Citizenship Bill and the Dilemma of Being a Bengali in Assam
(Disclaimer: Tridip K Mandal is a creative director with The Quint from Assam. His name featured in the completed draft NRC. He has written this blog in his personal capacity, and not as a journalistic piece. This story was first published on 21 May 2018 and has been reposted from The Quint's archives. It has been updated in the wake of AGP parting from the BJP in Assam after the Union Cabinet cleared the redrafted Citizenship Amendment Bill.)
First, let me clearly state my position before I explain my predicament. I am from Assam, to be precise a Bengali from Assam. I am very tempted to specify my religion here but I’ll resist. Why am I bringing up religion? Because the draft Citizenship (Amendment) Bill of 2016 seeks to give Indian citizenship to Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
They may have entered India legally or illegally without any proper documents but they won’t be treated as illegal immigrants as long as they have lived in India for six years, down from the earlier specified 11 years.
How Does it Affect Me?
If you have been following my blogs on how I and my family have been struggling to prove our Indian citizenship for National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam, you will have a better understanding of what I am trying to say here.
Right now, every person living in Assam has to register themselves for NRC where their ancestry is traced. And if your name features in the NRC database, it is proof that you are an original resident of Assam.
One has to provide documents as evidence to show that they or their ancestor have been living in Assam before 24 March 1971. The date was agreed upon in the Assam Accord. So what happens if one is unable to prove that they have been living in Assam prior to this date? Well, they may be considered illegal immigrants, sent to detention camps, and eventually deported from India. My name, along with the names of my daughter and mother featured in the completed draft NRC which was released in July 2018. But almost 20 lakh people didn’t make it to draft completed NRC.
The Citizenship Bill just complicates the whole situation for Bengalis like us. What the indigenous people, the Assamese, the Bodos fear is that if the bill is passed, Hindu Bengalis from Bangladesh will pour into Assam, taking over their land, resources and jobs. In this scenario even Bengalis from India like us who can trace their roots Assam, for more than 7-8 decades, are looked upon with suspicion by the indigenous population.
Complication and Confusion
The complication arises from the fact that more than 20 lakh people didn’t feature in the completed draft NRC list. There’s no official data on how many among them are Bengali-speaking-Hindus. The Citizenship Bill aims to give citizenship to a Hindu Bengali from Bangladesh if he has lived in India for six years. So to live in Assam, one set of Bengalis, irrespective of their religion have to trace their roots till March 1971 while there’s the other set of Hindu Bengalis for whom the only criteria is 6 years of stay in India. In my opinion, the government of India should suspend any progress around the new Citizenship Bill till the final NRC list is out.
The Fallout of Suspicion
Samrat from Newslaundry has to say this on the issue:
There may be no legal requirement to identifying the “original inhabitants” but the NRC and the Citizenship Bill have again sharpened the political question of who is an insider and who is an outsider, who belongs and who does not. The current tussle in Assam is between an idea of India that privileges religion as the basis of deciding who is Indian, and an idea of Assam that privileges the undefined but implicitly recognised “original inhabitants”, a category from which all Bengalis are assumed to be excluded.
In the insider-outsider debate, a Bengali has always been considered an outsider in Assam, especially in Lower Assam and Brahmaputra valley. My mother and my extended family lives in Assam, I have my house and property there; so for me, Assam is home. But for the indigenous people I may always be an outsider, at least till the time my name is in the NRC records.
It is the fear of the ‘outsider Bengali’ that triggered the uprising of the indigenous people in Assam in the 1970s and early 80s. It eventually led to the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985 but by that time, thousands of Bengali-speaking people had lost their lives.
This post on Facebook clearly depicts how the anti-Bengali mentality is again rearing its ugly head in Assam, all thanks to the controversy around the draft Citizenship Bill.
Will Things Get Violent?
There are ample signs coming from Assam on what may happen if the government of India doesn’t drop the bill. Students of Dibrugarh University, where Assam CM Sarbananda Sonowal studied had banned him from entering his alma mater. After all it is BJP-led central government in Delhi that’s pushing for the Bill, something that the Assam CM cannot be seen as supporting, as it will be political hara-kiri for him.
Almost 4 lakh state government employees, both locals and Bengalis had joined hands with All Assam Students’ Union (Aasu) to intensify protests against the Bill.
With slogans like “Job not above motherland” it’s just a matter of time before things take a violent turn.
A number of organisations including the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) took out protest rallies across Assam to protest PM Narendra Modi's announcement to pass the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill.
Hundreds of members of a women's organisations took everyone by surprise when they gheraoed the BJP state office at Hengerabari area in Guwahati without prior intimation to anyone to lodge their protest against the proposed move by the BJP-led central government.
The general feeling which sometimes finds space as slogans is that ‘foreigners are foreigners irrespective of religion’. In this case, the Bengali from Bangladesh is the foreigner.
Will things get worse? I have no idea. I really hope it doesn’t. But we mustn’t forget that it is this fear of the ‘outsider Bengali’ that has led to one of the worst genocides of our times – the Nellie Massacre of 1983 in which more than 2,000 Bengalis were killed.