Although there is little substance to the bogey of Assam turning into a Muslim majority state, yet the concerns of the ‘sons of the soil’ cannot be dismissed.
Assam is a simmering volcano today. As the precarious ethnic mix in the state threatens to explode, political forces are busy looking for an opportunity in this crisis. The rest of the country is, as always, oblivious to what happens in the northeast.
Preparation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in the state has reopened an old wound. For decades, the ‘immigrant’ issue has dominated Assam politics. The state has witnessed a large-scale influx of ‘outsiders’ before and after Independence. These include migrants from within the country—Hindi-speakers, tribals from Jharkhand, Hindu Bengalis from West Bengal—and immigrants from Nepal and Bangladesh. A significant proportion of the population—just how many is the most hotly contested question—are Hindus and Muslims immigrants from across the porous borders of Bangladesh, who come to India either due to religious persecution or in search of a livelihood. Consider this: At the time of the Partition, Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) had a 24 per cent Hindu population, which has now come down to just nine per cent. No prizes for guessing where this population has gone.
Large-scale migration is not new to Assam. The history of the state is made up of waves of migration. Yet this large-scale immigration in the post-independence period has disturbed the ethnic balance of the population. Even though the government is yet to release linguistic figures, the 2011 Census of India clearly shows how Assamese-speakers have become a minority in their home state. Between 1991 and 2001, the Assamese speaking population had declined from 58 per cent to 48 per cent while the Bengali-speaking population had increased from 21 per cent to 28 per cent. Going by this trend, the Assamese speaking population is currently around 40 per cent while the Bengali speakers are estimated to be one-third of the population of the state. In terms of religious communities, the Muslim population of Assam had increased from 25 per cent in 1951 to 34 per cent in 2011.
These linguistic and religious changes in the composition of the population are most accentuated in the districts that lie next to the Bangladesh border. Although there is little substance to the bogey of Assam turning into a Muslim majority state, yet the concerns of the ‘sons of the soil’ including the Ahomiya, Bodos and other tribal communities, cannot be dismissed. At the best of time, the situation is ripe for ethnic conflict and violence.
Today, this volcano is once again on the verge of eruption. One of the key clauses of the Assam Accord of 1985 stipulated that all immigrants who have entered Assam on or after 25 March 1971 were to be identified and deported. It did not happen, despite the Assam Gana Parishad being in power twice. The same promise was repeated in another accord with agitating students in 2005. Unresolved, the issue reached the Supreme Court which ruled that the National Register of Citizens (NRC) prepared in 1951 should be updated so as to identify genuine citizens. This exercise has been going on for the last three years under the supervision of the Supreme Court. It was to be completed by 31 December 2017. Despite the state government’s pleas for deferment, the Court ordered that at least the first draft list should be released by the deadline.
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The first draft list had unleashed confusion, panic and fear. The list contained about 1.9 crore names out of a total of 3.29 crores who had applied for registration. No doubt this was only the first list, and merely a draft. But the stakes are impossibly high. It does not help that many who’s who from the minority community are missing from the list.
Those not yet on the list comprise three categories: routine cases of incomplete papers from ‘original inhabitants’, doubtful cases, and a special category of those who have submitted certificates issued by the panchayat. The current dispute centres around the third category. The High Court has rejected these certificates, a decision supported by the state government. This category includes about 27 lakh Muslim women who do not possess any other paper proof, as their marriages were never registered, nor do they possess any educational degree. They could be disenfranchised.
This is where political leadership counts. Sadly, all the major political parties are focused on their electoral calculus. The Congress, which has ruled the state for the longest time, is guilty of overlooking, if not worsening, this problem. It allowed foreign immigrants a free entry into Assam and then used them as its vote bank. Unfortunately, the dominant section of liberal and progressive intelligentsia underestimated the gravity of the situation. The Left maintained silence about Bengali immigrants and decried those who raised this issue.
The legitimate anxiety of the ‘sons of the soil’ was articulated by the students and the youth through the Assam movement from 1977 to 1985. There was an unmistakable anti-Bengali tinge to this ‘anti-foreigner’ movement, but the movement steered clear of anti-Muslim politics. While the movement did succeed in raising the question of immigrants, it failed to provide an effective solution. The two Asom Gana Parishad governments were as ineffective in this respect as anyone else.
This failure has paved the way for naked communal politics. In the last few years, the BJP has been successful in turning this issue into a communal one and giving this linguistic and ethnic issue a religious colour. The BJP’s politics in the state is based on Bengali Hindu vote bank. So the party has a two-fold agenda: to provide citizenship status to the Bengali Hindus immigrating while denying this status to Bengali Muslims. With the BJP in power at both at the Centre as well as the State, it is able to take the legal and administrative route to implement this agenda.
At the state level, the BJP-led Assam government has happily backed nullification of the certificates issued by panchayats. At the Centre, the BJP is carrying out a dangerous amendment to the Citizenship Act 1955. This amendment, already introduced in the Parliament, would smoothen the process of giving Indian citizenship to immigrants from neighbouring countries (except Nepal) provided they are not Muslim. Thus, Hindu migrants from Bangladesh will enjoy a special status, but not Muslims. If enacted, this bill would introduce religious qualification for Indian citizenship. This is exactly what Jinnah’s two-nation theory was all about!
Predictably, Assam is divided on this issue. Hindu communal politics is using the NRC as a shield for converting local/outsider divide into a Hindu/Muslim divide. On the other hand, many Muslim organisations are opposing the NRC itself. This division is dangerously close to a point of explosion.
Fortunately, some of the leading intellectuals of Assam like Hiren Gohain and Apurb Baruah have taken a third and saner line. This proposal supports the NRC process while providing for safeguards for the minorities. It acknowledges that the linguistic, cultural and ethnic concerns of the pre-existing inhabitants of Assam are legitimate and that we need a robust process for identification of foreigners. Therefore, the NRC process must be continued and supported. At the same time, there should be no discrimination on the basis of religion in this process. Given the situation of the Muslim women, panchayat-issued certificates must be considered as valid. Finally, the proposed amendment to the citizenship law must be withdrawn as this is in contradiction to the Indian constitution and the spirit of Indian national movement.
We desperately need a national consensus, inside and outside Assam, around this position. But is anyone listening? Or are we waiting for the next Nellie?
Yogendra Yadav is National President of the newly-formed party, Swaraj India
This article was first published in January, 2018.
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