The day after monsoon hit the Northeast, Nyuti Roy, her brother Gourango Das and mother Adarmani Das sit at their teashop in South Assam’s Borai Basti village. As Adarmani (85), suffering from a chronic nerve disorder, crawls on all fours to disappear indoors, Nyuti gathers a sheaf of documents in a folder.
“It was raining when we got the notice from the (Foreigners’) Tribunal too,” Nyuti recalls, “That’s why we missed the dates. Once, because we did not understand what they wanted. Twice, because we had no way to go. And thrice, because my father was in too much pain.” As a result, in April, Nyuti’s father, the 101-year-old Chandrahar Das, landed up in Silchar Central Jail, “a declared foreigner” by the Foreigners’ Tribunal, one of 100 in Assam under the Foreigners (Tribunal) Order, 1964, for not having valid documents.
On June 28, after spending three months in detention, the ailing Das finally made it home, with instructions to appear before the Tribunal next on July 4.
Nyuti fails to understand why this is happening to them. “My father came to India because of the killings in Bangladesh. He crossed over to Tripura sometime in the 1950s,” she says.
Das’s family falls under the ambit of the “persecuted Hindu Bengali minority” community from Bangladesh — whom the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, introduced by the Modi government, is aiming to protect. The controversial Bill is an amendment to the Citizenship Act, 1955, and proposes to grant citizenship rights to all “persecuted” religious minorities (barring Muslims) from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
However, the Bill comes at a time when the state’s same Bengali-speaking population (including Hindus, perceived as Bangladeshis and hence outsiders) is on tenterhooks over an ongoing process to put together a National Register of Citizens (NRC).
In a state cleaved along religious, linguistic lines, and bruised by the long-drawn NRC process, the citizenship Bill has drawn another line in sands bloodied by the region’s history. In Assam’s larger battle to retain its identity, it has now prised open the divide between its Bengali-majority Barak Valley and its Assamese-majority Brahmaputra Valley.
Das’s village of Borai Basti is about 30 km — but nearly 2 hours — from Silchar, the unofficial entry point into the Barak Valley from the Brahmaputra side. But it’s not the citizenship Bill that their family lawyer, Soumen Choudhury, is banking on. He hopes Das will benefit from “notifications” made to two other laws — Foreigners Act and Passport (Entry of India) Act.
Befuddled by all these legislations that apply to one 101-year-old, the Das family says they have never heard of the citizenship Bill, and are surprised that the final NRC list may come out soon. Nyuti says she doesn’t know what to tell her father. “He was tossed around from jail to hospital to jail, and asks what is happening. I do not have answers.”
About the NRC, she adds, “I didn’t know what it meant until my father was picked up. Now I know you become an Indian citizen if you are in the NRC.”
What does being an Indian citizen mean to Nyuti? “Maybe it means they will give us an Aadhaar card,” she says.
“If you run around the city of Silchar, you’ll come back to where you started in 40 minutes,” says Saptarshi Bhattacharjee, a Silchar-based student. Forty minutes — vehicles, cows, potholes and people notwithstanding.
Amidst the congested cacophony of the second-most populous city of Assam, it is easy to miss the brewing disquiet. It simmered in May when a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) from Delhi came visiting (Silchar being the only other city it visited in Assam apart from Guwahati) to hear views on the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill.
While prima facie, the Bill promises citizenship, the process is pegged to be a long one. The applicant has to prove in court that he/she has been in the country for 12 months leading up to the application, and for at least six of the last 14 years.
In the Brahmaputra Valley, the JPC members were greeted with opposition, rooted in the old fear of migrants diluting the strength of the indigenous Assamese population. The response in the Barak Valley was a stark contrast. Among the 300-plus memoranda signed by groups in the region, the overarching sentiment was that it will end persecution of the state’s Bengali Hindu community, which has long felt alienated by its Assamese population.
This divide is apparent in Assam’s political sphere too. The BJP, voted to power for the first time in Assam, is under fire for pushing the Bill. Among those opposed is its own ally, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), a party whose genesis lies in the fight for Assamese identity. The Congress, AIUDF, All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) and sections of the civil society are also opposed.
