ON WEDNESDAY, the Union Cabinet cleared a proposal to set up a high-level committee to look into the implementation of Clause 6 of the Assam Accord of 1985. Home Minister Rajnath Singh said clause 6 “wasn’t fully implemented”. The move, which was announced ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s scheduled visit to Silchar Friday, comes at a time when the National Register of Citizens (NRC) is being updated and the Centre is trying to introduce a contentious Bill on citizenship. Why is Clause 6 significant, especially in the context of the NRC and the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016?
First, what is Clause 6?
Part of the Assam Accord that came at the culmination of a movement against immigration from Bangladesh, Clause 6 reads: “Constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards, as may be appropriate, shall be provided to protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people.” . For recognition as citizens, the Accord sets March 24, 1971 as the cutoff. Former Chief Minister Prafulla Mahanta, one of the signatories to the 1985 Accord as then All Assam Students Union (AASU) president, explained that immigrants up to the cutoff date would get all rights as Indian citizens. Therefore, he said, Clause 6 was inserted to safeguard the socio-political rights and culture of the “indigenous people of Assam”.
Who are the “indigenous people” as described by Mahanta, or “Assamese people” as mentioned in Clause 6?
Most stakeholders agree that the NRC of 1951 should be taken as the cutoff for defining “Assamese people” eligible for the proposed safeguards. Samujjal Bhattacharya, adviser to AASU, said a 1951 cutoff was the conclusion reached by a sub-committee constituted in 1998 headed by G K Pillai, then Joint Secretary (Northeast) in the Home Ministry. The committee included three AASU members including Bhattacharya and then president Sarbananda Sonowal, now Assam Chief Minister. The 1951 NRC as the basis for defining “Assamese people” was also recommended in a report prepared by former Assembly Speaker Pranab Gogoi following consultation with 53 organisations representing various communities, AASU general secretary Lurinjyoti Gogoi said.
Would that not be different from the cutoff for the ongoing NRC update?
The update is based on March 24, 1971, which defines citizenship. Clause 6 relates to “Assamese people”. Should 1951 be accepted as the cutoff, it would imply that those who migrated between 1951 and 1971 would be Indian citizens, but would not be eligible for safeguards meant for “Assamese people”.
What are these safeguards?
These are what the proposed committee would seek to define. Mahanta views “safeguards” as reservation of electoral seats, and land and political rights, while AASU’s Bhattacharya says that apart from these, safeguards should also include rights over natural resources and protection of culture of the indigenous people. Upamanyu Hazarika, a Supreme Court advocate and convener of Prabajan Virodhi Mancha, a forum against infiltration, added: “Legislation should be enacted to ensure that mere citizenship is not enough and you need to be a citizen in or prior to 1951 to purchase land. Similar laws should be put in place for jobs.” He cited the examples of Arunachal Pradesh which entrusts rights over natural resources on the basis of ethnic community, and Manipur which last year passed a Bill to define “Manipuri people” with 1951 as cutoff.
What will the proposed committee do?
In a statement, the Home Ministry said the committee would examine the effectiveness of actions since 1985 to implement Clause 6. It would hold discussions with all stakeholders and assess the quantum of reservation of seats in the Assembly and local bodies for Assamese people. It will also assess the steps required to protect Assamese and other indigenous languages of Assam, reservation in state government jobs, and other measures.
Was there no movement on the clause until now?
It has often been under discussion. In an order in 1998, the Home Ministry noted that AASU and the Assam government had submitted “a number of proposals in furtherance” of Clause 6. “Although some steps have been taken in the past to fulfil the commitment given in this regard, state government and AASU have repeatedly stated that this clause remains to be implemented fully.” The Assam government website, however, describes a number of steps as part of the implementation of Clause 6 —including cultural centres and film studios; financial assistance to historical monuments and xatras (Vaishnavite monasteries). In 1998, the Home Ministry set up the sub-committee under G K Pillai; in 2006, the state government set up a committee to help define “Assamese”; in 2011, it constituted a Cabinet sub-committee to deal with Clause 6.
How has the new move been received?
While the Assam government and state BJP have welcomed it, the AASU has described it as an effort to mislead people before pushing the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016. The Bill, which proposes to grant citizenship to non-Muslim immigrants from three countries including Bangladesh, has divided residents of Brahmaputra Valley (mostly anti-Bill) and Barak Valley (pro-Bill). Cleared by the Cabinet, the Bill is with a Joint Parliamentary Committee that is expected to table its report soon. “On the one hand, they are killing the Assam Accord by bringing in the Bill, and on the other, they are making announcements for implementing Clause 6,” Congress spokesperson Rhituporna Konwar said.