Why The Citizenship Bill Can Tear Assam Apart

The Quint/ 18 May 2018
By Professor Kishalay Bhattacharjee


For 30 years, Assam fought armed separatist violence some of which has morphed into more legitimised forms of abuse of power. For half a century, the state’s population has been battling annual flood ravages because of inept governments and an almost institutionalised nexus of contractors, politicians and militants – Flood control is a government department that has utterly failed to deliver.


The state faces one of the worst debt chains, given decades of violence, displacement, and loss of land and livelihood from natural calamities. But the politics in the state has always been dominated by the discourse of citizenship and the ‘insider-outsider’ conundrum.


The recent visit to Assam and Meghalaya by members of the Joint Parliamentary Committee examining the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016 has flared up passions yet again.


This has led to Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal threatening to quit if he has failed to protect the “interests of the people” – which in his vocabulary, refers to keeping the ‘foreigner/outsider’ out of the state.


It is but natural for Sonowal to react, given that his identity rests much on his victory over what was perceived as a discriminatory act – the Illegal Migration Determination by Tribunal Act (IMDT), that was framed for Assam to identify and deport illegal migrants from Bangladesh.

He was a student leader with the All Assam Students Union, that was a signatory of the Assam Accord. This act undermines the provision of the accord that had set a cut off date of 25 March 1971 for granting citizenship to all Bangladeshi citizens Hindu or Muslim.


The draft Citizenship (Amendment) Bill of 2016 would mean Hindu Bangladeshis who entered even after the cut off date might be granted citizenship.


Another ‘Anti-Outsider Campaign’ Waiting to Flare


Alleged illegal migration from Bangladesh has been at the heart of Assam’s discontent (and much of the region itself). Not just the Muslim Bengali, but the Hindu Bengali has also been a reason for political mobilisation in the state.


The new bill now seeks to ease the process by which Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh can obtain Indian citizenship by reducing the period of stay required from 11 years to six.


That has not gone down well with the ‘indigenous’ groups in Assam. Though it is a difference of only five years from the existing act, this has adequate fuel for the votaries of “anti-outsider campaign”. The irony is that Bengalis (the target of most of this movement) are as indigenous to undivided Assam as many other ethnicities.


Further, the law of the land allows naturalised citizenship. And Sonowal may want to remind himself as well his voters that even when the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) was in power in the state (after leading the Assam Agitation and signing the Assam Accord under AASU), they failed to identify and deport a single ‘Bangladeshi’ even as a token of their resistance movement.


First NRC, Now Citizenship Bill


Just when the state is about to release the contentious draft National Register for Citizens (NRC) – that has reportedly not taken into account the lakhs of citizens who may soon be sent summons to prove their citizenship – comes the Citizenship Bill, with a recipe for another phase of communal disturbance.


The NRC has already driven a wedge between communities, sharpening the existing divide between Brahmaputra Valley and Barak Valley (inhabited predominantly by Bengalis) but this Bill has provided the much needed fodder to chauvinistic groups and leaders who have thrived for generations on this issue alone.


However, what nobody in the state or outside is raising is the fact that while Hindus and Parsis, Sikhs, Buddhists and Christians might be naturalised, Muslims will not be offered the same advantage even if they are persecuted.


Not surprisingly therefore, Myanmar has been left out from the list of countries who’s fleeing populace will enjoy this privilege as long as they check the appropriate religion.


There is more to this discourse that needs attention – granting citizenship in Assam or the Northeast is no guarantee to rights of a citizen. The case in point is the Chakma issue. The Chakmas, a majority of whom are Buddhists, settled down in Arunachal Pradesh after having fled religious persecution in the Chittagong Hill Tract of Bangladesh 50 years ago. The state has been violently opposing the Supreme Court’s order to grant them citizenship. Land rights to “non-indigenous citizens” are anyway not available in most of the region.


The post partition history of the region has been a violent denial of even human rights to bonafide citizens under the pretext of “protection of indigenous culture”. But this time, the Assam Chief Minister has more at stake; he no longer represents the indigenous political party AGP, but is now with BJP that rode to power in the state on Hindu votes.


How will he and his party address the current unrest, given how much BJP needs these votes in the 2019 general elections?


(Kishalay Bhattacharjee teaches journalism at O P Jindal Global University and is the author [most recently] of ‘An Unfinished Revolution: A Hostage Crisis, Adivasi Resistance and the Naxal Movement’. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)