CAB has given rise to fears among Assam’s indigenous population of becoming a minority in their own land.
Guwahati / New Delhi: The Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB), which promises to give citizenship to persecuted Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs fleeing from neighbouring countries, has given rise to fears among Assam’s indigenous population of becoming a minority in their own land because of the influx of illegal immigrants. Assam has been fighting a long battle to preserve its identity, which found its biggest manifestation in the Assam movement of 1979-1985, led by All Assam Students’ Union (AASU). The movement ended with the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985, but not illegal infiltration, say the Assamese. The indigenous Assamese see the implementation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) to identify illegal immigrants by the Bharatiya Janata Party government there as a move in the right direction. However, the BJP then started pushing for CAB. And now there is fear that the dying fire of identity politics has been stoked again. Last week in Guwahati, The Sunday Guardian spoke to three experts to find that different and differing narratives and viewpoints exist as far as the Assam issue is concerned. Here are edited excerpts from the conversations:
“The Assam movement started in 1979. The Assam Accord was signed in 1985, which was possible because of AASU’s refusal to divide the migrants on the basis of religion. (The Assam Movement’s fundamental principle was that a foreigner had to be decided according to the principle of the Indian Constitution and not on the basis of the foreigner’s religion or language. As Basanta Deka writes in his book, The Design, The Betrayal, The Assam Movement, “The government of India of any political shade always made a distinction: the Hindus who left the new political entity East Pakistan were treated as refugees, and the Muslims were infiltrators… The ‘refugees’ and ‘infiltrators’ crossed the international border to enter Assam as effortlessly and fearlessly as their predecessors did before the partition as internal migrants.”) Congress too tried to divide. The Assam Accord embraces social, cultural, economic aspects. There is a clause there (Clause 6) for providing safeguards to the indigenous people of Assam. The last Congress government formed a tripartite committee, when G.K. Pillai was the Home Secretary. He was in charge of working out the modalities for that. But it couldn’t move for the lack of political will. Now Congress seems to have had a change of heart and is opposing the Citizenship Amendment Bill. Certainly they have the election in mind. But whatever be the case, they seem to have had a change of heart.
“BJP is killing the Assam Accord by bringing in the CAB. Assam Accord says anyone who came after 24 March 1971 will have to go back. But BJP is distinguishing migrants on the basis of religion. This goes against the Assam Accord, Indira-Mujib pact (of 1972, keeping 24 March 1971 as the deadline) and Nehru-Liaquat pact (of 1950). They (BJP) formed a committee to work out the safeguards, but no one was willing to be a part of it.
“Illegal immigration is a very serious problem, but nobody knows the exact numbers (of illegal immigrants). Government of India says 50 lakh. That is the only figure we have. In 2001, Assam had 50 lakh illegal immigrants. Government of India placed this in Parliament. In the NRC exercise, in the draft roll, 40 lakh people were omitted. Out of 40 lakh, names of around 1.5 lakh indigenous people, both Hindus and Muslims got left out. And another 1.5 lakh from other states, Bihar, UP, etc. So out of 40 lakh, 3 lakh would be genuine citizens. The rest 37 lakh, if they had genuine papers they would have submitted that at the very first instance. It is the government’s commitment that the illegal immigrants will be deported. Let them come and say if they cannot do it. Indira Gandhi in every discussion (during the Assam movement) between 1980 and 1984 said that she would deport the illegal immigrants, but she was killed.”
PROF ABU NASAR SAIED AHMED
Honorary Director, Banikanta Kakati Research Institute at Krishna Kanta Handiqui State Open University
“During British rule, Bengali babus were invited to Assam to run the administration, as our people were not exposed to British rule. In the process, Bengali language became the official language and medium of instruction in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Assamese elite spearheaded a movement against this, the Assam language movement in the Brahmaputra valley. Bengali Muslims were brought as part of the Grow More Food programme in the 1920s. They assimilated easily in the (indigenous Assamese dominated) Brahmaputra valley. The Assamese do not feel that Bengali Muslims are challenging them. Bengali Muslims speak Assamese, have written books in Assamese, set up libraries. The indigenous Assamese Muslims came to Assam in the 13th century (around 1205-1206 AD). But Bengali Hindus are seen as a threat to the Assamese because they set up Bengali schools, theatres, thus preserving their own identity. Bengali Hindus are a substantial population in Barak valley. They have a strong presence in Railway related jobs. During the 1947 riots (partition) a huge number of Bengali Hindus came to Assam. But in the last decade, Muslim migration has come down. Muslims came up to 1971. Once the Assam movement started (1979), the number of Muslims coming reduced.
