Fresh Turmoil In Assam Over Citizenship Bill

Jaideep Mazumdar

Apr 25, 2018, 02:50 PM | Updated 02:50 PM IST

A border fence between India and Bangladesh. (Shazia Rahman via GettyImages)
A border fence between India and Bangladesh. (Shazia Rahman via GettyImages)
  • A way out would be to include measures in the draft bill, which can be legislated separately to accommodate the concerns and assuage the fears of the indigenous people of Assam.
  • The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, which is now being scrutinised by the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC), has once again raised passions in Assam. The bill, which proposes to offer citizenship to Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Christians and Parsis who have migrated illegally into India from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, is being vehemently opposed in Assam which is suffering from the burden of millions of illegal migrants, both Hindus and Muslims, from Bangladesh.

    A number of organisations have already sent deputations to the JPC opposing the bill which, the indigenous Assamese fear, would lead to an influx of lakhs of Hindu Bengalis from Bangladesh into Assam. These organisations, including bodies representing various indigenous tribes like the Bodos, Karbis and Dimasas, have been fearing that Assam will have to bear the unbearable burden of more refugees from Bangladesh. There are an estimated 20 million illegal Bangladeshi migrants in Assam and they have inalienably altered the demography of the state, besides putting a severe strain on the state’s resources and economy.

    The latest controversy over the draft bill has erupted after two senior office-bearers of the Asom Sattra Mahasabha (ASM), the apex body of the state’s Vaishnavite monasteries, submitted a memorandum in support of the bill to the JPC. This triggered a public outcry, forcing the ASM to suspend its general secretary Kusum Kumar Mahanta and serve a show-cause notice on its vice-president Akhil Mahanta. The two had told the JPC that they were in favour of the proposed bill. Various units of the ASM criticised the duo and asked for their removal, while the ASM itself came under flak from various other organisations and even got a warning from Paresh Barua, the chief of ULFA, a proscribed terrorist outfit.

    The controversy has regenerated the debate on the bill. The fears of the indigenous Assamese, including the tribals of the state, is genuine. The demography of Assam has been changing ever since the British encouraged landless peasants, mainly Muslims, from (then) East Bengal to migrate and settle in Assam to cultivate vast tracts of fallow land and the fertile ‘chars’ (areas and islands constituted by floodplain sediments). Before Independence, Sir Syed Muhammad Sadullah, the then prime minister of the state, encouraged migration of Muslim peasants from East Bengal. The late 1940s, just prior to and immediately after Independence, saw lakhs of Bengali Hindu refugees settling in Assam. Hindus once again migrated from (then) East Pakistan in large numbers fleeing persecution from the Pakistani army in 1970-71.

    Since then, a combination of factors - the porous borders of the state with Bangladesh, a poor country with the highest population density in the world, the ease with which Indian citizenship documents are allegedly acquired from corrupt local officials in the state, and politicians reportedly encouraging this illegal migration in order to cultivate vote banks - has led to unabated influx from across the international border. Not only has the demography of the state changed, socio-economic and ethnic unrest has also risen. The six-year long Assam Movement that culminated in the signing of the Assam Accord which laid down a framework for detection and deportation of foreigners from the state was the result of this brewing resentment against the presence of millions of foreigners in the state. The birth of the ULFA was also spawned by this popular resentment.

    However, the implementation of the accord, and the consequent detection of foreigners in the state, has been very tardy. Just a few thousand foreigners have been detected by the 100-odd tribunals set up in the state for the purpose. This has kept the whole ‘foreigners issue’ alive in Assam. Not much progress has also been made since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in the state in mid-2016 on the promise of detecting and deporting all Bangladeshis from Assam. The indigenous people of Assam are the only ones in the country to face the imminent prospect of becoming a hopeless minority in their own land and their culture, language, traditions and customs being swamped by aliens (read this letter written by the then Assam Governor, Lt Gen S K Sinha, in 1998 on the foreigners issue).

