‘Assamese people cannot form a government by themselves, let’s be practical,’ Himanta Biswa Sarma
Editor of G Plus, Swapnil Bharali, was in an exclusive conversation with Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma post the passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016 in the Lok Sabha. Excerpts from the conversation…
G Plus: The operative word for you is ‘Traitor’. That you have hurt sentiments, you have gone back on your election promises with the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016.
HBS: I don’t agree with you here. Today morning I was in Nalbari and I have seen the usual crowd, we are working as usual and I think, the days to come will prove who is a traitor. If siding with my own civilisation makes me a traitor, then those who are siding with the other civilisation, what is the definition for them? The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 is nothing new. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had come to Assam in 2014 and said that we were going to give citizenship to the Hindus. During Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s time also it was the consistent policy of the BJP to give citizenship to religious minorities of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. So, BJP and for me, this was my stand from 2008.
G Plus: Your election in 2016 was ‘Jati, Mati, Bheti’ and prior to that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said that Bangladeshis will have to pack up and leave.
HBS: For us ‘Jati, Mati, Bheti’ is Indian culture, civilisation and Assam’s identity. In 2014, PM Modi had said that BJP does not consider Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Christians as infiltrators. So this qualified difference exists since the days of formation of BJP, since the days of Bharatiya Jan Sangh. On this part, there is no contradiction.
G Plus: But there is this distinct northeastern identity, plus the Assamese and then so many immigrants.
HBS: The problem is that the people are ill-informed. Basically, what is the population pattern? The Hindu population in Assam is 61 percent and Bangladeshi Muslims constitute 31 percent – the single largest community. Now, if you exclude the Hindu-Bangladeshi, the Hindu population comes down to 55 percent. If you go by the word of Akhil Gogoi who says 20 lakhs, then you are coming to almost 52 percent. And if you believe my 8 lakhs, then you are around 56 percent. By the next census Hindus will be 47 percent. Allowing Assam to be a Muslim majority state, is it patriotism? Bengali Muslims say this is called nationalism; this is called Assam’s identity. If that is so, then I have a difference of opinion with them.
G Plus: Why the haste in passing the CAB?
HBS: There is no haste. We are going at our own pace. We had piloted the bill in 2016. JPC (Joint Parliamentary Committee) worked for two years, Lok Sabha has passed the bill. Now there is a gap of one month and it will go to Rajya Sabha. We are on process. We believe that if you exclude these Hindu minorities - the Bangladeshi Hindu people - then Assam will be a Muslim majority state. Not with indigenous Muslims but with Muslims of Bengali origin. We will instantly lose 17 to 18 seats to them and in 2021 you will see a completely different ball game in the Assam assembly. You will not be able to preserve any Xatras (Vaishnavite learning centres). So, for me this is a priority, this is the most burning issue I am confronting as of now. I have no time and I have to do it today.
G Plus: You have said that the CAB will help in saving these 17 constituencies for next 10 to 15 years. Isn’t that a temporary solution?
HBS: It is temporary as there is no permanent solution because sooner than later Hindus or Assamese are destined to be minorities in Assam. So, we are trying to take time for ten years by doing a strategic alliance with Bengali-Hindus and other tribal populations of the state. This is a strategic alliance and we are trying to preserve Assam for next the ten years and during these ten years hopefully, new ideas will emerge. We are trying to keep at least a ten-year gap because if you don’t do this today you are out by 2021, but if you are doing it today, you are saving at least ten years and in the next ten years many more new ideas will emerge.
G Plus: What kind of ideas?
HBS: One idea is during the preparation of NRC (National Register of Citizens) a lot of legacy data was forged. For a Muslim, a Rahman’s son will not necessarily have Rahman for a surname. They can be Ali, Ahmed or anything else. But for Hindu a Pal is always a Pal. So during the NRC process, as rightly has been said by the so-called krishak neta (farmer leader), 20 lakh Bengali Hindus have been identified. If it is so, then are another two lakh Gorkha-Assamese, Hindu Marwaris another two lakhs. Then this NRC exercise actually has regularised a lot of Bangladeshi Muslims as Indian citizens. Prateek Hajela (NRC State Coordinator) has given an affidavit that legacy data has been forged. Supreme Court has said that it is going to examine that aspect. This time the Supreme Court has said that the state government cannot take active part with the NRC. But now, if re-validation of legacy data starts probably we can achieve much more. Assam has a long battle and Assamese cannot fight this battle alone as we are not the single largest community in Assam – we have lost the majority.
