The 12-hour bandh called by 46 organisations against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, in Assam on Tuesday was incident-free. But the overwhelming public response to it despite the state government’s best efforts to contain the strike, and the warning from the Asom Gana Parishad that it will walk out of the state government if the BJP introduces the Bill in Parliament, indicate a groundswell that could prise open old ethnic and linguistic faultlines that caused unprecedented violence in the 1980s and thereafter. The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, which makes it easy for non-Muslims from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh to get Indian citizenship, is not specific to Assam. But within the state, it is seen as an instrument to enable non-Muslims from Bangladesh gain Indian citizenship. A section of the political leadership in Assam believes that this will upset the demographic balance of the state and turn the indigenous Assamese communities into a minority in their homeland.
The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, of course, is problematic for the simple reason that it subverts the idea of Indian citizenship as a secular category — in the amended version, non-Muslims are privileged over Muslims. However, it has turned controversial in Assam since it is seen to work against the consensus of the Assam Movement and the Assam Accord of 1985, that defined Assam as an ethnic and linguistic region whose character was threatened by migration. This consensus was exclusionist, but the exclusion was rooted in the peculiar history of migration and settlement carried out by British colonial interests in the 19th century and the redrawing of national boundaries since Partition. The National Register of Citizens (NRC) was instituted in 1951 specifically for Assam keeping in view the state’s worries over its changing demographics. The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, however, will introduce a religious dimension to the ongoing updation of the NRC and, even, transform it into a communal exercise.
Both the NRC and the citizenship bill are flawed initiatives that fail to recognise that nations and national economies are shaped by migration and the notion of indigeneity of populations is an anachronism in a globalising world. The NRC exercise has already triggered deep insecurities as the draft list has left nearly 40 lakh people in Assam stateless. The citizenship bill could enforce a different kind of polarisation and pit the populations of its two main river valleys — Brahmaputra and Barak — against each other. Identity is a sensitive issue in Assam and the government must tread carefully so that the delicate peace prevailing for the past two decades is not disturbed.