The electoral politics of Assam witnessed a tremendous shift in 2016 after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power and formed a coalition government with regional parties like Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and Bodo People’s Front (BPF). Although the alliance between BJP and AGP was not new, the overwhelming response that BJP received in the Assembly elections of 2016 was a historic victory for the party.
It can be argued that the party established its foothold in Assam during the Lok Sabha elections of 2014 as it swept the Assamese polls by securing 7 out of the 14 seats. In both these elections, the BJP played an extremely cautious and strategic move to succeed as the strongest political player, whether by arousing the nationalist sentiments of the khilonjia, a term used extensively to describe the “ethnic Assamese” or by the state’s tribal ethnic groups such as the Bodos, tea tribes, Rabhas, etc. on the issue of illegal immigration, or by vociferously articulating the demands and aspirations of khilonjia, laced with slogans on “Jati, Mati, Bheti” to protect their identity, land, and property in their own motherland from the illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. The biggest fear of indigenous Assamese people has been to become a minority in their own land, especially if the government fails to deport foreigners or illegal Bangladeshi immigrants who settled in the state after 1971. These immigrants are “illegal” as per the Assam Accord as well because the Accord made January 1, 1966 the base year to detect foreigners and set March 24, 1971 as the cut-off date to identify illegal foreigners.
The BJP played on the fears of Assamese people in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and the 2016 State Assembly elections and promised to deport these illegal immigrants after coming to power. The narrative took a completely different turn after the elections.
BJP’s U-turn after electoral victory
After the victory in the elections and forming the state government, the BJP came up with the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016. The provisions of the Bill recommend that that illegal migrants who are Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan will be eligible to enter India. The Bill aims to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955, which states that for citizenship by naturalisation, an applicant must have resided in India for 12 months and for 11 of the previous 14 years, but the new Bill cut short the 11 years’ requirement to 6 years for people who identify with the aforementioned religious identities. Thus, this new Bill will enable these immigrants to get Indian citizenship.
The indigenous people of Assam are now protesting against this new Bill. The indigenous groups don’t want Hindu or Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh or any other country to enter the state as they are afraid of becoming a minority in their own state. In a complete turnaround, the BJP has gone back on its election promise of removing the illegal immigrants from the state. Instead, the BJP is now willing to offer Indian citizenship to all immigrants, except Muslims, from other neighbouring countries.
It is thus obvious that the party is enacting its usual Hindutva tactics to intensify the nationalist sentiments of indigenous people. At the same time, it is unfortunate that the khilonjias consider the Bengalis, both Hindu and Muslim, who settled in the state before 1971, as illegal immigrants. Furthermore, some Bengalis in the Bengali-dominated Barak valley of Assam are supporting the Bill, thereby creating chaos in the state. The already fraught relationship between Assamese Hindus, and Bengali Hindus and Muslims is worsening because of BJP’s divisive politics.
On the political front, the BJP is not getting support from its ally, the AGP. On the other hand, the chief minister of Assam, Sarbananda Sonowal, a former member of both the All Assam Student Union (AASU) and AGP, had actively supported the issue of deportation of illegal immigrants. He challenged the Illegal Migration (Determination by Tribunal) Act, which got scrapped in 2005, in the Supreme Court that came into existence during Indira Gandhi’s regime. At present, Sonowal, who was praised for the strong role he played in scrapping this Act is not taking a clear stand on the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016. The government is under severe scrutiny and various organisations and student bodies are questioning the government for not resolving this issue.
The matter is currently pending before the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC). The BJP at the Centre is not interested in withdrawing the Bill. BJP has clarified that the party will support it and is not in favour of any dilution of the Bill. Now, the JPC has to take a neutral stand as its decision will determine the future repercussions of the Bill.
The National Register of Citizens (NRC) debate
The National Register of Citizens (NRC) is a product of the Assam Accord to remove foreigners or illegal immigrants from the state. NRC was first published after the 1951 census. After 1951, the NRC was updated and March 24, 1971 was the cut-off date to identify those who entered and settled in Assam illegally from Bangladesh. It demands legal documents or proofs of legacy to prove one’s identity as a legal citizen, or else, they will be deported. As names of individual, mostly Muslim, have been found missing from the NRC data, there is rampant fear amongst the Muslim community in Assam because of which, a few people have also committed suicide.
Indian citizenship cannot be granted on the basis of religion as it is against the constitutional norms and ethos. The NRC is widely believed to be a practice used to deprive minorities, especially Bengali Muslims, of their rights. Student forces such as the All Assam Minority Students Union (AAMSU) have criticised the Bill. The AAMSU said that if the Bill was passed, there would be no value of National Register of Citizens (NRC) which was recently updated in the state. Other organisations such as the All Assam Students Union (AASU), Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS), and Asom Jatiyotabadi Yuva Chatra Parishad strongly opposing the Bill. Forms of non-violent protests including marches and rallies such as the Sankalp Shikha Jatra have been taken out in public, and public meetings have been organised by these organisations in different parts of the state like Dhubri, Dhemaji, Barpeta and Guwahati to protest against the Bill.
It is crucial to understand that the issue of migration in Assam has been left unresolved for too long. The JPC has to take cognisance of the ongoing situation while making recommendations on the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016.
Meenakshi Gogoi is a doctoral candidate at the Centre for Political Studies, JNU, Delhi.
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