The passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, in the Lok Sabha on January 8 left Assamese farmer Chandra Kanta Talukdar fuming. “The bill has added salt to our old wounds,” said Talukdar, a resident of Bhabanipur town in western Assam. On December 10, 1979, his brother Khargeswar, then a college student, was killed in a police assault on a mob which had blocked a highway to protest against the filing of nominations for Barpeta Lok Sabha constituency by a Muslim candidate whom they suspected was an illegal migrant from Bangladesh.
The historic Assam Agitation, or the anti-foreigner movement, had just began then. During the agitation, between 1979-1985, a total of 855 Assamese agitators like Khargeswar had died and many more sustained serious injuries, either in police action or in attacks by suspected illegal Bangladeshi migrants.
“They all sacrificed their lives to drive the illegal migrants out and protect our land and Assamese identity. Even the National Register of Citizens (NRC) is also being updated with March 24, 1971, as the cut-off date. But the bill now wants to undo both Assam Accord and NRC as it seeks to offer citizenship to migrants till December 2014,” Talukdar said. “People of Assam voted for BJP in 2014 and 2016 as they promised to protect our land and identity. But they have taken a U-turn by passing the bill.”
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The six-year-long agitation led by All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) that saw deaths, shutdowns and destruction culminated in the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985. The accord decided that foreigners who had crossed the porous borders with Bangladesh and settled in Assam would be detected and those who had come after March 24, 1971, would be taken off voters’ list and deported to Bangladesh.
But the BJP’s Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, which seeks to make non-Muslims from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan who had migrated to India till December 2014 due to ‘religious persecution,’ eligible for Indian citizenship, violates the Assam Accord.
Families of the Assam Agitation martyrs took to perhaps the most peaceful way to protest -- by deciding to return the awards the BJP-led Assam government had given them soon after forming its first government in May 2016 as a recognition of their sacrifices. Agitators in major parts of Assam and the rest of the North-East, however, have since hit the streets, blocked highways, called for shutdown twice and have threatened another Assam Agitation if the bill is not withdrawn.
“We are ready to give our lives and blood to protect our identity as secular and ethnic Assamese community. We want all post-1971 foreigners to go, be it Hindus or Muslims. But BJP wants to polarise society by giving citizenship to non-Muslims. We have seen how illegal migration of Hindu Bengalis from Bangladesh has turned indigenous in Tripura into a minority,” said Akhil Gogoi, a peasants’ rights activist, leading the agitation by at least 70 organisations. Gogoi claimed that the bill would make all illegal Hindu Bengali migrants Indian citizens and would encourage more migration from Bangladesh. “Our language, culture and ethnic identity will be threatened, just as that of the tribals in Tripura, who were a majority 100 years ago,” Gogoi said.
Anup Chetia, general secretary of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), a militant group, which is now in talks with the Centre, told DH recently that the Citizenship Bill could add fuel to the demand for ‘sovereign Assam’ again. “I don’t see any reason for our talks now as protecting the indigenous identity against the foreigners is our primary demand. Many young boys have joined ULFA-Independent (another militant group) and things can get worse,” he said. The ULFA was formed in 1979, demanding a ‘sovereign Assam’ to protect the indigenous people against the foreigners.
In favour of Bill
The Citizenship Bill has added salt to the wounds of many Bengali Hindus and Muslims, too, who often become victims of conflicts arising out of the longstanding foreigners' issue in Assam. From the infamous Nellie massacre in central Assam in February 1983, when nearly 3,000 migrant Muslims were killed in a day, to the killings of five Hindu Bengalis on November 1, 2018 in Tinsukia district, Assam has often seen violence following protests similar to the one the state is currently witnessing.
“Hindu Bengalis have always been soft targets. They have been harassed in the name of NRC update and attacked and killed during agitations against illegal migrants,” said Sanjoy Pramanik, a student leader in Karimganj district in Barak Valley, south Assam. Barak Valley, comprising four districts and with majority Hindu Bengali population, on the other hand, is agitating for passage of the bill. This has deepened the fissures between Assamese and Hindu Bengalis, who comprise nearly 20% of the state’s 3.29 crore population.
Politics ahead of polls
On January 4, at a rally at Silchar in Bengali-dominated Barak Valley, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the Citizenship Bill was ‘atonement’ for the ‘injustice’ done to Partition victims, such as the Hindu Bengalis in Assam. Home Minister Rajnath Singh told the Lok Sabha that the regularised immigrants would be settled not only in Assam but would be distributed through the rest of the country. The assurance did not pacify the agitators and Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), the regional ally of the BJP government, which walked out of the alliance on January 7, a day before the bill was passed in the Lok Sabha.
The BJP promised that the identity of the indigenous Assamese would be protected as the Centre has set up a committee to implement Clause VI of Assam Accord that promised constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards to protect, preserve and promote their cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage.
Politics in Assam charged up over the bill ahead of the Lok Sabha polls, with Congress opposing it outside parliament, and its MPs walking out of the Lok Sabha on January 8 when it was passed. “We want the foreigner issue to be resolved as per the March 24, 1971 cut-off date. But BJP wants to play communal politics by giving citizenship to non-Muslim migrants,” former chief minister Tarun Gogoi said.
Assam cabinet minister Himanta Biswa Sarma was blunt on Hindutva allegations. “By giving citizenship to Hindu Bengali migrants, we want to save at least 17 assembly constituencies from the Bangladeshi-origin Muslims. Nearly eight lakh Hindu Bengalis will be left out of the NRC and they can be the deciding factor for indigenous Assamese leaders contesting elections. If the Bengali Hindus are given citizenship, they will remain with the Assamese and help us win against the Bengali Muslim leaders. Otherwise, Assamese community will become a minority, like the Kashmiri Pandits or the indigenous people in Tripura,” Sarma recently said. Many termed Sarma’s statement as BJP’s tactic to woo the Hindu Bengali voters ahead of Lok Sabha polls.
Despite the anger among indigenous Assamese voters, BJP insiders believe the bill will help them as both the Hindu Bengalis and the Assamese who believe in Hindutva ideology will vote for the party again. “Our seats will increase from seven in 2014 to at least 10 this time,” said a BJP leader. Assam has 14 Lok Sabha seats. They believe the Muslim votes (nearly 30%) will be divided between Congress, AIUDF and AGP.
The BJP’s allies in Meghalaya, Tripura, Mizoram and Nagaland have opposed the bill while its government in Manipur has demanded that the state should be exempted from its purview.
Citizenship to the Hindu Bengalis, however, will not be a cakewalk as Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal said that those applying for Indian citizenship must first prove that they were victims of religious persecution. “(But) why will Bangladesh or Pakistan give a certificate saying they left the country due to religious persecution? If they do so, that will defame them for failing to protect their minorities,” said Raktim Biswas, a human rights activist in Silchar, pointing out the absurdity in Sonowal’s position.