AS­SAM: NA­TIVE VER­SUS ALIEN

India Today - - UPFRONT - By Kaushik Deka

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

AVID TALUKDAR/GETTY IMAGES

BURN­ING IS­SUE: Mem­bers of the All As­sam Stu­dents Union burn a dummy copy of the Cit­i­zen­ship (Amend­ment) Bill in Guwahati on Jan­uary 7

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