It’s Playing Risky Games
BJP’s calculated citizenship tweak will split Assamese society into ST and non-ST segments
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.