“The S.K. Sinha report about the number of illegal immigrants in Assam was speculative. (The then Assam Governor, Lt Gen S.K. Sinha sent a report to the Centre in 1998 saying that several of Assam’s districts had become Muslim majority and more would become so, if illegal migration of Bangladeshi Muslims continued.) If several thousand people are coming every day, that is an astronomical number. Where are these people? We don’t have data. Assam has an extra burden of 18 lakh people (in terms of rate of growth)—they may be Biharis, Nepalese and of Bangladeshi origin. But then that number is also speculative. If there are 90 lakh illegal immigrants, that is if out of a 3.3 crore population, almost 1 crore are from Bangladesh, where are they? Assam is not a big state. Of course no one can say that there is no infiltration, but…
“Of course there is animosity here. When language riots took place, Bengali Hindus were persecuted. Muslims are targeted and then Bengali Hindus. Assamese society has been polarised on the basis of religion and language. Even indigenous Muslims are being branded as Bangladeshis.
“As for the NRC, it has affected Bengali Hindus in the Barak valley—those who came after 1971. Between 2001 and 2006, during Khaleda Zia’s rule, there was violence. Hindus from Bangladesh fled to Assam and Bengal. After 1971, primarily the persecuted people are coming (that is Hindus). What do you do with them? You cannot throw them out. They do not have valid papers pre 1971.
“CAB gives free entry to Bangladeshi Hindus.
“The NRC has affected Muslims in the Brahmaputra valley because of carelessness of the functionaries—the bureaucrats and the clerks. They have acted arbitrarily and sometimes deliberately, to harass Muslims. It is also humiliating. Why do Muslims have to prove to petty officials their citizenship?”
Social activist, a former MLA and Padma Shri
“Bengali Muslims who come here identify themselves as ‘Asaima’, not as Bengalis. They cannot pronounce ‘Asamiya’, so they describe themselves as ‘Asaima’, their language as ‘Asaima’. After the death of Hiralal Patwari, an MP, in 1978, a byelection was necessitated. In that byelection it was found that there had been a huge jump in the number of registered voters from a particular community. This triggered the Assam agitation against foreigners. Bengali Hindus were not the issue at the time. Bengali Hindus came to Assam many years ago, during the time of the British. Bengali Hindus stayed in harmony with the Assamese. But then there was Sylhet (originally a district in Bengal, which was added to Assam in the late 19th century). Sylhet, a totally Bengali speaking area of Hindus and Muslims, was part of Assam. In a (July 1947) referendum, 10% of Sylhet stayed with India, while 90% went to East Pakistan. So Sylhet’s Bengali Hindus became a part of East Pakistan overnight because of the referendum. So those Bengali Hindu refugees who came to Assam at the time of partition were all from Sylhet and belonged to Assam itself. They did not come from other areas of East Bengal (that is East Pakistan). They all came from Sylhet. The Immigrants (Expulsion From Assam) Act, came into existence in 1950, to protect Assam’s indigenous population from infiltrators. But the Act was not meant to affect large groups of people who had migrated to Assam due to large scale “civil disturbance”. The word “communal” was not there in the Act, but everyone knew what had happened then—communal riots. These people affected by civil disturbance cannot be pushed back. And not just Bengali Hindus, tribals also came—Rajbongshis, Rabhas, Bodos.
“But after the 1971 Bangladesh war—when many Hindus and Muslims had come, some of whom had also gone back—no large scale migration of Hindus took place. Whatever large-scale migration took place was from Sylhet (at the time of partition). Many Muslims were brought from Mymensingh (now in Bangladesh) under the pretext of ‘Grow More Food’ (1930s) and they were settled here, given land, in Nawgong etc. But after 1971 not many Bengali Hindus came here because Assam by that time was witnessing disturbances, riots. Everyone knows about Nellie (massacre of Bengali Muslims in 1983), but many incidents similar to Nellie took place. The casualties in each of these incidents may not have been in the thousands, but in hundreds, however, cumulatively, thousands of people died. Some fights have been between tribals and Assamese, in some incidents Bengali Hindus have been affected, in some areas Muslims have been affected.
“On the surface CAB looks good: we are going to give shelter to persecuted people. But BJP played a game here, particularly BJP leaders Ranjit Das and Rajen Gohain. CAB says that those coming up to 31 December 2014 can apply for citizenship after five years. The BJP, particularly Das and Gohain did not highlight that the cut-off date was 31 December 2014; they made out CAB to be an invitation of Bengali Hindus into Assam, because Bengali Hindus are their vote banks. They said unless Bengali Hindus were brought to Assam, Hindus would become a minority in the state. In the process they angered the whole of Assam. Assam society got worried. Assam officers got worried. The fear was that they were becoming a minority. As a result, almost 30 lakh Bengali Hindu names did not get included in the NRC. I can say for certain that 90% of these people whose names have been excluded came to Assam much before 1971. The NRC exercise did not trigger any protests in Muslim areas (because not that many Muslim names were there). Now Bengali Hindus are targets. Bengali Hindus are very concerned and want their names included in NRC. Worse, only 10% of the papers sent to Bengal to Mamata Banerjee have been sent back. At least 6 lakh names did not get included in NRC just because of that. At the same time, because a lot of assimilation has taken place of Bengalis and Assamese through marriages, in the Brahmaputra valley in particular, riots have not taken place this time. Five people were shot dead, but riots did not take place.
“The solution is to execute NRC properly and stop CAB for the time being.”