Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal, now in his third year of office, recently declared that “a robust work culture in the state should be the prime objective of everyone, and youth must not be misled to join agitations based on concocted and baseless grounds”.
This rather interesting advice is coming from someone who some years ago had headed the powerful All Assam Students Union (AASU) which ran agitations on a range of issues, especially opposing policies and programmes viewed as inimical to the interests of the state. These youth-led campaigns were often characterised by central governments (usually the Congress) as prejudiced and harmful to national interests.
Today, his former comrade and one-time AASU general secretary Samujjal Bhattacharyya, still bearded and charged up, is hitting the roads with thousands of youth in frontal opposition to the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB), with protests erupting across Assam and Tripura, both seen as strongholds of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). That perception was challenged within hours of the Lok Sabha passing the bill, with shutdowns across Assam and several states of the Northeast.
No Criterion Established For ‘Persecution’ Of Non-Muslims Under CAB
Bhattacharyya, AASU’s current chief advisor, minced no words, saying that the Bill would be challenged in the Supreme Court, and accused the government at the Centre of “attempting to polarise the Northeast region... the Bill will take away our rights, and we have to agitate against it.”
In its preamble, the Bill speaks of various non-Muslims groups facing persecution in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, and the need to provide protection and citizenship to them.
And yet, there is no criterion established for ‘persecution’: it is simply assumed that since they are here illegally, all of them have fled threats and harm or perceived harm, and bars any criminal proceedings against them, a clear fall-out of the ill-fated and controversial National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam, which turned up more Hindus than Muslims on what is known as the ‘Excluded List’, the very converse of what the BJP and its allies were hoping to establish after decades of agitation.
How Citizenship Bill ‘Scraps’ 1985 Assam Accord
The Citizenship Bill says that the proposed law would “grant immunity to the migrant of the aforesaid Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian communities so that any proceedings against them regarding in respect of their status of migration or citizenship, does not bar them from applying for Indian citizenship. The competent authority, to be prescribed under the Act, shall not take into account any proceedings initiated against such persons regarding their status as illegal migrant or their citizenship matter while considering their application under section 5 or section 6 of the Act, if they fulfil all the conditions for grant of citizenship”.
Essentially what this does is to scrap what is popularly known as the 1985 Assam Accord, but is officially called The Problem of Foreigners in Assam, Memorandum of Settlement between the Centre, the State Government, AASU and its key ally, the All Asom Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP). The agreement brought an end to a six-year agitation which had taken thousands of lives, disrupted the economy, and toppled several state governments.
Those who came after March 1971 would continue to be detected and expelled, according to law.
The preamble to that accord included a key sentence reflecting AASU’s fears on immigration and “adverse effects upon the political, social, culture and economic life of the State”. Specifically, the settlement pledged “Constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards, as may be appropriate shall be provided to protect, preserve and promote the culture, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people.”
What these safeguards should or would be haven’t been developed in 34 years! Instead, the state government has set up a committee to define who would constitute an ‘Assamese’, and nothing is close to finalisation.
Citizenship Bill Is Also Linked to NRC in Assam
The opposition to the CAB makes sense when seen in the absence of such safeguards and what is viewed widely in Assam as a unilateral abrogation of the Assam Accord. Sonowal strongly espoused the Accord earlier but is quiet about it these days, while Bhattacharya continues to demand its implementation unhesitatingly.
We need to remember one thing here: the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) – as far as Assam is concerned – is also linked to the NRC.
The rest of India may be puzzled as to why groups which supported the NRC are opposing the CAB. It’s simple: the NRC set a benchmark for Assam re-citizenship as 1971, because that was when Bangladesh was created. The CAB says that all non-Muslims who came before 2014 are now entitled to citizenship, breaking the framework of a consensual agreement. Although the Assam agitation leaders have consistently said that their movement was secular – the religion of the immigrant did not matter, whether he/she was Hindu or Muslim – many also acknowledge the ingress of communalism into to the debate.
CAB’s Ad Hoc Approach Doesn’t Consider Complexities
Yet AASU declared – despite its initial unhappiness with the NRC results – that it would abide by the Supreme Court-led process. The BJP and its allied groups declared they wanted a recount, because those who ‘should have been on the list were not on it’, and many had managed to get onto it by ‘subterfuge’.
That’s where the linking of the CAB to the NRC results come in – the recently organised exercise (which hasn’t yet been formally rejected by the Assam Government before the Supreme Court, which drove the campaign; until this happens, there’s no closure) has over 11 lakh Hindus, compared to some seven lakh Muslims and strangely over a lakh of tribal groups which have been around for centuries as well as Gorkhas. Given the extensive mistakes in name spellings etc, these figures could drop further.
Thus, the CAB would formalise all Hindus from Bangladesh who had entered illegally (whether fleeing persecution or for environmental and economic reasons) until 2014. That would take care of a substantial number of the 11 lakh on the ‘Excluded List’.
Much of the trauma and anger that is erupting across the region, especially in Assam, could have been averted if there had been sustained dialogue with a large range of groups over a longer period of time to accommodate concerns, and not just a few meetings.
Merely excluding a few states and parts of states from the CAB on the basis of their having the ‘protection’ of the Inner Line Permit (ILP) – which allows travellers and potential settlers to move about with an identity paper and bars them from purchase of local land – is not a policy, but represents an ad hoc approach, lacking reflection of the extreme complexities which call for introspection, immense patience and dialogue.
Door on Dialogue Must Not Be Closed
Anyone familiar with the working of the ILP – as it has existed for decades in the tribe-dominated states of Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland – knows that it has been an ineffective tool in curbing such inflows. The ILP has been extended also to parts of Assam with a tribal majority, all of Meghalaya (which is overwhelmingly tribal) and Manipur (although the latter is a non-tribal majority state).
Does the use of the ILP mean that only these specified areas need ‘protection’ and not other parts of Assam? (And many of these travellers are genuine Indian citizens from other parts of the region or the country!)
What is being shown as an effort to protect identity and strengthen national security could – as a former chief of army staff pointed out in a recent televised panel discussion – have the reverse effect. The door on dialogue should never be closed.
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(Sanjoy Hazarika is International Director of The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative. He tweets @SanjoyHazarika3. This is an opinion piece. Views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)