The Bharatiya Janata Party has every reason to pat itself on the back for the successful passage of the Citizenship Amendment Bill in Parliament, especially in the Rajya Sabha where the ruling party doesn’t have the numbers. Home Minister Amit Shah successfully rebutted all claims and criticisms against the CAB, but his real test will be in Assam, where the amendment to the Citizenship Act, 1955 is being opposed for different reasons. If the agitations continued, it could not only have disastrous consequences for the economy of the eight northeastern states but also for the rest of India.
To understand Assam’s protest, one needs to look at the apprehensions of its people, who have faced unabated infiltration for decades. Their concerns are rooted in historical facts, unlike the communal spin that a section of India’s ‘intellectual’ class has tried to give to the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB).
Safeguarding the interests of the Assamese, which should be the priority of Amit Shah and his ministry, would require a natural progression of the Narendra Modi government’s policy for the northeast region so far. This would ensure that the ongoing protests don’t turn uglier than they already have. A peaceful Assam, the gateway to the northeast, is one of the prerequisites for the successful development of the rest of the region and also the stepping stone to the much-touted ‘Look East, Act East’ policy of the Narendra Modi government.
Prioritise the unprotected
The culture, land, property and other rights in tribal parts of Assam are already protected from the ambit of the CAB because of the Inner Line Permit (ILP) system in place for border areas.
Assam is endowed with ample rainfall, natural resources, fertile land, and is the third-largest producer of petroleum and natural gas. It has, like the rest of the northeast, a significant population of tribals, who have long been fighting to preserve their land and property from the “outsiders”.
It would be the non-tribal areas of Assam, where the provisions of CAB will apply, that need the Modi government’s attention. These areas, mainly the cities, suburbs, tea gardens and agricultural belt, have been the ones largely inundated by “refugees” from Bangladesh.
The settlement by the “outsiders” in these areas has a long history, from the days of Green Revolution. Under this, ‘grow more food’ programme was implemented with agricultural labourers brought from neighbouring “East Pakistan”, later Bangladesh. The early settlers were mainly Muslim labourers who could speak Bengali and easily integrate with the local lifestyle.
The influx of Muslims from undivided Bengal began as early as 1882, with the introduction of railway work in Assam. According to Socialist leader Hem Barua, “22 lakh bighas (about seven lakh acres) of the best cultivable land were settled on by the immigrants.” (Source: The Red River and Blue Hill)
The problem of illegal entrants increased also due to badly guarded porous borders. According to veteran journalist Shekhar Gupta, “frequent communal disturbances in East Pakistan made the influx of Bengali Hindu refugees a regular phenomenon, and as the Indian Government stuck to the commitments made in the Constituent Assembly to the minorities in Pakistan, a large number of Hindu families kept coming in at random and were settled in Assam, as they were in neighbouring West Bengal and Tripura. The situation was different in Assam in the sense that taking advantage of the absence of any organic dislike for the Muslims and the propensity of the Assamese politician to nurture vote banks the Muslim immigrants never ceased to consider the fertile Brahmaputra valley as his promise land”.
In 1931, then-superintendent of census operations in Assam, C.S. Mullan, observed in his report: “Probably the most important event in the Province during the last 25 years likely to alter permanently the whole structure of the Assamese culture and civilization, has been the invasion of a vast horde of land by hungry Bengali immigrants, mostly Muslims…”
The last proverbial straw on the camel’s back was the six-year-long agitation, which resulted in the central government signing the Assam Accord in 1985, which set 24 March 1971 as the cut-off date for immigrants to avail citizenship. The CAB has extended this cut-off date to 31 December 2014, thus introducing a new element into the vexed issue of infiltration.
Individual identities but one nation
But what is unfortunate is that a section of the Indian media and a handful of intellectuals are going to absurd limits of declaring the northeast as a region with many “nations”.
This is where PM Modi and Amit Shah will need to be extra attentive. Their job will be made easier by the fact that the BJP, which once had no foothold in the northeast, now either has its own government or in a coalition with regional parties in all eight states of the northeast.
In May 2016, the BJP formed a coalition of non-Congress non-Left parties in the northeast under the banner of North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA), with Amit Shah as chairperson and former Congressman Himanta Biswa Sarma as its convener. The NEDA’s agenda is to protect the interest of the people of the region, but more importantly, it worked towards increasing the BJP’s foothold.
And it all started with PM Modi’s efforts to drive the decades-old politics in the northeast region with the agenda of development. Picking up on the initiatives of two former prime ministers, Narasimha Rao and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Modi gave a twist to the ‘Look East’ policy by adding ‘Act East’ to it. But that in itself was not sufficient. The gateway to South East Asia and BIMSTEC countries needed a stronger, bigger presence of the party. And 2014 brought that change. While the BJP won 14 of the 25 Lok Sabha seats in, its allies won another four seats.
Since 2014, the PM has driven his campaign in the northeast on two main points. First, for effective and speedy development of the region, it would be helpful to have the same party in the state and at the Centre. Second, his vision of making the northeast region a robust growth area and fine-tune its capacity to become an effective bridge for South East Asia.
Both ideas resonated very well with the voters and the result is for everyone to see. It is therefore very important for the Modi-led NDA to keep the region peaceful to realise his dream of ‘Look East, Act East’ policy. With New Delhi saying no to RCEP, it is all the more important for reaching out to regional institutions and South East Asian countries through the northeastern states. The anti-CAB agitation in Assam, as well as other parts of the region, therefore, does not bode well for the BJP.
Assam needs immediate attention of both Home Minister Amit Shah and PM Modi.
The author is a member of the National Executive Committee of the BJP and former editor of Organiser. Views are personal.