In January this year, when the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAB) was first placed in the Lok Sabha, subsequently lapsing after failing to clear the Rajya Sabha, Assam and the Northeast had witnessed intense protests. But then, in the general elections that followed months later, the BJP and allies won 17 of 24 seats in the region (nine of 14 in Assam alone) by huge margins.
On August 31, Assam defied fears by keeping calm as the final National Register of Citizens (NRC) list was published, with the only dissent ironically coming from the BJP over the “large number” of Hindus excluded.
Nearly four months later, as Assam and Tripura saw violent protests, and Guwahati chaos of the kind not seen since the pre-Assam Accord in the 1980s, within hours of CAB clearing the Lower House, the question hung in the air: who underestimated whom? Did the BJP, which is now a part of the ruling alliance in all the seven Northeast states, misread the region’s anti-outsider sentiment as religion-based? Or did the people, tired of the region’s revolving-door politicians, vote for the ruling party’s promise of change and feel betrayed?
There were other questions. What is the way back from this sledgehammer thrown at the Northeast’s tightrope of inter-woven religions and tribes? And is there a way back at all, to the fraught and, at most times, precipitously poised peace?
Assam: ‘Why won’t Delhi listen?’
On Thursday, Rajdeep Roy, the BJP MP from Silchar, in Assam’s Bengali-dominated Barak Valley, that has welcomed CAB, told The Indian Express that miscreants and the Congress were to blame for the violence. He reasoned that Home Minister Amit Shah had held “120 hours” of discussions with “600-700 people” from “160 organisations”, in a “humongous” effort, to convince the region.
There are few takers for this argument today in the state — talks held earlier this month between Assamese groups and Shah, just before the Bill was introduced, in fact, had failed.
All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) advisor Samujjal Bhattacharya and general secretary Lurinjyoti Gogoi have likened the new citizenship Act to the Mughal invasion of Assam in the 17th century, straining its ties with parent organisation AGP, which is now aligned with the BJP. For the AGP, the Act is a particularly grievous blow as it had led the Assam agitation in its student avatar, and CAB is seen as smashing the very basis of the Assam Accord.
Over multiple conversations over the past few days, Bhattacharya and Lurinjyoti Gogoi told The Sunday Express that the citizenship Act posed a threat to the indigenous people of Assam. “Lakhs of people came out violating curfews. The governments of Assam and India are responsible for the situation because they are imposing injustice,” Bhattacharya said, hours after addressing a vast gathering of protesters in Guwahati.
The Assam Accord had set March 24, 1971, as the cut-off date beyond which immigrants coming to Assam would be considered foreigners. The NRC was the fulfilment of one of the promises based on that Accord, and the BJP’s murmurs against it, in fact, went against its very purpose — of rooting out illegal immigrants, irrespective of religion. With the citizenship Act, that betrayal is seen as total, as it specifies December 31, 2014, as the deadline to accept all immigrants (except Muslims) as citizens, on the logic that they fled religious persecution.
Says Congress spokesperson Rhituporna Konwar, “People had full faith in the Sonowal government… The Centre failed to understand Assamese psychology. Since 1836, we have been fighting for our language and culture. Modi and Shah have shown arrogance.”
The protests have seen shutdowns, a senior minister’s cavalcade being chased, police using lathicharge and teargas, spontaneous violence and a march towards the Assam Secretariat at Dispur. A meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe to be held in Guwahati later this week has been put off. The worst of the anger has been reserved for Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal (a former AASU leader) and Finance Minister and the BJP’s Northeast face, Himanta Biswa Sarma.
The Thursday protest on Latasil grounds in Guwahati saw student leaders, activists, cultural icons, intellectuals and senior editors join in. By evening, even as the Centre deployed Army and shuffled police officers at the top, came news of deaths of protesters in alleged police firing.
Rajiv Rajkumar, an Asom Jatiyabadi Yuba Chhatra Parishad leader from Charaideo district, was among the protesters at Latasil. “We cannot take the burden of Bangladeshi migrants anymore,” he told The Sunday Express.
Nearby stood Moinul Hoque, who works in the Agricultural Department and is as vociferous against the citizenship Act.
Regretting the attempts to give the Assam agitation a communal colour, well-known Guwahati-based advocate Santanu Borthakur says, “Assam has never seen the issue of migrants as a religion issue. That is why people have come out. The protest is not directed against any community.”
Rupjyoti Das, a protester from Guwahati, expressed anger at the Centre’s “indifference”. “Are the people of Assam mad that they are protesting against CAB. Why is Delhi not listening to us? Why isn’t Modiji?”
Prof Udayaditya Bharali, a former principal of the prestigious Cotton College, asks the same. Bharali had been part of the delegation that met the Joint Parliamentary Committee team that visited the Assamese-dominated Brahmaputra Valley last year, to present Assam’s concerns regarding CAB.
