“It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.”
– Edmund Hillary
Assam, since last week, has been witnessing protests over an amendment to the Centre’s Citizenship Act 1955 that proposes to make minority (non-Muslim) immigrants from three neighbouring countries eligible for Indian citizenship. The North East Students Organisations, comprising eight students’ unions of the region, too have launched a fresh agitation against the proposed legislation from Saturday. A divided opinion on the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 has emerged in Assam. This division is not merely regional, but also linguistic. The Bill, which has triggered a political debate in the whole country, has received a tacit support in Barak valley after facing stiff opposition in the Brahmaputra valley. The Narendra Modi-led BJP 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. There is no denying that the inclusion of Afghanistan and Pakistan is an eyewash as the Bill primarily aims to grant Indian citizenship to non-Muslim immigrants, read Hindus, from Bangladesh. For this reason, the Amendment Bill, which provides legitimacy to Hindus who have migrated from Bangladesh post-1971, has received widespread support, cutting across party lines, from the Bengali-speaking Barak Valley. The Joint Parliamentary Committee, which visited Assam and Meghalaya to hold public hearings and meetings on the Bill, has predictably witnessed a charged atmosphere in both the states. Parties and civil society groups have argued that the Bill provides legitimacy to Hindus who have migrated from Bangladesh post-1971. In Meghalaya, where BJP is a partner in the ruling dispensation, the state cabinet has taken a stance against the Bill.
The protesters opposing the Bill have said it would breach the clauses of the historic Assam Accord that stated all illegal foreigners, who entered Assam after 1971 from Bangladesh, irrespective of their religion, had to be deported. The reason for protest is simple – the region, particularly Assam and the Assamese people have been fighting a long-drawn battle against illegal immigration of Bangladesh, which has already threatened the demographic pattern of Assam. The Assam Accord of 1985 has mandated that illegal Bangladesh migrants based on the cut-off date of March 25, 1971 should be deported. There is no distinction between illegal migrants on the basis of their religion in the Accord. But the proposed Bill violates this provision. If the Bill becomes an Act, it will make the Assam Accord of 1985 a useless paper.
In the midst of opposition to the proposed Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, a war of words is slowly but surely brewing in Assam with a section from the ‘anti-Bill camp’ not mincing words to hit back at the state government for accusing them of attempting to derail the National Register of Citizens (NRC) update process by wooing people to the streets and disrupting law and order. The prominent Prabhajan Virodhi Manch (Forum Against Infiltration) has urged the BJP-led Assam government to “put the interests of the state above its own” and adopt an “uncompromising stand”, similar to the neighbouring states, on issues of indigenous identity. Despite the mass opposition to the Bill, particularly in Brahmaputra Valley, the BJP-led Assam government under Sarbananda Sonowal is vacillating to take a call on the Bill. Political compulsion, nothing else, has forced Sonowal to maintain a silence on this critical issue.