While most of Independent India’s energy has been spent dousing the fires of Partition on the West, Assam’s festering wound too is a throwback to the redrawing of boundaries in 1947, to the East. As part of this, a referendum was held and most of Assam’s Bengali-speaking Sylhet was made part of East Pakistan, while one part (Karimganj) was retained and made part of Assam’s Cachar district, despite having little or no cultural ties with the state. By the late 1980s, three districts formed the Barak Valley — Cachar, Karimganj and Hailakandi — constituting a Bengali-speaking majority.
“The referendum itself was faulty. They did not take into account the votes of the tea garden (Hindu) tribes, which account for 30 per cent of the population,” says Dr Panthapriyo Dhar, an English professor in Silchar’s Gurcharan College.
On May 19, 1961, 11 people, part of the Bengali language movement, were killed in police firing at the Silchar Railway Station. The group was protesting against the state’s move to make Assamese its official language. A year previously, in the Brahmaputra Valley, police fired on students of Cotton College resulting in the death of Ranjit Barpujari on July 4, 1960. After the 1961 incident, Assamese continued to be the official language but, in an exception, Bengali was given official language status in the Barak Valley districts.
Ever since, May 19 is commemorated in the Barak Valley as ‘Bhasha Shahid Diwas’.
Says Professor Joydeep Biswas of Silchar’s Cachar College, “Historically, culturally, linguistically, anthropologically, however you look at it, the Barak Valley was never a part of Assam. The problem is not just language. The Asam Sahitya Sabha has a huge Bengali presence. The Bengalis of the Barak Valley have always thought themselves to be minorities, and felt the need for political protection.”
He adds, “Sylhet moving away from Assam was a landmark event in the region’s history. If not that, Bengalis would have been the linguistic majority in Assam. And politics would have taken a different turn….”
That belief is hard to shake off in the Barak Valley, across age groups.
“They call Cachar ‘Assam’s Cancer’,” says Abhijit Nath, a teacher at Gurucharan College. His colleague Dr Panthapriyo Dhar adds that while he has never felt discriminated against, he has a problem with the Brahmaputra Valley’s notion of “indigenous” and “ethnic”. “Bengalis came to Assam even before the Assamese. We have a 1,500-year-old history in Assam,” he says, adding that historical documents refer to the presence of Sylheti Bengali Hindu kings in the region much before the 13th century. “According to Edward Gait’s A History of Assam, the ‘indigenous’ Assamese settled here only in 13th century.”
Jehangir Alam Laskar, 19, who studies at Assam University in Silchar, says youth like him from the Barak Valley prefer to go to Kolkata or Delhi for higher studies or jobs, giving Guwahati a miss. “We feel safer in the ‘Hindi belt’ than the ‘Assamese belt’.”
Samar Bijoy Chakraborty of BJP leader Subramanian Swamy-led Virat Hindustan Sangam’s Barak Valley chapter emphasises another point. “We are not Bengalis, we are Bengali-speaking Assamese. We have always had cordial ties.” However, he admits his children are working in Kolkata, because “I was not sure they would get a job in Assam”.
Congress MP from Silchar Sushmita Dev, who was a member of the visiting JPC, notes, “The fact that the people of Barak favour the citizenship Bill is not a disregard to the Assamese language but more of an affinity to their own culture. It’s not a hate issue, even if many people are trying to give it that colour.”
She also doubts if sporadic demands from the Barak Valley for Purbanchal, a separate Union territory, are “viable”. “Such demands cannot stem from an argument at a tea stall. Do we have the revenue? Will Dima Hasao agree?”
The tribal Dima Hasao functions as an autonomous district. In fact, although dominated by Bengalis (Hindus and Muslims), the Barak Valley also has substantial tribal numbers — tea garden communities, Bishnupriya Manipuris, Hmars, Khasis, Chakmas and, in some pockets, even Assamese.
