Column| The Great Deception
All of Assam is currently on the boil with mass agitations around the country, nude protests in Delhi and Guwahati and processions and bandhs being called out by leaders and political organizations of the state. The immediate cause for the stir is the Centre’s decision to go ahead with proposing key amendments to the Citizenship Act, 1955, which could have serious ramifications for the state and the country in the event that they are passed by the Parliament.
The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016 is a proposed legislation introduced by the BJP which has recently been approved by the Joint Parliamentary Committee in the Lok Sabha. The uproar surrounding this bill, especially the stark resistance shown towards it by the residents of Assam, has left a lot of people wondering why it has been received with such a sharp reaction by the northeastern community. This is mostly because of the misinformation and rhetoric surrounding the Bill which has worked to obfuscate the facts and shroud it in mystery.
The most concise description of the purpose of Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, is that it would operate to, first, remove the tag of “illegal immigrants” from undocumented persons immigrating into India from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan who are Hindu, Jain, Buddhist, Parsi, Sikh or Christian, thereby making them eligible to apply for Indian citizenship, something illegal immigrants are ineligible for. Secondly, the Bill would relax the minimum time period of residence in India before such an application from 11 years to six years.
However, in order to understand why the Assamese populace in particular is so strongly affected and aggrieved by this bill so much so that they have taken to the streets everywhere from Guwahati to New Delhi and why the passing of this piece of legislation could have catastrophic consequences for the country at large, it would be necessary to go back and refer to a few important events from recent history.
Around three and a half decades ago, on the Independence Day of 1985, the government of India signed a historic memorandum of understanding, popularly known as the Assam Accord with the leaders of the Assam movement. This ended an agitation which had lasted 6 years and seen as many as 855 Assamese youth give up their lives. The demands of the movement were met by Clause 5 of the Accord, which assured the systematic identification of all illegal immigrants who had settled in the state on or after 25th March 1971 and their subsequent deportation and Clause 6 which suggests that the government has to enact constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards to protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social and linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people.
This happened in the backdrop of the massive influx of immigrants from Bangladesh into Assam during and around 1971 which led to sudden and jarring changes in the demographics of the state, so much so that the identity of the Assamese community was felt to be in danger.
Three governments have come and gone since then; however, the key provisions of the Accord (including clauses 5 and 6) are yet to be implemented. On the contrary, undocumented immigration is more rampant than ever and illegal immigrants have now spread to further corners of the country.
During his campaign speeches leading up to the 2014 assembly elections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made boisterous promises to, “send these Bangladeshis packing.” Before this, no other politician or political party had ever explicitly addressed the issue of implementing the Assam Accord’s deportation clause; therefore the prospective prime minister’s rhetoric understandably came as a ray of hope to the indigenous communities of Assam. In fact, the public sentiment was stirred to such an extent that the state voted the BJP into a majority government for the very first time in its history.
In light of this, it comes as even more of a shock to the people of Assam when the same BJP government is now proposing to facilitate Indian citizenship for the immigrants they had promised to deport from the state. The party line now is that the state needs Hindu Bangladeshi voters to ensure that Assam does not go into the hands of AIUDF - one of the opponent parties in the state which specifically toes the line of sympathizing with Bangladeshi migrants, in the next assembly elections to be held in 2021. Leaving aside the fact that with this statement, one of the most influential BJP leaders of the region does not even bother to keep up the façade that the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill is aimed at providing a safe haven to minority communities which are facing persecution in the neighboring countries, this is a blatant admission that the Bill has been introduced to ensure the BJP’s return to power in the next elections by bringing in a whole voting block of illegal immigrants if need be.
Apart from making a complete farce of democracy and laying bare the party’s ulterior motives, this also raises a number of serious questions for BJP. Considering that in the 2016 Assembly polls AIUDF managed a paltry 13 seats as opposed to the BJP’s 60, the question is how the same former can suddenly manage to threaten the latter’s position in the next elections. Is it because they haven't been able to do enough for their existent voters? Given the fact that the BJP came into power in the last elections with such gusto, who were their voters then? Is it possible that these were the same migrants who are now being ousted because of the NRC process? Whatever the answers to these questions may be, it is abundantly clear that if the current government had done enough for all communities - or for that matter even some communities of the state - they wouldn't have been in the position they are in today.
On 8th January, 2019 the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 was passed in the Lok Sabha. During the run up to this, there were also suggestions by MLAs and MPs of other parties to 'exclude' Bangladesh from this bill - all without success. Now with the AGP walking out of the ruling coalition and the BPF having to step in to save the government from falling, the future looks uncertain for the state and its people. Even the support from BPF has come with the rider that no immigrants who settle in Assam as a result of the proposed amendment should be allowed to settle in the Bodo regions of the state. This is not a good sign for the political atmosphere of Assam, as it threatens to bring about a political turmoil where fringe parties will bargain to support the bill, as long as it doesn’t affect their constituencies, in exchange for a modicum of power in the government. Such myopic approach can not only be catastrophic because it might actually help the BJP gather a rag tag majority to enact the Bill in the parliament, but also because once the immigrants start settling in Assam, no community or region can possibly remain untouched by the effects of such an influx for long. In supporting the Bill, these leaders of the state are not only betraying the people they claim to represent but the idea of Assamese identity, statehood and even its right to self-determination.
It is becoming increasingly evident that no matter whether the Bill sees light of day or not, the state of Assam and its indigenous people are extremely hurt by the current dispensation's move and the step-motherly behavior that the centre and mainstream media in the country have conducted themselves with.