Assam, a state of the North Eastern India, is up again with a mass movement against the provisions of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) which implies granting citizenship on religious grounds. Numerous petitions from students, advocates, intellectuals and others against CAA are pending the Supreme Court, and so, although the matter is sub judice the various issues involved are in the public domain and are being continually debated and discussed. Therefore, I intend to bring up here certain aspects of the issues involved in relation to the realities in Assam and in other states of the North East.
The crux of the CAA as far as Assam is concerned is again in relation to the ‘foreigners’ issue for which the state had to undertake a mass movement during 1979 to 1985 when the All Assam Students Union (AASU) provided the leadership that culminated in the signing of the Assam Accord with the Congress government led by the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. The newly-formed regional party Assam Gana Parishad (AGP), consisting mostly of AASU leaders, came to power in Assam in 1985. However, precious little was done by the so-called peoples’ government in its first term and also in the second term later in terms of detection & deportation of foreigners and to effectively prevent continuous influx from neighboring Bangladesh.
Influx of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh to Assam and other parts of the North East and India is not a new problem. It was there in the British period when Bengal consisted of both East and West Bengal; it was there during the Partition; it continued in the post-independence period with a new thrust on ‘vote-bank’ politics of successive governments in Assam; it escalated during the Pakistani invasion of East Pakistan in 1971 and after the formation of Bangladesh the same year. Since then, Bangladesh has been a friendly neighbor for India, and despite numerous rounds of bilateral talks on various issues including the influx hardly anything solid was done to prevent further migration or to deport the existing ‘foreigners’; acts on detection of foreigners were brought in or amended or repealed without tangible results and the work of ‘effective fencing’ in the border never really took off amid allegations of a ‘traditional’ corruption racket in letting in illegal migrants for a few bucks, not to speak about the largely ‘unmanaged’ riverine routes to Assam.
Now, let us turn to a few salient features of the Assam Movement. The hard facts first: the ‘foreigners’ from Bangladesh belonged to two Indian religions-Hindu and Muslim; the ‘foreigners’ spoke a prominent Indian language-Bangla or Bengali; the Indian Bengalis emotionally believe that all of them were part of the same community before the Partition and most of them, so, cannot help but feel a lot of affinity for the ‘foreigners’. Thanks to these ‘historical facts’ vested political and other interests always created a ‘conscious confusion’ over ‘minorities-religious or linguistic’ and ‘foreigners’, and this, as intended, always led other Indians to believe that the Movement was communal and was directed against ‘outsiders’ and not ‘foreigners’ apart from the inner conflict between the local people of Assam and the Indian Bengalis living there. During the time of the first Assam Movement some of us were studying in Delhi while all the students of Assam lost a full academic year. We carried out a sort of ‘Delhi chapter’ of the movement organizing protests and meeting various political leaders; our focus was on pointing out the non-communal nature of the movement which was being directed against ‘foreigners’ irrespective of religion or language and not against ‘outsiders’ or ‘minorities’. At least during my lifetime, there has hardly been anything that distinguishes an Assamese Hindu from an Assamese Muslim; such was the peaceful co-existence in the state incorporating numerous other tribes living there over centuries having their distinct culture and languages. Unfortunately, despite our best efforts over the last few decades, we still have to convince other Indians about our non-communal movement and that our only concerns are about deportation of foreigners and prevention of further influx from Bangladesh. However, vested interests and politics of vote-bank and polarization never listen to real arguments.
The CAA has brought in its wake an existential threat to the Assamese-speaking community in Assam, because the proposed grant of citizenship to all Hindu foreigners who speak Bangla and who have come before 31st December, 2014, while the cut-off date for illegal immigrants agreed upon in the Assam Accord was 24th March, 1971, is set to make the local people a linguistic minority in their own state. This is also true for some tribes of the North East states like the Khasis in Meghalaya. People of the region also see in this an absolute betrayal of their elected representatives of the ruling parties as while the act was passed by both the houses of Parliament not a single vote from the North East ruling Members of Parliament went against it. And how the governments of Assam and other NE states are looking at the mass movement? Before going to that we must bring in a political perspective. The BJP government installed overwhelmingly in 2016 in Assam talked that time about deporting every single Bangladeshi foreigner from the state, and when the National Register of Citizens (NRC) was started in Assam under the supervision of the Supreme Court it was seen by people as a genuine effort to detect and deport foreigners. However, after exclusion of several millions of suspected foreigners in the NRC, most of them Hindus, even state BJP leaders expressed their displeasure and later on started saying that this NRC was just a beginning and that a more comprehensive campaign would be taken up later, the thousands of crores of rupees spent notwithstanding. In this light, the introduction of ‘Citizenship Amendment Bill’ (CAB) was significant, because it was apparent that CAB aimed at achieving what NRC couldn’t. And that paved the way for the protests to include NRC, CAA and even the National Population Register (NPR) in the movement against as suspicious moves in the alleged overall agenda of divisive and polarization politics of the Hindutva parties. This complete picture made the movement pan-Indian.
However, one basic reason for the pan-India protests is the alleged constitutional violation by the act in that it went against the secular ideals while trying to grant citizenship in terms of religious affiliation. The Indian Muslims, a minority community in Hindu-majority India, began to feel insecure and considered themselves as targets of the act or the proposed moves. All other political parties, irrespective of ideologies, also started protesting vehemently due to the constitutional violation and communal politics. From the beginning the Union Government and the state governments of the North Eastern states looked at the movement as unwarranted, because they consistently affirmed that all of CAA, NRC, NPR are for the ultimate good of the Indian citizens, and they immediately focused on the initial violence committed by some miscreants during the movement to castigate the vested elements and the opposition political parties for misdirecting or misguiding the people sitting on protest for blatant political capital. They refused to accept that people consisting of students, artistes, intellectuals, advocates, farmers, women, parties/activists irrespective of ideologies and common folks cannot possibly be continually ‘misguided’ by any vested interest. Besides, the opposition political parties of Assam and the North East are not much loved by the people and they were rejected by the people in the earlier decades for their misdeeds.