Assam has always been in a state of flux with socio-political churnings plaguing the state from time to time. Concerns over religious identities, indigeneity, demands for tribal recognition, questions of legality and illegality, changes in the demography of various groups etc, have instilled a sense of insecurity and fear among different sections of Assam’s population. The ongoing protest against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2016 brought by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is a classic example.
While the Bill is being opposed by most regional political parties in the Northeast, the case of Assam shows that regional parties, such as the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), are opposed to this Bill due to its non-compliance with the Assam Accord of 1985, and not so much with its non-secular character. It should also be noted that most of these parties are not ideologically opposed to BJP as such. Since the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and Assembly elections in recent years, most of them have supported or allied with the BJP and are a part of the BJP-initiated Northeast Democratic Alliance (NEDA).
The historic Assam movement (1979-1985) and the resultant Assam Accord was an outcome of the impending fear of the people of Assam to protect their socio-cultural identity and economic revival in the face of the growing threat from ‘illegal foreign nationals’ across the borders. It is the same fear that has also prompted the demand to update and upgrade the National Register of Citizens (NRC), 1951, which the current Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2016 under the ruling BJP renders null and void. This has visibly enraged the people of Assam who participated in the 11-hour bandh in the Northeast over opposition to the Bill on January 8, 2019. The Bill has been termed ‘anti-Assam’ by BJP’s ally, AGP, and similarly criticised by other regional parties.
With the Citizenship Bill, the government plans to change the definition of ‘illegal migrants’. The Bill seeks to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955, by providing citizenship to persecuted Hindus, Sikhs, Parsis, Buddhists, Jains and Christians from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. It will allow those entering India till December 31, 2014 to be eligible for citizenship and thus pushes the cut-off date from March 24, 1971, as agreed under Assam Accord. The Bill categorically excludes Muslims.
At this point, there are two important issues that can be flagged. First, there is no doubt that the communally motivated Citizenship Bill is fundamentally problematic and contentious, for it tampers with the basic essence of nationhood by basing citizenship on religion. It is also a reflection of the ruling party’s long-term vision of building a Hindu Rashtra by promoting its agenda of Hindutva, which, as we can see, is already unfolding in Assam and the Northeast.
The attempts by BJP and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) to reconfigure Assamese-Bengali relations in Assam are a case in point. While their popular attempt is to forge unity between the Assamese and Bengali-speaking Hindus against the Muslims, the real motive is to advocate the assimilation of Bengali-speaking Hindus in the Barak Valley into the broader Assamese cultural and linguistic fold.
This brings one to the second issue of how the larger point of contention in the proposed Bill and the ensuing agitations in Assam are more about protecting the sub-national ‘Axomiya’ identity and sentiment, which concomitantly is the upper caste Hindu identity.
Coming back to the Assam Accord of 1985, it is pertinent to argue that the main focus of the Accord was not just on the pivotal question of the assertion of identity, but also the eviction of illegal migrants in order to safeguard Assamese language and culture. While economic revival and development of Assam was one of the main tenets of the Assam agitation and subsequently the Assam Accord, the main thrust, however, was to serve the upper caste Hindu Assamese middle class to secure their political and cultural edge in Assam by fomenting the traditional fear of a huge influx of illegal Bangladeshis across the borders.
This sub-national chauvinist upsurge gave impetus to the movement which later became the bedrock of the Accord. As a result, the Citizenship Bill does not sit right in Assam because it dilutes and violates the provisions of the historic Assam Accord and extends the cut-off date from March 24, 1971 to December 31, 2014. This is precisely what the All Assam Students Union (AASU) and AGP, who have been the forerunners of the Assam movement, have been agitating against in their recent protests, not so much about the non-secular nature of the Bill.
Along with the AGP in Assam, other regional political parties, such as the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura, National People’s Party in Meghalaya, Mizo National Front in Mizoram, and Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party of Nagaland, which are a part of the BJP-led coalition NEDA, have now aired their resentment against the current Citizenship Bill. Despite knowing the BJP’s promise to grant citizenship to Hindu refugees, which was clearly spelt out in their 2014 Lok Sabha election manifesto, and their larger ideological position, regional parties like the AGP allied with the BJP during the 2016 Assembly elections in Assam. Today, when there is a question mark on their political existence in Assam, with the BJP rendering the Assam Accord meaningless, the AGP has astutely decided to withdraw its support to the ruling party in the state. This not only exposes the double standards of regional parties, like the AGP, in the Northeast, but also reflects their tacit support to the dominant Hindutva agenda of BJP.
Assam is a multi-ethnic and a multi-lingual state where every community has the right to protect and develop its own culture and language. However, the issue of ‘illegal migrants’ in the state has always caught the imagination of the Assamese middle class from time to time. The infiltration anxiety and anger among the Assamese middle class is so strong that it has often led to ethnic tensions and violence between the state’s ‘indigenous’ population and so-called ‘migrants’.
In the past, Assam has seen campaigns against Bengalis, Biharis, and Marwaris and the bitter violence against Muslims is also not a new trend. Throughout the 1990s armed Bodo outfits have waged attacks against adivasis, Nepalis, Hindus and Muslims of East Bengali descent under the pretext of ‘illegal Bangladeshi migrants’, encroaching upon their lands and taking away their livelihoods. It is important to reiterate that a majority of these Muslims are either agricultural labourers or sharecroppers with marginal or no land of their own.
Although there is no denying that immigrants have been coming into the state, but if one looks at the Census data, the claims of a massive influx of migrants causing a demographic invasion stand unsubstantiated. Census figures of 2011 show that there has been a decline in the decadal growth rate for Assam from 18.92% in 2001 to 16.93% in 2011, thus marking a decline of 1.99%. The growth rate between 1971 and 1991 (no Census in 1981) was 53.26%. However, religion-wise Census data shows that Assam has recorded an increase in the proportion of Muslims from 30.9% in 2001 to 34.2% in 2011. A mere increase of 3.3% in the proportion of Muslims in Assam hardly explains if it is solely attributed to illegal immigration or other factors, such as low literacy, higher birth rate and higher fertility rates.
It is clear that the Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2016 is being used as yet another trump card by BJP to communalise and polarise the people of Assam and the Northeast for their future political gains. Moreover, the already existing contestations and contradictions in Assam between different ethnic and linguistic groups and religious identities give them a fertile ground to further their Hindutva agenda, and regional parties have played an important role in BJP gaining a strong foothold in the Northeast, especially Assam. Here, the ideological bankruptcy of such regional parties must be called out. Merely opposing this divisive and communal Bill is not enough; any such opposition must also necessarily ideologically oppose BJP’s Hindutva politics.
The writer is a PhD student at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. The views expressed are personal.