“We have lived here for generations,” says Manu Chetia, 60, who lives in Axomiya Basti on the outskirts of Silchar. “I studied in an Assamese-medium school and never felt like I an outsider.” There are around 19 Assamese villages in the Barak Valley, and till very recently these had fully functional Assamese-medium schools. However, when The Sunday Express visited Karimganj Government Assamese Lower Primary School established in 1984, half the school had been converted into an office, while classes for the entire school were being held out of one room, occupied by eight students of Classes, 2, 4, 6. “We have only two Assamese students,” confessed teacher Ratna Chaudhury Das.
Khayrul Islam Hazari, from the office of the Deputy Inspector of Schools in Karimganj, says the few Assamese schools in the district have no Assamese students. “No Assamese people come here now. Those who do, come for work, and send children to private schools.”
Pankaj Bhattacharjee, another officer, points out, “It is not like Bengalis are going to Bengali-medium schools either. In Silchar, most kids go to English-medium schools.”
On the other side, in the Brahmaputra Valley, with leaders who cut their teeth in the Assam Agitation, the citizenship Bill is seen as a blow to the state’s “culture and identity”.
The main grouse of the Brahmaputra agitators is that the Bill goes against the March 25, 1971, cut-off date in the 1985 Assam Accord signed between the Centre and AASU. It laid down that those who entered Assam after midnight March 24, 1971 (coinciding with the Bangladesh war), would be identified as foreigners and deported.
The citizenship Bill technically has no cut-off date, but mentions that any of the minorities living in India before December 31, 2014, can apply.
AASU chief advisor Samujjal Bhattacharya says this will lead to an overhaul of the Assamese language. “Look how Tripura has lost its mother tongue Kokborok.”
The opposition is not against Bengalis, the division is not about valleys, the enemy is not the Muslim, but “it’s simply about a citizen and non-citizen”, Bhattacharya adds. “We have taken the burden up to 1971. We won’t be second-class citizens in our own home.”
As per the 2011 Census, Assam had 1.5 crore Assamese and 90 lakh Bengali speakers (48.3 per cent and 28.9 per cent of the population, respectively). This shows a fall in proportion of Assamese speakers and rise in Bengali speakers since 1991 (when the numbers were 57.8 per cent and 21.6 per cent respectively). Before this, from 1951 to 1971, Census data had showed a marginal decline in speakers of both the languages. If in 1951, the Bengali speakers accounted for 21.4 per cent, this had fallen to 19.87 per cent by 1971.
JNU Professor Nandita Saikia, who has a PhD in Population Studies, warns against reading too much into these figures. She says many Bengali Muslims came to occupy riverine islands in the Brahmaputra Valley from areas that would become Bangladesh between 1900s and Independence. “Over successive Census, they declared their mother tongue to be Assamese,” she says.
In his new book Strangers No More, Sanjoy Hazarika notes that the reverse may be happening now. “What cannot be ruled out is that Assamese speakers of Bengali origin, whether out of loyalty to their original tongue or frustration at what was happening in the state, had chosen to go back to Bengali,” he writes.
However, it is another data that is more telling for those in the Brahmaputra Valley: the 17.07 per cent surge in Assam’s population between 2001 and 2011 Census. In that decade, the proportion of Muslims in the state’s population rose by 3.3 per cent to 34.22 per cent (the most rapid rise of Muslims in the country) — seen by many as proof of migration from across the border.
With unrest brewing over the citizenship Bill, former CM and AGP leader Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, once the most recognisable face of Assam’s politics and now just supporting cast in the state BJP-led government, finds himself at the forefront again.The AGP has categorically stated that it will withdraw support to the BJP government if the Bill is passed.
Mahanta and a few others formed the Asom Andolan Sangrami Manch back in 2015, when the Bill was still an ordinance. “We took a stand then because no one else did,” says Mahanta. The Bill “virtually nullifies” the Assam Accord that the people of Assam and AASU (led by him) had worked so hard for, he adds. “We lost 865 lives in the agitation. More were injured, imprisoned.”
