ASSAM: NATIVE VERSUS ALIEN
On the morning of January 7, in Delhi’s bone-chilling winter cold, a dozen or so youth from Assam stripped their clothes off and shouted slogans against the government. They were protesting the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016, which provides a path to becoming Indian for non-Muslim migrants, mostly from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, who have fled their countries because of religious persecution. The bill was passed in the Lok Sabha the next day though it got stuck in the upper house on January 9.
In Assam, the Asom Gana Parishad, a BJP ally, pulled out of the government. A bandh shut the state down on the day the bill was passed in the Lok Sabha.
Other northeastern states are troubled too. Meghalaya chief minister Conrad Sangma said over the phone that his National People’s Party had “always opposed this bill” and it would “take a call on our alliance with the NDA at an appropriate time”.
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced early this month his government’s intention to push the bill through Parliament on a visit to Silchar in the heart of the Barak Valley, dominated by Hindu Bengalis, local BJP leaders, including Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal, a hero of the movement to resist illegal migration into the state from Bangladesh, greeted the declaration with a standing ovation. Modi had not even bothered to wait for a report from a parliamentary committee his government had tasked with examining the bill, following protests in Assam. “Everything was scripted,” says Congress MP Sushmita Dev, who was part of the committee. “The committee was set up to hoodwink us, our concerns were ignored.”
The anger against the bill stems from a fear that the Assamese language will be further subsumed by the naturalisation of illegal Hindu migrants from Bangladesh. Already, Bengali has made steady inroads into the state, with the number of Assamese speakers dipping below 50 per cent in 2011, while Bengali speakers make up a third of the population.
The BJP was encouraged to push the bill by its unprecedented performance in last month’s panchayat polls in the state—the party won more than half the seats. It was also a confidence booster for Assam finance minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, widely seen as the party’s key northeast electoral strategist. Unlike Sonowal, who has maintained a stoic silence, Sarma has been vocal in his support of the bill. He has been aggressively communal, claiming that Assamese Hindus needed their Bengali equivalents to prevent Assam from “going the Jinnah way”. According to party sources, there was considerable alarm within the party when it appeared that two million of the four million people left out of the final draft of the National Register of Citizens in Assam were Bengali Hindus. Ensuring that these people have a viable path to citizenship would preserve a vital BJP vote bank. “I cannot allow someone like Badruddin Ajmal (opposition MP and leader of the All India United Democratic Front) to become the Assam CM because he is against our culture,” says Sarma.
Now the BJP wants to invoke Clause 6 in the Assam Accord (1985) to protect the cultural, social and linguistic heritage of the state. It has tasked a committee to assess appropriate reservations for Assamese people in the legislative assembly and for government jobs. But will it be too little too late for the BJP to salvage the trust of the Assamese people? “This bill is a conspiracy of the BJP,” says Samujjal Bhattacharya, chief advisor of the All Assam Students Union and a close friend of Sonowal’s. “The people of Assam gave the BJP seven seats in the 2014 general election and a massive mandate in the 2016 assembly polls. The people have been betrayed.”
It’s also instructive to compare the BJP’s attitude to the special rights of Assamese people as outlined in the Assam Accord to its attitude to the special rights and privileges of Kashmiris as outlined in Article 35A. But that’s another story.
THE ANGER AGAINST THE BILL STEMS FROM A FEAR THAT THE ASSAMESE LANGUAGE WILL BE SUBSUMED BY THE NATURALISATION OF BENGALI MIGRANTS
BURNING ISSUE: Members of the All Assam Students Union burn a dummy copy of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in Guwahati on January 7