Citizenship Bill revives old fears in North-East

The controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, has once again revived memories of a 150-year-old festering sore in Assam and, indeed, the entire North-east region. Even as surveys are underway for the introduction of the Bill, an age-old fissure between the two major linguistic communities of Assam -- Assamese and Bengalis -- has again come to the fore. Geographically, the broad dividing line, though far from watertight, is between the Brahmaputra and the Barak Valley. By and large, Assamese speakers are generally opposed to the proposed Bill and the Bengali Hindus welcome it.

The Bill seeks to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955, to make the route to Indian citizenship easier for illegal migrants who are Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. If the Bill becomes law, these illegal immigrants will not be liable to be imprisoned or deported.

The Citizenship Act, 1955, allows acquisition of Indian citizenship by naturalisation by an applicant who has resided in India during the last 12 months, and for 11 of the previous 14 years. The Bill relaxes the 11-year requirement to six years for immigrants belonging to these religions from these three countries. Conspicuously absent from the list of favoured illegal immigrants are Muslims.

How would this affect Assam? The history of colonial-era Assam, which then was almost the entire North-east, with the exceptions of the independent kingdoms of Manipur and Tripura, may provide the answer. In fact, the communal frictions being witnessed today in the wake of the preparation for the Bill is strongly reminiscent of Partition period politics in Assam.

In a nutshell, Assam was annexed by the British and made a province of British Bengal with the signing of the Treaty of Yandaboo in 1826 with the Burmese, who had invaded and occupied Assam. Assam then was agrarian and largely unfamiliar with British administration. So, the British brought in educated middle class Bengalis well acquainted with the British system from adjacent Sylhet district of eastern Bengal to run their lower bureaucracy.

This Bengali middle class, mostly Hindus, came to dominate Assam affairs, and treated the Assamese with condescension. In 1937, they influenced the British to make Bengali the official as well as school language, arguing that Assamese was but a dialect of Bengali. The nascent and weak Assamese middle class then were unable to thwart this, but the seeds of future conflict were sown. As the latter expanded, the resistance grew and in 1873, Assamese was restored as the official language of five districts in the Brahmaputra valley. The following year, Assam was separated from Bengal.

There was, all the while, another bigger wave of immigrants into Assam from eastern Bengal, and these were largely land-hungry Muslim Bengali peasants. The earlier Muslim immigrants easily integrated with Assamese society, identifying themselves as Assamese speakers, but this soon changed with the changing colour of politics of the Indian freedom struggle, which shaped into a contest of religious nationalisms, pitting Hindus against Muslims. It was then that Assam saw a unique triangular rivalry. At one level, it was a clash of linguistic nationalisms between Assamese speakers and Bengali speakers. At another, it was friction between Hindus and Muslims.

At the time of Partition, it was the former that held in Assam. The Hindu Bengalis in Sylhet desperately wanted to be included in India and one way of ensuring this was for Sylhet to be treated as part of Assam, for then the combined population of the province would be Hindu majority. But embittered by past rivalries between the two linguistic communities, and fearful of being reduced to a linguistic minority in their homeland, the Assamese refused.

This fear of a demographic upset is shared everywhere in the North-east, and they all are wary of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016. Meghalaya has openly denounced it, and indications are, most of the rest of the North-east will, too. The fear is of unregulated immigration, regardless of religious affiliations of the immigrants or their citizenship status. Indeed, the adjective “illegal” often added to immigrants in this context, is a fig leaf to give this fear acceptability in the Indian national discourse. Nowhere is the nature of this fear more undisguised than in a 1929 memorandum submitted by the Naga Club, formed by a very recently  emerged  Naga elite, to the Simon Commission, then  preparing the grounds for administrative reforms in India: “We have no social affinities with the Hindus or Musalmans. We are looked down upon by the one for our ‘beef’ and the other for our ‘pork’ and by both for our want in education…”

(The writer is Editor, Free Press, Imphal)

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Citizenship Bill revives old fears in North-East

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