“In a democratic country, people of a state have been democratically protesting for so long, and they just did not listen. They are like total fascists… The BJP got votes because they promised that the Assam Accord will be implemented in totality,” says Bharali.
With its Lok Sabha performance in Assam having defied both the NRC and CAB spectre, the BJP had attributed it to projects inaugurated under its government like the Dhola-Sadiya bridge and Bogibeel bridge — two of India’s longest river bridges — apart from welfare schemes such as those for tea tribes. The unsaid understanding was the support to it from Bengali-speaking Hindus of Assam.
In the wake of the protests, the BJP is fast revising. Having earlier questioned the NRC’s exclusion of a “large number” of Hindus, BJP leaders are now trying to prove that the number of non-Muslim migrants eligible for citizenship through CAB will be “less”. Last week, at a BJP meeting, the CM said data showed that people eligible under the citizenship Act in Assam “would not be more than five lakh”. Over 19 lakh people were left out when the final NRC was released on August 31. In Nalbari, Sonowal said, the figure for the district would be “only 1,000”.
BJP Assam president Ranjit Dass has cited other data to claim Majuli district would see “not more than 300 people” get in through the Act, while the figure for Muslim-majority Barpeta and Baksa districts would be “around 24,000” and “28,000-odd”. On the other hand, in the three districts of Barak Valley with support for CAB, he has said, “a total of 1.3 lakh people would be eligible”.
Sarma has gone so far as to claim that “only 7,19,200” Bangladeshi Muslims had been left out of the NRC, and hence it was important to include Bengali Hindus as citizens to ensure balance in political representation. He often repeats that unless CAB was passed, 17 Assembly constituencies of Assam “would go to Badruddin Ajmal (of the AIUDF)”.
Although BJP ministers and leaders cite all this data as authentic, the official NRC figures actually remain locked up in its data servers and cannot be shared with anyone, as per directions of the Supreme Court.
The BJP is, meanwhile, trying to speed up an earlier promise, of protecting the interests of Assamese through implementation of Clause 6 of Assam Accord — its best fallback under the circumstances now. The clause promises “Constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards” to “preserve and promote the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of Assamese people”.
Sonowal told The Sunday Express the government would be implementing the provisions very soon. “A committee at the highest level is preparing its report… This was agreed upon in the Assam Accord of 1985, but no PM addressed it, only Narendra Modi.”
However, the 13-member committee is still conducting meetings with stakeholders to reach a consensus, as confirmed by chairman Justice (retd) Biplab Kumar Sarma to The Sunday Express. “We have interacted with various communities. We plan to submit our report by January 15, if all goes fine,” he says.
But that is a big if. The first step of implementation of Clause 6 is to define the “Assamese people”, amidst various contesting cut-off years. The citizenship Act has further muddied those waters. Last January, six of the nine members of the original committee constituted for Clause 6 implementation had quit in protest against CAB.
A BJP leader, requesting anonymity, says the party alone is not to blame. “The politics of many ‘leaders’ will be over if the issue of identity is settled for once and all. So maybe they want it to stay on the boil.”
With Guwahati burning, the BJP is also trying to pin the Opposition down over the violent protests. Dass says the instigators were “the Congress and people who originally belong to Barpeta, Goalpara and Dhubri districts (implying Bengal-origin Muslims)”.
Flaying the attempt to give CAB Hindu-Muslim colour, AIDUF general secretary Aminul Islam says, “We do not know how many Bengali Hindus would benefit from CAB, but what we do know is that it will destroy the peaceful relations between Assam’s linguistic and religious communities.”
Islam adds that while the AIUDF has held “democratic” protests, those who came out on the roads were students. “How can anyone blame Muslim organisations or any community or any organisation?”
Veteran Congress leader and former CM Tarun Gogoi also calls the BJP allegations “baseless”. “These are spontaneous protests, the first such since the Assam agitation. The BJP is trying to divert people’s attention.”
Gogoi, who ruled the state for 15 years, adds that even if miscreants were taking advantage of the situation, “the Army and police cannot solve this”. “It needs a political solution. The BJP and PM should understand and respect the pride of Assamese people.”
Ex-Cotton College principal Bharali fears a lot may be lost before the government realises this. “With the Assam Accord, there was peace for so long, but the BJP has ruined everything for their political goals.”
Even BJP leader and Assembly Speaker Hitendra Nath Goswami fears the citizenship Act “will cause hatred between different communities of the state”.
Meanwhile, as tensions resurface, so do familiar, often unfounded, fears. Says a protester, Himangshu Kalita, “If Bangladeshis come, unemployment will increase in Assam. The number of Assamese speakers anyway is much less than the number of Bengali speakers.”