The BJP’s other ally, the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF), has chosen to remain silent. But the All Bodo Students’ Union (ABSU) is opposing the Bill. “We have many ethnic groups in Assam. The land laws do not protect us, political reservation is minimal. The Bill will just aggravate our issues,” says Promod Bodo, President, ABSU.
AASU’s Bhattacharya adds that not just Assam but all of Northeast is opposing the Bill. “The North East Students Organisation, representing the major students’ organisations of the region, is opposing it. This has never happened anywhere in India regarding a Bill,” he says.
Caught in the middle are people like Guwahati-based Ila Chakraborty from Jorhat, an Assamese who learnt Bengali from her best friend in school and whose late husband was a Bengali of Sylheti descent. “The Bengalis in the Brahmaputra Valley, Muslims or Hindus, have learnt Assamese, adopted the culture,” she says, adding it could be a case of sour grapes for the Barak Bengalis.
In pockets of Guwahati — Pan Bazar, Lal Ganesh, Maligaon — Bengalis and Assamese have co-existed for decades. Families of Banerjees and Senguptas have been here generations. On Pan Bazar’s Danish Road, the Sengupta family has held their famous Senbari Durga Puja since 1907, after moving from their village in present-day Bangladesh.
In this narrative of the two valleys divided over the Bill, the voices of the Bengali Muslims of the Barak Valley — who constitute 49 per cent of its population — tend to get lost. “Like the Bengali Hindus feel victimised by the Assamese, the Bengali Muslims here feel victimised by the Bengali Hindus who have come post-1971. If you do a demographic survey of Karimganj, you will find that most people with refugee cards hold a major stake in business in Silchar,” says Atiqur Barbhuiya, a consultant from Silchar.
A government official from Cachar, on condition of anonymity, says many memoranda submitted to the JPC during its two-day visit were rustled up overnight by “fake groups”. Many individuals, who came with their memoranda, were reportedly “bought over” by political parties to push their views forward. Still others thought it would help them get their names into the NRC. “How can we then say that entire Barak is supporting the Bill?” argues Barbhuiya.
Contesting the charge of ‘fake memoranda’, BJP spokesperson Dr Rajdeep Roy, who belongs to the Barak Valley, says, “The people of Barak have been working for the Bill since long. The allegation that the memoranda were ‘fake’ is untrue. If we say that the opposition to the Bill in the Brahmaputra Valley is also ‘fake’, will they agree?”
The fact that the Bill is being pushed by the BJP, with its larger agenda of uniform nationalism, hasn’t helped. Anwar Husain Laskar, the AIUDF MLA from Karimganj, says the Bill is trying to “wipe out the traditional voter base of the Congress and AIDUF by granting citizenship to Hindu Bangladeshis”.
Eminent Assamese scholar and social scientist Dr Hiren Gohain calls the Bill “an unacceptable political, ideological plot”. “If the motive (of the Bill) was to shelter persecuted minorities, you cannot leave out Muslims. There are persecuted Muslims in Pakistan such as the Shias, Hajaras, Ahmediyas,” he says. “In a sense, Assam’s fight against the Bill is a fight for the idea of India.”
Counters Assam Health Minister and the BJP’s Northeast face, Himanta Biswa Sarma, “The Bill is precisely to protect from atrocities by Muslims in Bangladesh and Pakistan. So how can the Bill include Muslims?”
The “disturbance” over the Bill has been created by “a few organisations with vested interests”, Sarma adds. “I have travelled across Assam and thousands attend our meetings. I have not sensed a feeling of anguish against the Bill.”
Buffeted by successive legislations that are far from settling past wounds, some in Assam hark back to a short period 13 years ago, when all sides united over a TV singing contest. That year, Debojit Saha of Silchar was the finalist on Zee TV’s Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Challenge. As the entire state rallied to the message of ‘Type Debojit and send it to 7575’, his face smiled down from hoardings in the run-up to the February 2005 final.
“Even the secessionist ULFA found a reason to join the mainstream,” says Professor Biswas. Bhattarcharya recalls campaigning for Saha across Assam, in both its valleys. “We treated Debojit as the son of the soil,” says the AASU leader. “Back then, for a brief moment of time, there was no Bengali, no Assamese, no Hindu, and no Muslim. He was Assam’s son.” Who won.
