It’s Play­ing Risky Games

BJP’s cal­cu­lated cit­i­zen­ship tweak will split As­samese so­ci­ety into ST and non-ST seg­ments

The Times of India (New Delhi edition) - - | POLITICS POLICY - Subir Bhau­mik

The pas­sage of the Cit­i­zen­ship (Amend­ment) Bill, 2019 in Lok Sabha has led to a new phase of tur­moil in In­dia’s north­east, ev­i­dent from the vi­o­lence dur­ing the Jan­uary 8 As­sam bandh called by All As­sam Stu­dents Union ( AASU) which many indige­nous groups sup­ported in other north­east­ern states. Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), which ran As­sam for two terms, has re­neged on its al­liance with BJP in protest against the bill and other re­gional par­ties in Megha­laya, Na­ga­land and Mi­zo­ram who have formed gov­ern­ments with BJP sup­port have also raised strong protests against it.

They fear that the bill, which seeks to pro­vide In­dian cit­i­zen­ship to non-Mus­lim mi­grants from Bangladesh, Pak­istan and Afghanistan on grounds that they fled to es­cape re­li­gious per­se­cu­tion, would le­git­imise the pres­ence of Ben­gali Hin­dus and Bud­dhist Chak­mas from Bangladesh in their states. BJPs spokesper­son in As­sam, Me­hdi Alam Bora, has re­signed from the party in protest.

Con­gress and Tri­namool Con­gress have op­posed the bill as well, on grounds that cit­i­zen­ship can­not be de­ter­mined by re­li­gion un­der the In­dian Con­sti­tu­tion. Both par­ties fear that this will ce­ment the BJP’s po­si­tion amongst Ben­gali Hin­dus in Ben­gal and the north­east­ern states and would also upset Mus­lims, spe­cially of East Ben­gali ori­gin, who make up sub­stan­tial seg­ments of the pop­u­la­tion.

Indige­nous groups like the Kr­ishak Mukti San­gram Samiti of As­sam have staged nude protests against the bill in Delhi, try­ing to out-rad­i­calise AASU and AGP in the As­samese po­lit­i­cal space, in which il­le­gal mi­gra­tion from Bangladesh has been a re­cur­ring theme. And dozens, if not hun­dreds, of As­samese young­sters have left to join the sep­a­ratist ULFA in its jun­gle bases, as pas­sions run high over an­other “be­trayal of As­sam by Delhi”.

The rul­ing BJP, whose As­sam min­is­ter Hi­manta Biswa Sarma has jus­ti­fied the bill as the only way to save 18 assem­bly seats from “go­ing into the hands of Jin­nah”, is try­ing to han­dle the ad­verse fall­out by im­ple­ment­ing Clause 6 of the 1985 As­sam Ac­cord. Do­ing that would mean ac­cord­ing Sched­uled Tribe sta­tus to six Other Back­ward Classes (OBC) in As­sam – Tea tribes/Adi­va­sis, Tai-Ahoms, Chutia, Mo­ran, Mo­toks and Koch-Ra­jbong­shis. This has been long de­layed prom­ise of the Modi gov­ern­ment.

BJP feels this move will help it re­cover lost ground among a sub­stan­tial seg­ment of the indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties. Ac­cord­ing to the 2011 cen­sus, As­sam has around four mil­lion trib­als that ac­count for 13% of the state’s 31mil­lion pop­u­la­tion. As and when these six OBC com­mu­ni­ties are ex­tended ST sta­tus, the state’s tribal pop­u­la­tion is ex­pected to rise to 54% of the to­tal pop­u­la­tion. While the com­mu­ni­ties now listed as ST may not take kindly to the Cen­tre’s de­ci­sion, the six com­mu­ni­ties, BJP ex­pects, will over­whelm­ingly wel­come the move. ap­pre­hen­sions by ar­gu­ing that the im­ple­men­ta­tion of Clause 6 of the As­sam Ac­cord would mean the num­ber of assem­bly seats re­served for trib­als in the 126-seat state leg­is­la­ture will in­crease con­sid­er­ably. Even if this does not cross the 50% mark, it would surely be over 40%. Adding to it the gen­eral seats dom­i­nated by eth­nic As­samese, BJP ex­pects this move will en­sure po­lit­i­cal power al­ways re­mains with the indige­nous peo­ple.

This would not only fa­cil­i­tate Hindu con­sol­i­da­tion, what with the Cit­i­zen­ship Bill turn­ing the Ben­gali Hin­dus into a loyal vote bank , but keep the ‘Jin­nahs’ out of power and re­duce them from king-mak­ers to docile sub­jects, pro­vid­ing a hard­work­ing labour force but with no in­flu­ence on the po­lit­i­cal struc­ture. BJP also ex­pects that the bill will help in­crease its tally in Ben­gal from the present two to nearly 20 seats, be­cause later Hindu mi­grants will wel­come it.

Those who sup­port giv­ing ST sta­tus to the six OBC com­mu­ni­ties have ar­gued that it would go a long way in deal­ing with the prob­lem of il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion into As­sam from Bangladesh, as it would re­duce the in­flu­ence of al­leged il­le­gal im­mi­grants for all prac­ti­cal pur­poses. The ar­eas where the six com­mu­ni­ties live, par­tic­u­larly in lower As­sam, over­lap with ar­eas where Ben­gali-speak­ing Mus­lims live. The new re­served con­stituen­cies would un­der­cut the votes of the Ben­gali-speak­ing Mus­lims, say BJP lead­ers.

But the move will split As­samese so­ci­ety into ST and non-ST seg­ments and im­pede the process of As­samese na­tion­al­ity for­ma­tion. And if the Mus­lims of Ben­gali ori­gin in Brahma­pu­tra val­ley, upset with the NRC ex­clu­sions and Cit­i­zen­ship Bill, re­turn to Ben­gali (and not As­samese as they now do) as their mother tongue in the 2021 Cen­sus, there will be more Ben­gali speak­ers than As­samese speak­ers in the state. As­sam is too com­plex an ethno-re­li­gious chess­board to play risky games be­cause it can upset the best of cal­cu­la­tions.

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