By Barun Das Gupta
BJP’s divisive politics in Assam is ripping open old wounds and creating new fissures – between Hindus and Muslims, between Assamese and Bengalis, between the Brahmaputra and the Barak Valleys.
It all started during the Lok Sabha election campaign of 2014. The BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi promised to deport all illegal immigrants from Bangladesh living in Assam if the BJP came to power. The BJP did come to power – at the Centre in 2014 and in Assam two years later, in 2016.
But then the BJP did a volte face. It decided to grant citizenship to all non-Muslims who had come to Assam from Bangladesh after March 25, 1971 (the cut-off date, as per the Assam Accord of 1985). It was only the Muslims immigrants from Bangladesh post 1971 who would not be granted citizenship but be deported to Bangladesh. (Whether it is at all physically possible or not is a different matter. Bangladesh has declared many times that no Bangladeshi is living in Assam or anywhere in India illegally and that the country will not accept anyone sought to be deported as ‘Bangladeshi’).
On coming to power, the Modi Government introduced the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, which seeks to grant citizenship to “illegal immigrants” who are Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. The inclusion of Afghanistan and Pakistan are just an eyewash. The real intent is to make non-Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh, post-1971, Indian citizens. The requirement is that the person should have been a resident of India for the last 12 months and for six of the previous 14 years.
Immediately there was strong opposition from the Brahamaputra Valley, which is predominantly Assamese-speaking. The opponents pointed out that Para 5.3 of the Assam Accord of August 15, 1985, signed between the All Assam Students Union (AASU) and All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP), one the one hand, and Rajiv Gandhi, the then Prime Minister, on the other, states:
“5.3. Foreigners who came to Assam after 1.1.1966 (inclusive) and up to 24th March, 1971, shall be detected in accordance with the provisions of the Foreigners Act, 1946, and the Foreigners (Tribunals) Order, 1964.” (As is obvious from the text, the Accord makes no distinction between illegal immigrants on the basis of their religion.)
The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 will, in effect, make the Assam Accord just a scrap of discarded paper as far as the most relevant part of it, namely, the detection and deportation of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, is concerned.
After decades of hostility and ill-feeling, the relationship between the Assamese and Bengalis started improving and a relationship of amity and cordiality between the two major linguistic groups started to grow. The ill-conceived Citizenship (Amendment) Bill threatens to undo all that. The Assamese-speaking people see in the BJP’s move an attempt at reducing them into a minority in their own land, by making lakhs of Bengali Hindus from Bangladesh Indian citizens.
For the same reason, the Amendment Bill has received widespread support, cutting across party lines, from the Bengali-speaking Barak Valley. The Bengali Hindus are happy at the prospect of their tribe increasing in population percentage vis-à-vis the Muslims. According to the 2011 Census, Hindus constitute 50.1 per cent of the population of Barak Valley, Muslims 48.1 per cent and the rest other religions.
In the prevailing situation, the Asom Gana Parisah (AGP) has been caught in a bind. The AGP is the successor party of the original All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP) which, along with the AASU, spearheaded the anti-Bangladeshi agitation of 1979-85, which ended with the signing of the Assam Accord.
In the 2016 Assam Assembly polls the BJP won 61 seats in a House of 126. As it fell short of an absolute majority, it had to form an alliance with the AGP, which won 14 seats. Now there is a strident demand in the Brahmaputra Valley that the AGP quit the alliance against this ‘betrayal’ of the Assamese people by the BJP. The AGP’s quitting the alliance will reduce the BJP into a minority and its government will fall. On the other hand, the AGP ministers in Assam are in no mood to give up power. If the AGP comes out of the coalition government, there is the possibility of a revolt in the party, with one section joining the BJP.
Faced with this dilemma, the AGP has taken a strange position. It says it will quit the alliance only if the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill is passed. The party is now facing criticism and ridicule. Its critics point out that once the Amendment Bill is passed it will make no difference whether the AGP remains with the BJP or parts company with it.
The present Chief Minister of Assam, Sarbananda Sonowal, is a former leader of the AASU. Samujjwal Bhattacharya, once Sonowal’s close friend and co-fighter, is now the adviser of the AASU. The AASU is now up in arms against the Assam Government and Bhattacharya has now turned a critic of his erstwhile friend – the present Chief Minister.
The present situation in Assam is very fluid and volatile. New fissures have appeared. Old animosities have been revived. The two major valleys – Brahmaputra and Barak – are divided on the question of granting citizenship to Bengali Hindus from Bangladesh. Even some Bengali Congress leaders of the Brahmaputra Valley, like former minister Ardhendu Day, have gone against the party stand on this question.
Meanwhile, the police arrested six BJP supporters on May 7 at Belsor in Nalbari district, for pasting posters, written in Arabic, asking people to “join ISIS”. There are both Hindus and Muslims among those arrested. At whose behest they were working is not known but their role was that of agents provocateurs. The situation in Assam is volatile, indeed. (IPA Service)