BJP politics on CAA reignites old fires in Assam

BJP politics on CAA reignites old fires in Assam

The question doing the rounds in Assam now is whether the disturbing days of the 1980s and 1990s will be back

The strong sentiment to fight ‘foreigners’ in Assam, however, is not new. (PTI Photo)

Days before his retirement, the former Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi warned that any attempt to change the cut-off date to detect foreigners in Assam would mean playing with fire.

The amendment to the Citizenship Act (1955) by the Narendra Modi government perhaps provided fuel to the fire. The result was visible all around: Vehicles set on fire in front of the Assam Secretariat in Guwahati and elsewhere, busy roads blocked, slogans on the streets and calls to keep the ‘fight’ on till the amendment is revoked. Four people died after being fired on by security forces in the heart of Guwahati while 10 other bullet-hit protesters are still struggling with their wounds.

Old wounds
The strong sentiment to fight ‘foreigners’ in Assam, however, is not new. It grew just after Partition when hordes of migrants started crossing Assam’s porous borders with East Pakistan or present Bangladesh. The exodus continued till Bangladesh’s liberation in 1971 and probably thereafter. As governments in power did nothing much to identify foreigners and segregate them from local Indian citizens, more specifically the Assamese, fear, and identity crisis deepened among the latter.

The anti-foreigners movement or the Assam Agitation of the indigenous Assamese led by the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) between 1979 and 1985 saw the deaths of 860 agitators and hundreds of suspected foreigners. Another group of youths, on the other hand, took up arms, from ULFA, a militant group, in 1979 and went underground to solve the foreigners' issue. The state is still grappling with the militancy problem.

The Assam Accord, which was signed during former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure with the ASSU and All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad on the night of August 14, 1985, worked out a conflict resolution by accepting March 24, 1971, to detect, delete (from electoral rolls) and deport foreigners by updating the National Register of Citizens,1951. The government in the next 30 years did not do much to update the NRC till the Supreme Court bench headed by Justice Gogoi issued an order on the issue.

The process to update the NRC gained pace in 2015. The NRC update continued over the next three years involving an expenditure of nearly Rs 1,500 crore and over 50,000 government employees. It left out a total of 19.06 lakh applicants. Assam’s quest for a solution to the long-standing issue looked to be heading towards an end, barring an action plan about the fate of those declared illegal migrants by the foreigners' tribunals or the high court post the NRC process.

But the Modi government’s decision to pass the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019 first and then have a pan-India NRC added a ‘communal twist’ to the citizens' verification exercise in the country and to Assam’s long fight against foreigners. “By signing the Assam Accord, we accepted the foreigners who settled between 1951 and March 24, 1971, irrespective of religion. We signed it as it was promised that all post-1971 migrants will be detected and deported, be it Hindu, Muslim or any other religion. But now, Modi govt is forcing us to take the burden of the Hindu Bangladeshis. This is unacceptable. Assamese people are ready to give blood but won’t accept a single foreigner, Hindu or Muslim. How can the government now change the cut-off from 1971 to 2014?” ASSU adviser Samujjal Kumar Bhattacharya said.

The amended citizenship law says that minorities from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan – Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, Jain, Parsis, and Sikhs – who fled due to religious persecution and have taken refuge in India till December 31, 2014, will be allowed to apply for Indian citizenship after a stay of five years.

Crackers were burst, dhols beaten and sweets distributed in some areas in Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan having such migrants but most parts of Assam and rest of the Northeast rose in protest. “It is adding salt to the old wounds which we sustained while fighting the foreigners in the past.” one protester told DH in Guwahati.

Where does the Hindu Bengali stand?
The anger and the fissures in social fabric often made Hindu Bengalis (also suspected as illegal migrants) a soft target, including that of militant groups, the latest being the gunning down of five Hindu Bengalis in eastern Assam’s Tinsukia district after Modi government passed the Bill in Lok Sabha in January 2019. Although the BJP claims that the amended act would enable 5.42 lakh Hindus who were left out of the NRC get Indian citizenship, a section of the 50 lakh Hindu Bengali population claims that it will, in fact, reduce them to ‘second class citizens’ as they will have to claim they are from Bangladesh to be given citizenship rights.

Exclusion of Muslims
As the amended act seeks to offer citizenship to non-Muslim migrants only, Muslims who were left out of the NRC consider it as BJP’s ploy to exclude them. The frequent statements by BJP leaders in Assam that the Hindus have nothing to worry about foreigners detention centers have also left many Muslims worried. “Assamese speaking Muslims like us will have no problem as we are the indigenous people. Most of us have pre-1951 documents to prove our Indian citizenship. But the post-1971 Muslims who speak Bengali are likely to be in trouble,” Meher Sultana, a student from a Guwahati college said. The 40 lakh odd-indigenous Muslims in Assam, in fact, are demanding ‘safeguards’ to protect their indigenous identity against a large number of Bengali-speaking Muslims, who are often suspected as illegal migrants.

As ASSU and other organisations exuded confidence that peaceful and disciplined agitations would force the government to revoke the amended citizenship law, as they did during the Assam Agitation, the question doing the rounds in Assam is: Will the disturbing days of the 1980s and 1990s be back soon? 

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