As per the Language Census data of 2011, the Assamese speakers in Assam are almost double that of Bengali, with the decline/rise in the past 10 years, respectively, marginal. If those who spoke Assamese comprised 48.38% of the state’s population in 2011 (48.80% in 2001), the Bengali speakers made up 28.91% (27.54% in 2001).
Tripura: ‘Unconstitutional Act’
A semblance of normalcy is back in the state, after four days of raging protests against CAB. But the brewing tension has opened the wounds of the ethnic faultlines in Tripura between its indigenous tribals and its dominant Bengali-speaking population.
In 2018, the BJP had come to power in the state for the first time in alliance with the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT). The IPFT represents tribal groups, and the BJP securing its support for a government led by its Bengali Chief Minister, Biplab Kumar Deb, was seen as a masterstroke.
But ties between the IPFT and BJP, already rocky, are in for a rough patch after the citizenship Act. Initially reluctant to speak openly, the IPFT held a 12-hour strike against CAB on December 9.
On Thursday, Home Minister Amit Shah met the Joint Movement Against Citizenship Amendment Bill (JMACAB), comprising tribal leaders, in Delhi. Soon after, the JMACAB announced that it was calling off its strike, with convenor Anthony Debbarma saying Shah had promised that the government would provide protection for tribals. Shah also assured an IPFT delegation the same.
Tripura Law and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Ratan Lal Nath told The Sunday Express, “Our government is making sure no one is misguided on CAB… Tripura doesn’t have any camps holding refugees from Bangladesh. Anyone who entered here after 1971 has already obtained some credentials. The new Act doesn’t recognise anyone coming after 2014. So nobody will be additionally accommodated in effect. Nobody needs to panic.”
However, the fear is that mere assurances might not prove enough. The protests turned violent after social media rumours that ‘Bengali migrants’ had killed tribals, forcing the government to snap SMS and mobile Internet services for 48 hours. There were counter-rumours of attacks on a Bengali by tribals. The fringe areas of Dhalai and North Tripura districts, adjoining Bangladesh, remain on edge. At least 40, including a constable, have been injured in the violence and properties of non-tribals attacked. Scared people took shelter in police stations and government hostels in Satnala, Dasda, Kanchanpur and Anandabzaar areas in North district. Violence was also reported from Manu and Ambassa in Dhalai district as well as in Kalyanpur, Khowai district.
The Centre has moved in two columns of the Army, apart from the Assam Rifles. Dhalai District Magistrate Brahmneet Kaur said the situation was being closely monitored.
To many in Tripura, the tension is reminder of a violent, and tragic, past. A proud tribal princely state, Tripura saw migrants flood in from Bengal in pre-Partition India, in the process changing its demography. By the 1931 Census, the tribals, who made up 56.37% of the state’s population in the previous Census, were down to 28.44%. The current tribal numbers stand at 31%.
The erstwhile CPM government created the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC), but under the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution. Autonomous councils under this schedule have limited powers and the state governments can terminate them at will. Councils formed under the Sixth Schedule enjoy much more autonomy and are governed by the Governor.
The TTAADC got Central nod only in 1982; by when the 1980 riots had already left 1,300 dead, including tribal and non-tribals. The subsequent armed insurgency, for a ‘sovereign Tripura’, lasted over four decades.
While almost all militant outfits are now neutralised, tribals fear that the citizenship law will further weaken their grip on the state by opening arms to Bengali migrants.
Tripura CPM secretary Goutam Das says while his party opposes CAB, it is not calling strikes as people are already facing a severe economic crisis under the BJP government. It is the Congress that has taken the lead, with its leaders facing police action on Wednesday. State Congress vice-president Tapas Dey says, “It is an unconstitutional Act as it violates the basic spirit of secularism.”
On December 14, Tripura royal scion and JMACB chairperson Pradyot Kishore Manikya Debbarma approached the Supreme Court.
IPFT spokesperson Mangal Debbarma says they are waiting for now for next talks with Shah. “He will call us after 15 days.”
Degrees of separation
* The citizenship Act exempts entire Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland via the Inner Line Permit system. In Nagaland, the only district out so far, Dimapur, was covered under it. In ILP areas, outsiders, including Indians, require a permit to enter.
* With Sixth Schedule areas not affected by new law, entire Meghalaya practically exempted too. Sixth Schedule areas are largely autonomous. However, there have been protests seeking exemption under ILP instead.
* Manipur, which didn’t get any exemption under Act, to be covered entirely under ILP too.
* Assam and Tripura remain the only Northeast states to not enjoy full relief, except for areas under Sixth Schedule. In Assam, such areas are minimal; in Tripura, while a major portion is under the schedule, most of the population is concentrated in other parts.
* The North East Students’ Organisation, umbrella body of the states’ powerful student bodies, wants entire Northeast exempted.
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