A return to ethnic politics that feeds off fears of being ‘swamped by Bengalis’ will be disastrous.

By Samrat |

A visit to Assam and Meghalaya by members of a Joint Parliamentary Committee examining the contentious draft Citizenship (Amendment) Bill of 2016 has brought to the fore old fractures between communities that were in the process of healing, and raised fears of fresh unrest in a region that turned towards peace and economic development only in the past decade.

The United Liberation Front of Asom faction led by its Chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa, which is currently in talks with the government, has threatened to withdraw from the peace process if the Bill is passed. A faction of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland led by Ranjan Daimary has backed this stance and promised to do likewise.

The Bill 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. Moreover, it also exempts these people from being treated as illegal immigrants, which anyone entering the country without a passport and a visa or overstays beyond the visa period is liable for under the existing Citizenship Act.

In Northeast India, politics for decades has revolved around fears of being swamped by Bengalis. It was this fear that provoked the violent Assam Agitation in the 1970s and 1980s and led to the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985. The Accord has proved difficult for all subsequent governments of Assam of all political hues to implement, and the current exercise of updating the National Register of Citizens in the state by the BJP-led alliance led by former Assam Agitation leader Sarbananda Sonowal was seen as a step towards its belated implementation.

The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill directly undermines provisions of the Assam Accord in the case of non-Muslim migrants from Bangladesh who have illegally entered Assam since 1971, and this is the crux of the opposition to it in the state.

There is a clear division between the Bengali-dominated Barak Valley and the Assamese-dominated Brahmaputra Valley areas of the state over the Bill. The ongoing NRC exercise is at least partly a reason for this, because its implementation has raised fears among the state’s Bengali minority population of being wrongly identified as illegal migrants. Credible reports have appeared in the media of several such cases. In one especially egregious case, a soldier who had served the Indian Army for 30 years, Mohammad Azmal Haque, from Boko in Kamrup district, was served a notice accusing him of being an illegal immigrant.

The notice from the Foreigners Tribunal court number two summoning him for hearing on 11 September 2017 reached him on 13 October. Failure to appear before the court in time may result in the issuing of ex parte orders by which the person summoned can be arrested and, in the case of alleged illegal migrants in Assam, be held in one of six detention camps currently functioning in the state, without being heard. Mr Haque was saved from this plight because of media attention and the subsequent intervention of the Army on his behalf.

A lot of poor people do not have the support systems that Mr Haque had, or the ability to provide documents going back to before March 24, 1971, more than 47 years ago – the date agreed upon in the Assam Accord as the cut-off date, with those who cannot prove residence prior to that date to be considered illegal migrants. Such people are therefore susceptible to ending up in detention camps irrespective of whether or not they are actually illegal immigrants.

Mr Haque’s would hardly be the only case of summons reaching late or not being delivered to the intended recipient, and this too is more likely to happen in the case of those living in far-flung areas or slums. In such cases, the suspected illegal migrant – who may very well be an Indian citizen – is held without being heard, in violation of the fundamental right to life and personal liberty guaranteed by Article 21 of the Indian Constitution and in contravention of basic international conventions on human rights to which this country is a signatory.

For decades now, there have been stories about millions of Bangladeshis swamping Assam and Northeast India. The number of millions varies with the political proclivities of the person making the allegation. Assamese chauvinists such as Akhil Gogoi and his cohort have in the past cited figures of 1.9 crore “Hindu Bangladeshis” in Assam, which is about twice the total Bengali-speaking population in Assam, Hindu and Muslim. Assam has a proud history of “jatiyobadi”, meaning race-based, politics. For many of the self-professed racists, all Bengalis are suspect. The sentiment is surprisingly widespread, and many stalwarts of Assam have in the past been open advocates of ethnic cleansing, of which the Northeast has seen numerous, albeit forgotten, instances in the past.

The Assamese chauvinists, whose politics is directed against “Bongals” – a term earlier used for all outsiders including Europeans and now used pejoratively for Bengalis only, Hindu and Muslim – are now in a complicated alliance with the Hindu chauvinists, for whom all Muslims are targets. The Hindu chauvinists cite similarly fanciful figures about alleged Bangladeshi Muslim migration into India.

The only official data available so far, after decades of efforts in Assam to find and evict these alleged millions of illegal migrants, is from the Foreigners Tribunals such as the one that sent the notice to the retired Indian Army soldier. These Tribunals have, from 1985 to 2017, declared 89,395 persons as foreigners, according to Assam Border Police Organisation data cited in an IndiaSpend article by Samar Halarnkar.

A white paper on the issue released by the Assam government with data from 1985 to July 2012 had found 61,774 persons to be foreigners. However, there is a bit of statistical sleight of hand here, because 55,184 of these were people who had been declared D-voters, meaning Doubtful-voters. These are people who are denied citizenship and voting rights and often held in detention camps from the time the Kafkaesque bureaucracy finds them to be ‘doubtful’. In the end, doubt turns to certainty in only a fraction of cases; the total number of D-voters actually declared to be foreigners, till July 2012, was 6,590.

