Assamese Are Making A Mistake; They Should Use Citizenship Bill As Lever To Obtain A Better Deal, Not Oppose It

by R Jagannathan - Feb 12, 2019 03:13 PM +05:30 IST
Assamese Are Making A  Mistake; They Should Use Citizenship Bill As Lever To Obtain A Better Deal, Not Oppose ItThe activists of All Assam Students Union (AASU) along with 28 ethnic organisations take part in a procession in protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016 in Guwahati, India. (Rajib Jyoti Sarma/Hindustan Times via GettyImages) 
  • Warts and all, the Citizenship Bill is actually the best hope for the Assamese to retain their identities.

    The Assamese need to get real, and here are the ground realities.

The decision of Bhupen Hazarika’s family to decline the government’s posthumous award of the Bharat Ratna to the Assamese icon and musical genius is understandable, given the extreme emotions generated by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government’s Citizenship Amendment Bill. The bill, already passed by the Lok Sabha, may face a Rajya Sabha hurdle as it names persecuted people from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan as Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and Christians, and hence eligible for a fast track to citizenship.

You can also read this article in Hindi- नागरिकता विधेयक का विरोध असमियों की गलती, बेहतर समझौते से हो सकेगा लाभ

The Assamese, and most north-easterners, are enraged, for they believe this is a backdoor route to nullifying the Assam Accord, under which illegal immigrants from Bangladesh who entered the state after 1971 are to be deported. The rest of the northeast has similar concerns about being inundated with Bangladeshis once the Citizenship Act is amended.

It is possible to argue that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led NDA has got its communication strategy and timing of the Citizenship Bill wrong. The bill should have been preceded by legal and legislative changes to allow for the protection of Assamese culture and demography, complete with guaranteed majority political representation in the state assembly no matter what the actual composition of ethnic Assamese in the state.

The timing was possibly wrong, for the BJP has been promising the deportation of illegals from Assam once the National Register of Citizens (NRC) identifies them as illegal. Now, it appears as if the bulk of those who will be identified as illegals – mostly Bengali Hindus – will be allowed to apply for citizenship on the grounds that they belong to persecuted minorities in Bangladesh.

But then, it can equally be argued that once the current government ends its tenure, and if there is a coalition ruling the country, no amendment bill is possible. Hence the need to push the bill now. It may still not pass, given the opposition’s dependence on the minority vote to defeat the BJP, but that is another story.

The BJP’s focus extends far beyond Assam – to persecuted Hindus from Pakistan and Afghanistan, apart from Hindu Bengalis settled even in states like West Bengal and Bihar. (Yes, there are illegals settled in many states). Yet, the big issue is Hindus from Bangladesh. According to a Dhaka university professor who studied the Hindu exodus since 1947, Abul Barkat, in 30 years there will be no Hindu left in Bangladesh. The Citizenship Bill tries to address the future as much as the past exodus.

While the Assamese concerns are real, the problem is they are reacting with emotion rather than logic. While some extreme sections are using the opportunity to plant the idea of separation from India, the truth is that India is the only real guarantor of the Assamese identity. A separate Assam may make tough laws to keep illegals out, but it would not be able to get Bangladesh to ever take them back. If a regional power like India can’t do it, Assam will simply find it impossible to do so. Even Donald Trump’s USA cannot build a wall to keep illegal immigrants out, and demography is working in only one direction: from Mexico to the USA.

The Assamese need to get real, and the ground realities are the following:

One, as stated above, illegals can at best be disenfranchised, not deported. So, the demographic shift is going to remain, unless the Assamese are planning – god forbid – violent methods to achieve their ends. Even in the NRC process, barring a few hundreds, no illegals will be deported. The BJP should stop pretending it can do so.

Two, the demography has already changed, with ethnic Assamese dominating the Brahmaputra Valley, and the Bengalis increasingly preponderant in the Barak Valley. The only way this demography can be tilted back in favour of ethnic Assamese is with central government help. If we rule out violence, the demography can be changed by asking other Indian states to accept some of the illegals, aided by generous financial help.

Three, whether they like it or not, population pressures in Bangladesh will always push people into Assam and other states of the northeast. Add jihadi elements, and this influx could make Assam and other states increasingly populated by a growing extremist fringe of Bangladeshi Muslims – a prospect that the Assamese should fear even more than being inundated by Bengali Hindus. Muslims are already 34 per cent of Assam, and their birth rates are higher than that of the Hindu population (decadal growth in 2011 was 24.6 percent for Muslims, half as much higher than the Hindu rate of 16.8 per cent). They are close to an inflexion point where they will soon dominate Assamese politics. The Assamese need to make a cold calculation and figure out whether this is a better prospect – with further support to this rising Muslim demography from across the border – than having Bengali Hindus as a balancing factor in their politics.

Four, some Assamese intellectuals are claiming that they are not against Assamese Muslims. They want both illegal Bengali Muslim and Hindu migrants deported. If you examine this claim more closely, this argument is almost never made by Assamese Muslims, and will never pass muster because the BJP opposes the deportation of Hindu refugees and every ‘secular’ party opposes deportation in general. Vote banks will never be deported. The Assamese are thus deluding themselves if they think they can maintain this stand in the face of 100 per cent opposition by parties outside Assam, and a substantial minority inside Assam itself. The Assamese should know that a Hindu majority Assam will provide a better balancing factor against cultural and religious subjugation and inundation than an Assam where Muslim demography dominates.

The Assamese are caught between a rock and a hard place. If they sit down and think strategically, their best bet is a compromise where they get control of Assam politically for, say, 50 years by demanding constitutional guarantees on Assamese representation in the state assembly. (There is a precedent whereby the southern states get Lok Sabha MPs vastly in excess of their population share in India. Doing the same for Assam is thus not unthinkable). If the Assamese can be guaranteed, say, a minimum of 50 per cent representation in the legislature no matter what their share of population, they should be reasonably satisfied with this political hegemony.

Warts and all, the Citizenship Bill is actually the best hope for the Assamese to retain their identities. What they should do is demand constitutional guarantees to retain their political and cultural identity come what may. Additionally, they should demand that some of the illegals granted citizenship under the new bill will be housed in other states.

If they can get these two guarantees, they should support the Citizenship Bill. It is the better bargain among many non-ideal options available to them.

Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.
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