G Plus: So what you mean is that it would be impossible for Assamese to form a government by themselves.
HBS: Even today, you can’t for the government. If you exclude the tribal people and the Bengali-Hindus, you cannot have a government of Assamese people. Today you are saying ‘Jati, Mati, Bheti’ and even if we go by your definition, BJP will have only 35 seats from the Assamese people. We are in the government because Barak Valley has contributed their seats. We are in the government because Hagrama Mohilary is in alliance with us. Where is the BJP’s majority? Even by your interpretation of ‘Jati, Mati, Bheti’, AGP (Asom Gana Parishad) could not get majority in 1985 and had to do a strategic alliance with Sahidul Alam Choudhury and Abdul Muhib Majumdar. Today, we have a strategic alliance with Hagrama and other tribal leaders.
G Plus: You have not really been able to clearly explain how the CAB will actually be good for Assam?
HBS: We have taken three steps. CAB will allow you to retain 17 seats for the Assamese people for next ten years. I will now come down to the examples. Take Sarbhog. This seat would immediately go to the UMF or AIDUF if you exclude 10,000 Bengali Hindu votes. If you see the voting pattern of Lumding, Jagiroad, North Abhayapuri, South Abhayapuri and many more constituencies we are on the verge of losing these seats. In Bhabanipur, after Surendra Nath Medhi, no Hindu or Assamese have been able to become an MLA from there. Naoboicha, the famous constituency represented by Bhupen Hazarika, has gone out of our hands. If we don’t bring CAB immediately, 17 seats will go. If you have CAB, no new people can come after December 2014. Now the total population of Bengali-Hindus who will be burdened will be their enemy. They are already in Assam. You cannot physically remove them. The only concession you are allowing is to vote. You can’t put ten lakh people on trains and send them somewhere. By giving that concession we are keeping 17 seats with us for the time being. Secondly, with the implementation of Clause 6 (of the Assam Accord), where we are talking about legislative protection, protection of job for the Assamese youth, we are making another effort for the indigenous people. The third point in our view is, if we give tribal status to the six communities without affecting the existing tribal community we are getting some more seats in the assembly, we are getting some more jobs for the Assamese. Fourth is, in the process of NRC, if you can exclude another 15 lakh people - Bengali Muslims - then Assam will, for the time being, be an invincible fort of the indigenous Assamese people.
G Plus: What about Clause 5 of the Assam Accord that talks abthe out detection and deportation of illegal migrants? After NRC, if the detection part is done, how difficult would be the deportation?
HBS: It is not possible that way because there is no treaty between India and Bangladesh. The process is these 15-20 lakh people have to be given a chance to appeal against the judgement of NRC authorities up to the Supreme Court level. Then you have to document their home address of Bangladesh and send it to the Bangladesh government. They will verify everything through their own judicial process and if they are convinced they will take back people.
G Plus: There are some immigrant-receptive countries like say Canada for example that is ready to take one million immigrants. Can’t this be done?
HBS: That is one idea. So if tomorrow when these people become stateless citizens, they will not vote, they will not have access to certain government facilities. By logic they will become stateless citizens. Their migration from Assam will automatically start by the force of economy. This will happen, but logically it will not be possible to put them on a train and send them to some country. During the process of NRC almost ten lakh people did not apply, eight lakh people did not apply for claims and objections. That means 18 lakh people have disappeared from the records of Assam. Where have they gone? They must have gone to other states of the country or they might have gone to Nepal or Bangladesh. When you close doors for them in certain areas, they will start moving out from Assam. But you cannot legally send them without fulfilling the entire legal requirement.
G Plus: The NRC will throw up a number of foreigners. What’s going to be their fate? Has the government thought what to do with them?
HBS: We have just started the process of thinking, because we know that once the NRC final list is published you cannot immediately deport these people because you have to give them all the judicial opportunities, including appeal up to the Supreme Court. Deportation will also depend around the power of the government of India to convince the government of Bangladesh and how this large amount of people can be actually pushed back. But having said that, immediately these people’s name will be deleted from the voters list followed by loss of the government job if someone was holding one. So there are a series of actions that will be initiated which will basically make the foreigner a stateless citizen. But at the same time, India being a country which has a very good track record of human rights, probably we are not going to deprive these people from health, education and minimum basic needs.
G Plus: All of them will be identified and huddled inside detention camps?