The popular expectation that there will be crores of illegal Bangladeshis, fueled by both Hindu chauvinist and Assamese chauvinist politics, comes up against the reality of this number: 6,590. This is seen as evidence that the illegal migrants have successfully melted in. As a result, practically every Bengali is viewed as a Bangladeshi. This suspicion does not attach to members of other communities, who are viewed as original inhabitants. Even the government and the courts recognise this distinction. There is a category for easy inclusion in the National Register of Citizens for original inhabitants, but who qualifies to be an original inhabitant of Assam has never been defined. In practice, officials at the ground level are left with the power to decide based on their own judgment, which may be biased on account of religious, ethnic or financial considerations.

The issue of different treatment for the undefined “original inhabitants” and the rest went to the Supreme Court. A Bench of Justices Ranjan Gogoi and Rohintan Nariman heard the politically-charged case, and passed a judgment saying it found no reason to issue any direction or clarification as to the meaning of the term “originally inhabitants of the state of Assam”. “The exercise of upgradation of NRC is not intended to be one of identification and determination of who are originally inhabitants of the state of Assam”, Justice Gogoi wrote. He found the apprehensions of the petitioners to be “wholly unfounded” and noted that “citizens who are originally inhabitants/residents of the state of Assam and those who are not are at par for inclusion in the NRC”.

Justice Gogoi, who is Assamese from Assam, and tipped to be the next Chief Justice of India, undoubtedly has close familiarity with the issue. His own name may figure in the NRC, if he or anyone on his behalf has applied for inclusion, since he was born and brought up in the state and worked there until 2010.

There may be no legal requirement to identifying the “original inhabitants” but the NRC and the Citizenship Bill have again sharpened the political question of who is an insider and who is an outsider, who belongs and who does not. The current tussle in Assam is between an idea of India that privileges religion as the basis of deciding who is Indian, and an idea of Assam that privileges the undefined but implicitly recognised “original inhabitants”, a category from which all Bengalis are assumed to be excluded.

This is a curious matter. It was only in 1874 that, for administrative reasons, the British colonial rulers removed the Goalpara district including Dhubri, along with Cachar and Sylhet, from Bengal and appended them to Assam. These territories had rarely, if ever, been part of the Ahom territory even before the advent of the British. They had large Bengali populations much before they became parts of Assam. It was the inclusion of these territories with large Bengali populations in Assam that actually fueled the resentment against Bengalis. The initial resentments had been sparked by the annexation of Assam by the British, when it was made a part of Bengal and – when Persian was replaced by local vernaculars as the language of administration throughout British India – the Bengali language came to be imposed on the newly-annexed province. The Bengali community at that time had a general advantage in education and quickly came to dominate jobs, leading to insecurities among the other communities of the state.

Assam’s Congress Premier Gopinath Bordoloi told the Cabinet Mission Plan in 1946, when Partition was still a gleam in Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s eye, that Assam would be quite prepared to hand over Sylhet to Eastern Bengal. Subsequently, Sylhet went to a referendum, and the Assam Congress, at the very least, did nothing to prevent it from going to Pakistan. The dream of losing Sylhet to Eastern Bengal was achieved, but those who dreamt this dream had not accounted for the fact that those Hindus of Sylhet who survived the Partition would become refugees and come streaming in.

The Muslim Bengalis, especially in Lower Assam, many of whom had migrated into that area in the early 1900s, were forced or induced to declare themselves in the 1951 Census as “Na-Asamiya” or New Assamese, and thus Goalpara was retained in Assam in the linguistic reorganisation of states.

The Bengali Hindus, who played a leading role in the struggle for India’s freedom, have perhaps been its worst victims. Between Partition and 1971, when the Bangladesh Genocide that targeted the community occurred in which an estimated 3 million people were massacred by the Pakistan Army in one of the worst genocides in world history, the community was decimated. Even the stories of those horrors have not been documented on the Indian side, though it is remembered in Bangladesh. The survivors were perhaps too shattered to tell their stories.

The tussle over the Citizenship Bill and the NRC threaten to reopen old wounds. It is unwise and unnecessary to do so. The Assam Accord should be honoured by all, and the NRC completed without victimising innocent Indian citizens. As for the desire on the part of the current Hindu Right-wing dispensation at the Centre to make India a refuge for Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Christians, Jains and Parsis fleeing persecution in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh – there needs to be a rethink.

It is true that there are Buddhist Chakmas from the Chittagong Hill Tracts who have in the past fled persecution in Bangladesh. Similarly, Afghan Sikhs targeted by the Taliban and Hindus in Pakistan targeted by the powerful Muslim extremist groups there have sought refuge in India. Even Christians are not exempt from such persecution, and this extends to Bangladesh as well. There are minority Khasi and Garo communities in Bangladesh, for instance, who have had difficulties in the past when governments friendly to the Muslim Right-wing were in power in that country. However, to incorporate into law a provision that explicitly leaves out persecuted Muslim minorities, such as the Ahmadis of Pakistan, is problematic. In one sense, it takes to conclusion the logic of Partition, which conceived of Pakistan as the homeland of the subcontinent’s Muslims. In another sense, it pushes India a step closer towards becoming a mirror image of that Pakistan, by becoming a Hindu Rashtra.

This may suit those who never had any skin in the game, such as the Hindu hardliners from places that escaped the horrors of Partition. The real price of India’s Independence was paid primarily by the Bengalis and Punjabis. The Hindutva-wadis should not now make sacrificial lambs of the Bengalis, Hindu and Muslim, yet again, in their quest for Hindu Rashtra. Residents of Northeast India should consider carefully whether they really want a return to the bad old days before making common cause with any chauvinists.