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Who is a ‘Citizen’ in Assam?

Photo: The Indian Express

By Ananya S. Guha

The proposed Citizenship Bill in Assam has, as expected, created a furor among non-governmental organizations, public bodies, and student unions. The bill proposes to seek legitimacy of those nationals entering India from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan, etc. even as late as the present time. However, the Assam Accord, signed by the Government of India and the All Assam Students Union, says categorically that those migrants entering India after 25 March, 1985 are deemed to be illegal. So, obviously the question is: why this turn around now? Is it to protect only minority Hindus? Immigrants are immigrants and they should be treated on an equal and common footing is the main argument.

So let us analyse the entire matter. In trying to enforce a new Citizenship Bill, the government is certainly reneging on the Assam Accord. This shows a clear bias towards Hindus only, but the government may give a rejoinder that it is also meant for Christians and other minority groups such as Jews, Sikhs, and Buddhists. However, the people of North East India view it mainly as a case of Bangladesh immigrants, as the region, particularly Assam, is inundated with them. By protesting against the Bill, the civil society and social bodies in Assam have expressed their apprehension that it is going to be used mainly to stop Muslim migration. This a very just appropriation of matters, and will certainly take the central government by surprise. The BJP government in Assam might have thought that after the victory in the assembly elections, there would be no reaction. The reaction however has been quite cohesive and not knee jerk. In fact, the Chief Minister of Meghalaya has opposed it and so has a Bharatiya Janata Party MP from Assam. The AGP has threatened to withdraw the support to the BJP in Assam and extremist groups who are in the midst of peace talks have threatened to revive their ultra-movements.

The scene then is more than ticklish. It is charged with emotion, and potentially posing a threat to the supposed peace in North East India. The peace apparently is very fragile and the situation might be exploited by fractious groups.

As journalist Anirban Roy has pointed out in The North East Today, a BJP resurgence in Assam, cannot be equated with a Hindu resurgence of the Sangh Parivar in North India. The complex social- religious-ethnic diversity of Assam has not apparently been comprehended by those at the helm. Moreover, Assam has a large section of Assamese Muslims who historically are as much a part of its ethos, literature, and culture as the Assamese Hindus. That the Barak Valley people of Assam may not be opposed to the idea of the central government has thrown a spanner into the matter, and has tangled it with ethnic/linguistic divides. One fervently hopes that this is not so, but the objective raising of issues by the people of Assam in particular, and the people of North East India in general has shown clearly that it is not a Hindu-Muslim issue, something that was nonchalantly thought of in the past. People even apprehend that this is a political and fundamentalist position of the central government to fulfill the ideological aspirations of the Sanghis. The Hindu-Muslim divide has supposedly been raised to torpedo the Center’s plans. Has it anything to do with demography, of one linguistic group prevailing over the other is a question. Even if it is not so, it is unfair that Assam should bear the brunt of immigrants, irrespective of religion. The central government cannot simply overlook the fine points of the Assam Accord, a fall-out of the Assam Movement in the eighties, and implant a new act or bill, to harvest more votes, especially Hindu votes. This is a policy which is corrosive and divisive, acting against the interests of the country.

So the matter is not only sensitive, but also totally misconstrued and misinterpreted by the central government. The people do not see the issue as of one religious group being pitted against another, but as one of migration, which poses demographic, linguistic, and cultural threats. So far, the central government has failed to understand the North East Indian ethos in its proper diverse, cultural, linguistic, and historical antecedents. They have reduced the complexity of the whole issue to a black and white one. They have also failed to see historical processes of cultural assimilation.

However, the fact that nothing or very little was done to implement the Assam Accord, even decades after its signing, is of course another matter. Was identification of the illegal immigrants carried on? Or are we now to wait for the much debated National Register of Citizens to answer that question?

Ananya S Guha 
is Regional Director, Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU), Shillong.


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