bill and insisted on strict adherence to the March 24, 1971, cut-off date for detection and expulsion of all “illegal migrants”, the party is clearly divided on the issue, one camp comprising followers of former Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, and the other with followers of party president Atul Bora, who is also a Minister in the Sonowal government. The Bora camp is against adopting a tough posture against and embarrassing its coalition partner, the BJP, while the Mahanta camp has taken a hard line. Mahanta, who was a signatory to the Assam Accord, is leading the protest against the BJP’s move to grant citizenship to Hindu Bangladeshis. Taking advantage of the differences within the AGP, State BJP leaders have launched a counter campaign against Mahanta accusing him of creating confusion over the Bill. They have also alleged that despite being in power for two terms, the Mahanta-led government had failed to implement the Assam Accord. Mahanta, however, passed the buck to the Centre, saying that the Union Home Ministry was the nodal Ministry for the implementation of the tripartite accord and not the State government. Various organisations representing Bengalis in the State have welcomed the Centre’s move but are opposed to the resettlement of the migrants in any other State. They have rejected the argument that granting of citizenship to Hindu Bangladeshis will affect the identity of Assamese-speaking people.

Language data

The perceived apprehensions among the Assamese people of being reduced to a minority stems from the language data of the 2001 Census and the historical fact of Bengali language replacing Assamese as the official language in Assam during British rule. The Census data show that the percentage of Assamese speakers declined from 57.81 in 1991 to 48.80 in 2001 while the percentage of Bengali speakers increased from 21.67 in 1991 to 27.54. Assamese speakers include Muslim migrants from the erstwhile East Bengal who speak a Bengali dialect and Adivasi communities. The percentage of Assamese speakers in the country’s total population declined from 1.63 in 1991 to 1.58 in 2001. The Centre made public the religion-related data of the 2011 Census before the 2016 Assembly elections in the State (the language-based data of the 2011 Census are awaited). This has allowed room for speculation that the percentage of Assamese speakers might have further declined since 2001 and that Bengalis would become the majority community in Assam if Hindu Bangladeshis were granted citizenship.

The colonial government replaced Assamese with Bengali as the official language in 1836. Assamese was restored as the official language in 1873 but only after an aggressive assertion of the Assamese identity and the distinctiveness of the Assamese language. A section of Assamese intellectuals see the Centre’s move to grant citizenship to Hindu Bangladeshis as a conspiracy to replace Assamese with Bengali once again and reduce the population of Assamese speakers to a minority. They have demanded that the Centre make public the language data of the 2011 Census to allay the apprehension of the Assamese people of losing their identity, language and culture.

Rupam Goswami, a BJP spokesperson and the party’s media convener, rejected the suggestion that the proposed legislation would encourage Hindus to migrate from Bangladesh. “Citizenship will be provided to those who had already come on or before December 31, 2014, owing to persecution in Bangladesh. It is not as if the border gates will be flung open with an open invitation to all Hindus in Bangladesh. The existing provisions in the Citizenship Act prohibit them from becoming Indian citizens. Besides, nowhere in the Bill has it been stated that they are going to be settled in Assam alone,” he said. “The demand to keep Assam out of the purview of the national legislation is politically motivated, for, even if the migrants are settled outside Assam they cannot be debarred from migrating to Assam later from other States. The BJP is committed to implementing the Assam Accord and protecting the interests of the indigenous people of Assam.”

Ranjib Kumar Sharma, sampark pramukh of the RSS in Assam, said: “Hindus cannot be treated as foreigners in Assam or elsewhere in the country as the RSS considers India as a Hindu Rashtra. For the same reason, Hindu Bangladeshis cannot be treated as foreigners in India. Any Hindu anywhere in the world has only one place to seek shelter when they face religious persecution. That is India.”

He said the RSS would ensure that the “interests of indigenous people in Assam are protected and the Assam Accord is implemented”.

The proposed Bill is likely to give rise to legal complications in respect of the ongoing process of updating the National Register of Citizens (NRC). The cut-off date for inclusion of names in the updated NRC is the same as that in the Assam Accord, March 24, 1971.

The government has not clarified if the name of any post-1971 Hindu or other non-Muslim Bangladeshi migrant, who is to be granted citizenship in accordance with the proposed legislation, will be included in the updated NRC or not. Besides, what will happen to those migrants (1966-1971 stream) who have already registered their names with the Foreigners’ Regional Registration Office (FRRO) after being declared as foreigners in accordance with the provisions of the Assam Accord has also not been spelt out. They are not to be expelled from the country but to be disenfranchised for 10 years from the date of registration with the FRRO. Currently about five lakh cases are pending before the foreigners’ tribunals in the State.

The ruling BJP finds itself isolated on the issue when its first government in the State has barely completed five months in office. Perturbed by the developments and protests over the Hindu Bangladeshi issue, Sonowal tried to impress upon the Joint Parliamentary Committee on the Bill headed by Dr Satyapal Singh to visit Assam and take into account the representation of the people on the issue. The sudden postponement of the scheduled visit of the parliamentary panel to Assam has put the Sonowal government and the BJP in a tight spot as the byelections to the Lakhimpur Lok Sabha seat and the Boithlangshu Assembly constituency are scheduled for November 19.

This is the first election the ruling coalition will be facing since assuming office in the State. The Hindutva overtones in the Bill have pushed the State to the brink of religious and linguistic polarisation. For Sonowal, who was hailed as the Jatiyo Nayak (national hero) after the Supreme Court scrapped the controversial Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act, 1983, holding on to the overwhelming support of the Assamese people and various ethnic groups, which was crucial for being elected as the first BJP Chief Minister in the State, is going to be a challenging task as opposition to the Citizenship Bill has snowballed into a massive protest.

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