The situation in Assam is extremely troubling with defiance of curfew orders for the second straight day in Guwahati, the largest city of the North-east and confrontations between police and protesters agitated by the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Bill in Parliament across the state and in Tripura. Markets are shut, street battles are on, roads are empty and train traffic is disrupted and even flights have been cancelled while schools have been shut in Assam for another 10 days.
The surge of torchlight processions reminds me of the launch of the 1979 agitation against alleged foreigners in 1979 by the All Assam Students Union (AASU) which is again spearheading the process.
It cannot be anyone else’s claim that the situation is normal. The graphic visuals of the protests and on-the-spot reports of ground realities tell us that as do our own conversations with a wide range of persons.
While the government in New Delhi may have been surprised by the ferocity of the reaction in Assam and Tripura, the two states in the North-east where it has ruled with a majority, it would not have come as a great shock to people who have been living in and following the state’s politics for decades. The contestation over concerns relating to identity did not start with the CAB but go back to a pre-Partition era. At that time, when the Congress Party fought state elections on the basis of resisting settlement by migrants from the then East Bengal. The latter became later East Pakistan and is now Bangladesh.
The Congress changed its position to supporting settlement in the decades post-independence. But the singular narrative seeking the protection of political, land and cultural rights remains unchanged in the eyes of the people largely of the Brahmaputra Valley, where a majority of Assam’s complex population lives. It is an issue on which many lives have been given and taken. Assam and the people of the state are demanding what they have always sought: Protection of their rights. It is a constitutional right and the mandate holders and those who need to respond to this demand with clear actions and not mere words of assurance are the state and Central governments.
In the 1980s, the Congress Party faced the brunt of the ‘anti-foreigner’ movement with confrontation and violence erupting in the state till a 1985 accord with the government of then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi appeared to assuage the situation. Foreign nationals would be detected and expelled as per provisions of law after 1971, it said, and the people of the state would be provided preferential treatment and constitutional safeguards to protect their identity.
In 34 years, no such safeguards have come into place despite many promises by different parties and governments. In addition, the ‘cutoff’ year, 1971, is significant for that was the year of Bangladesh’s creation out of the ruins of Pakistan; 1971 set a different citizenship marker for people in the state, recognising the new political realities. For the rest of India, it is until post-independence.
The CAB rolls that back for Assam, saying that six non-Muslim communities that had faced persecution in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan would be given shelter in India and provided citizenship. Where the Centre failed to assuage the concerns of people – and that is not done with a few meetings with members of Parliament, chief ministers, officials and leading student organisations – was in meeting anxieties that land, cultural identity and jobs would be protected, as given in the BJP’s rallying cry of 2016 that brought the party to power in the state for the first time.
In major political game-changing decisions, people in the state voted three times for the BJP in significant numbers – in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the 2016 election to the state legislature and then again in this year’s parliamentary poll. The issue of detecting and deporting ‘Bangladeshis’ – though to where they would be sent was never clear as Dhaka says none of its nationals migrate to India – and the public view that this would actually come to pass was bolstered by dramatic declarations by the BJP leadership.
Through the CAB, those who had come illegally until 2014 would be legalised. This would include large numbers of Hindus, clearly, a perspective that the party thought would help its political prospects in different parts of the country, not least West Bengal where a state election is scheduled for 2021. The CAB does not appear to be as contentious in other parts of the country despite the furious debates in Parliament, as it is in the North-east where small majorities or large minorities make up a complex social and demographic fabric.
The CAB and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) may be different exercises and it will be rolled out that way in other parts of the country – but not in Assam or other North-eastern states. In Assam, the effort to find the number of Indian citizens living in the state appears to be connected to the CAB. The rationale is simple: The 19 lakh people who did not make the cut to the NRC in Assam, a flawed and contested process decried even by its supporters, comprised a majority of Hindus of Bengali origin. In one swoop, it would have the effect of legitimising them.
Where then lies the validity of the Assam accord, the agitators ask? The challenge lies in the fact that there was not enough dialogue and too much haste in the matter. There are divisions within the state which cannot be papered over any more: The Barak Valley, which is Bengali dominated, has supported the CAB and has consistently opposed the earlier agitations against ‘foreigners’.
In addition, there is an international dimension to the issue: The government was taken aback by Bangladesh’s reaction. Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen cancelled his visit to New Delhi citing domestic reasons but he had emphasised earlier that “allegations of minority repression in Bangladesh … whoever gave them the information, it is not correct".
"Many important decisions of our country are taken by persons belonging to different religions...we never judge anybody by their religion," said the minister. In a damage control effort, the Indian Foreign Office said that the reference to persecuted minorities in that country was to problems under previous military regimes and governments, not the present one of Sheik Hasina. The wording of the CAB leaves this delineation extremely vague as the Foreign Office spokesman himself declared that “Religious persecution was in reference to military regimes and past governments”.
Dhaka expresses concern
One can understand Bangladesh’s concerns too – Sheik Hasina’s Awami League government was in power between 1996 and 2001 and she has held office since 2009. The CAB gives protection to those who left Bangladesh and the other two countries before December 31, 2014.
There’s another issue. The preamble to the Bill refers to Hindu and five other religious groups who face persecution but there is no criteria established, no indicators given of what comprises the persecution that is sought to be assuaged. How will a determination be made of persecution? Who is authorised to make it? One of the concerns is that the Centre is supporting not just persecuted peoples but also economic and environmental outflows on the basis of religion.
A view that I have long held is that the doors to dialogue must be kept open and those opposing the government and its plans must do so peacefully, constitutionally and democratically. They may use digital technology and social media (and where the net is disrupted, by word of mouth) creating platforms for new forms of satyagraha.
Sanjoy Hazarika is International Director of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI). He is an acknowledged specialist and commentator on the issues of the North-east and its neighbourhood. Views are personal.