    Given this, it is no surprise that the indigenous people of Assam are opposing the amendments to the 1955 Citizenship Act. Their fears, misgivings and objections are genuine and needs to be addressed by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the Centre. The bill needs to be revised to accommodate the concerns of the indigenous people of Assam. Otherwise, Assam could well witness the turmoil of the early 1980s that wracked the state and led to loss of many lives. The BJP has to remember that it was the indigenous people of Assam who voted for the party in large numbers, enabling it to come to power in the state. That trust should not be belied.

    Here are a few measures that can be incorporated in the draft bill and also legislated separately to accommodate the concerns and assuage the fears of the indigenous people of Assam:

    1. The draft bill says that all illegal migrants belonging to the six religious groups (Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Christian and Parsi) who have come to India from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh on or before 31 December 2014, will be granted Indian citizenship. Most such people - the lakhs of Bengali Hindus who are illegal migrants from Bangladesh - dwell in Assam. But Assam should not be made to bear the terrible burden of hosting them and the Union government has to announce a plan to relocate them to other parts of the country;
    2. Since Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has already stated publicly that she would welcome all those who are declared ‘foreigners’ after the final NRC is published on 30 June 2018, the Hindus from among those identified as illegal migrants through the ongoing NRC updation exercise should be relocated to West Bengal and other states, which have to be offered financial compensation to settle them (the Muslims, once the draft bill become a law, cannot be offered citizenship and will have to be deported);
    3. Assam should be given a hefty financial package to keep an agreed number of such Hindu Bengalis on its soil. This could act as a sweetener and calm passions;
    4. Indian citizenship should be granted to only those who have fled Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan due to religious, social and economic persecution. The bill should make it incumbent on the migrants to prove that they fled such persecution. Those who can’t do so should be issued only permits, after thorough background checks, to stay on in India. But none of them should be allowed to stay on in Assam;
    5. Work on sealing the Indo-Bangladesh border has been dragging on at a snail’s pace for the past few decades and the Union government should take immediate steps to make incursions through the porous border impossible. A time-frame for this has to be announced and adhered to in order to reassure the people of Assam that their future is safe and secure;
    6. The Union government should immediately announce a ‘zero tolerance’ policy against further illegal migration from Bangladesh and the Border Security Force that guards the Indo-Bangladesh should be ordered to take stern and exemplary measures against those trying to cross the border illegally to discourage further migration;
    7. The illegal Bangladeshi Muslim migrants so identified by the NRC exercise and the state’s foreigners’ tribunals should be deported immediately, and failing that (due to international protocols etc), should not be kept in detention camps (as is the current practice) in Assam. Such detention camps should be set up in faraway states and those in the camps should be used a productive labour so that the Indian taxpayers’ money is not used for their upkeep. This would act as a severe disincentive to further illegal migration from Bangladesh;
    8. Reservation of all seats in the 126-member Assam Legislative Assembly for the indigenous people of the state, i.e, those who can prove that their parents or grandparents were citizens of Assam in 1951;
    9. Amendment of the prevailing land laws to prevent non-indigenous people from outright purchase of land and immovable properties in Assam;
    10. Reservation of all jobs in the semi-skilled and unskilled categories in state and central undertakings and offices for indigenous people of the state
    11. Framing laws to prohibit polygamy and severely penalising families with more than two children (this is necessary to prevent any further change in the demographic composition of the state); and
    12. Putting in place a fool-proof and transparent mechanism for issuing identity cards (driving licences, ration cards, voter ID cards, Aadhar cards, passports etc) to applicants.

    These measures would adequately address the concerns of the indigenous people of Assam. That said, the people of Assam also have to realise that the draft Citizenship (Amendment) Bill cannot be thrown into the dustbin. There are lakhs of Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Christians and Parsis who have fled religious, social and economic persecution from the Islamic nations of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan and have nowhere to go. Pushing them back to their countries of origin would mean certain death for them. There is a huge volume of anecdotal evidence and media reports of the terrible persecution Hindus have been facing in the three countries - assaults, molestation and rapes of women, forcible eviction from their properties, forcible conversions to Islam, social and economic boycotts, murders, denial of job and economic opportunities etc. These persecuted lots have no place to migrate to except India. This needs to be understood and appreciated by all.

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    Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.

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