– Till 1873, Assam was part of Bengal Presidency, with Bengali as official language. In 1874, British made Assam a ‘Chief Commissioner’s Province’ by including predominantly Bengali-speaking districts Sylhet, Cachar and Goalpara, and Garo, Khasi and Jaintia Hills, Lushai and Naga Hills. The Bengalis began the Sylhet-Bengal Reunion Movement.
-In 1947, after a referendum seen as “faulty”, most of Sylhet was made part of East Pakistan, while one part Karimganj) was included in Assam’s Cachar district.
– Post-Partition, demands rose to formalise an “Assamese identity”, culminating in Assam Official Language Act 1960.
– By late 1980s, the Barak Valley constituted Cachar, Karimganj and Hailakandi districts, with a Bengali-speaking majority that felt alienated from Assamese-speaking Brahmaputra Valley.
1951: Assam’s first NRC based on Census of 1951
1955: Citizenship Act, 1955
1979-85: The Assam Agitation
1985: Signing of Assam Accord
2009: NGO files case about 41 lakh ‘foreigners’; asks for NRC updation
2014: 64 Foreigners’ Tribunals set up to detect ‘foreigners’ and ‘D-Voters’, adding to 36 tribunals set up under Foreigners (Tribunal) Order, 1964
Dec 2014: SC sets deadline of Dec 31, 2015, for NRC updation
2015, 2016: Notifications to amend the Foreigners Act, 1946, and Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920, essentially enabling members of specific minorities (except Muslims) to continue living in India
July 2016: Citizenship (Amendment) Bill tabled
Dec 31, 2017: First NRC draft; lists 1.9 cr of 3.29 cr applicants as ‘citizens’
April 2018: An answer in the Assembly lists 899 ‘declared foreigners’ and ‘D-voters’ in detention camps in 6 jails in Assam
May 2018: JPC visits to take opinion on citizenship Bill, faces protests
June 2018: NRC publication date extended. Next hearing on July 2
Northeast and Citizenship (Amendment) Bill
NAGALAND: Ruling NDPP (BJP ally) has said will oppose the Bill “if it goes against interests of Nagas”
ARUNACHAL PRADESH: CM Pema Khandu says state has little to worry. But Opposition says Bill will “affect the ethnic composition of the state”
MIZORAM: Assembly passed a resolution against Bill; says will “legalise Buddhists (Chakmas) who have illegally entered from Bangladesh”
MANIPUR: BJP CM N Biren Singh has said the Bill concerns Assam. But Cong has said it will turn Manipur into “a dumping ground for refugees”
TRIPURA: All parties, including BJP allies, are opposing Bill
MEGHALAYA: The Meghalaya Democratic Alliance government, including BJP, is opposing the Bill
Citizenship (Amendment) Bill vs NRC
While it is hard to reconcile the Bill that essentially seeks to include new citizens with the NRC, that seeks to exclude those who aren’t, the BJP says they are separate things. “We, in consultation with higher authorities, will take a call only after the NRC is complete. The NRC will help determine the magnitude of the problem,” argues Assam Health Minister Himanta Biswa Sharma, adding that the NRC “will result in actual statistical data”.
“The Bill placates the Bengalis, the NRC placates the Assamese,” says Delhi University sociologist Nabanipa Bhattacharjee, adding “The BJP-AGP alliance in Assam will benefit from this simultaneous (and contextual) pleasing-displeasing scheme, at least for its immediate goal: the (Parliament) election of 2019.”
Assamese scholar Dr Hiren Gohain sees the two overlapping, but in a different way. “My speculation is the NRC will probably exclude three-four lakh Bengali Hindus and about 15-20 lakh Bengali Muslims. The purpose of the Bill would have been served without passing the Bill.”
Officially, it is unclear what the fate of those left out of the NRC will be, with no agreement with Bangladesh in this regard.
Asked about this, Sarma says, “Once the final NRC list is out, the government of India will decide on its next steps in consultation with the Supreme Court.”