HBS: Practically that is not possible. You have to ensure certain basic human rights for them. But they will not be able to purchase property within the state of Assam, will not be eligible a for government job or any other government facility and they will not be able to vote. So certain things will come immediately, medium and long-term action plan we will have to think of. This matter is also under discussion at the level of Supreme Court and all the stakeholders have to be consulted and a decision has to be arrived at.
G Plus: AASU is very categorical and Samujjal Bhattacharya says that without Clause 5, Clause 6 cannot be even talked about.
HBS: I do not accept his logic of his linking Clause 5 with Clause 6, If he will not talk, the world will not stop. It will keep moving. People will get legislative protection within six months.
G Plus: The fearful part is the agitations coming back into our lives.
HBS: I have not seen any agitation. Where is the agitation? Four-five people moving here and there, you call it agitation? See the Assam Agitation, we have seen Assam Agitation, so I will not put the word agitation to everything that is happening around me today. Yes, there are genuine grievances, genuine fear because certain sections of media have taken over feeding wrong information to the people. Many people do not have the courage to stand up against the media onslaught, so the correct information is not going to the people. But from today when we will keep on communicating to the people through public meetings and other channels you will see that these will not have a very long term effect. There will be long-term effect only when there is truth. When there is no truth, there will be no long-term effect of all these things.
G Plus: If you would want to convince the AASU today…
HBS: This is not my job. My only issue is the social media. Who are the handles which are talking? Mainly, they are those that the Bengali-Muslim people are spearheading. My only argument is let Assamese people talk on social media against this bill. Why are Bengali-Muslim people speaking? When their own status is not clarified as of now, why are they against Bengali-Hindus? They have evicted them from Bangladesh and today they want to evict the Hindu Bengalis from Assam. What is their vested interest? Let Assamese people speak, I have no objection. There may be two views and I may not agree to yours and you may not agree to mine. Democracy is all about debate, argument and it will go on, I have no problem. But what is their vested interest?
If you check the social media, if there are 100 comments against CAB 60 comments will be from them. People of Assam should be wise enough to understand why Bengali-Muslims are so interested in this issue. Because they realise that if they can evict Hindu Bengalis, handling Assamese people will just be a matter of time. They have handled them in 14 districts and now handling them is just a matter of time. Bengali-Hindu have not evicted Assamese from any area or encroached Xatras or physically harmed any of our girls. Plus we worship similarly and our civilisation is same. At the end of the day the Assamese people should know who their enemy is. Marriages within Assamese and Bengali communities are common and these are processes of assimilation as you are part of the same civilisation. People tell me I am talking about Bengali Muslim and so I am communal. Rather when they are talking about Bengali Hindus, are they not communal?
G Plus: Would it be correct to assume that post CAB Assam looks distinctly fractured into three parts, Barak Valley, Brahmaputra Valley and the lower Assam comprising BTAD?
HBS: There is no post CAB because it will not change the status. These are not new people and nobody will open a gate so that new people will come. Whatever the situation of Assam is today, it will remain like this. The only thing you will see is from the NRC 15-16 lakh Bengali Muslim names will be deleted, rest would be status quo. You are not going to see any scenario. Still Assamese will be the minority community in 14 districts post or pre-CAB. Many of our temples, many of your Xatras will be under occupation of somebody. You will not see any drastic change only if the people of Assam help us in implementing all these four issues, NRC, CAB, Clause 6 and tribal status to 6 communities. If you do not mock at all these things by using words like “lollipop,” if you work sincerely probably you can see a better Assam.
G Plus: What are your colleagues doing in their respective constituencies? Are they going and explaining these things to the people?
HBS: The major ethnic communities of the state are with the BJP and in March we will win nine to ten seats Lok Sabha seats. People are working in the streets and I have absolutely no confusion. These ethnic communities are the original inhabitants of the state. If they don’t have any problem then what is the problem on our part?
G Plus: So BJP is not going to be hit?
HBS: Not at all!
G Plus: What are your political ambitions?
HBS: All these are destiny. As of, now you have some real fight in your hands and my job is to secure 19 to 20 seats for NDA (National Democratic Alliance) from northeast in the forthcoming election. That is my immediate target. Beyond that we will discuss sometime.
G Plus: Are you contesting for parliament in 2019?
HBS: Yes, the option is there. There are two views within the party. Some feel that I should stay back and a good section of people feel that I should go to Delhi. By the end of February, the party leadership will take a call but I am comfortable where I am today.