Few in India would dispute cultural icon Bhupen Hazarika’s credentials to be honoured as a Bharat Ratna. His son, Tej Hazarika, however, has questioned the Narendra Modi government’s decision to bestow the honour while piloting a divisive legislation in the land of Bhupen Hazarika’s birth. In a statement issued from New York on Monday, he said: “I believe that my father’s name and words are being invoked and celebrated publicly while plans are afoot to pass a painfully unpopular Bill regarding citizenship that is actually undermining his documented position”. The BJP should heed Tej’s critique of the Citizenship Amendment Bill even if it dismisses the suggestion that the Bharat Ratna to Bhupen Hazarika was a balancing act by its government to assuage the anger in Assam.
Bhupen Hazarika would never have approved of the citizenship bill, his son has said: “He would never have endorsed what appears, quite transparently, to be an underhanded way of pushing a law against the will and benefit of the majority in a manner that also seems to be grossly un-constitutional, un-democratic and un-Indian”. The Northeast has been more or less united in its opposition to the proposed amendment to the Citizenship Act that aims to make it easy for non-Muslims from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan to get Indian citizenship. Civil society groups have long held that the amendment is divisive because it privileges religion as a criterion of citizenship and that it will upset the region’s demographic balance and undermine the 1985 Assam Accord. If Parliament passes the amendment, the cut-off date for non-Muslim migrants in Assam to qualify for Indian citizenship would become December 31, 2014 as against 1971 in the Assam Accord. Political parties and state governments in the Northeast, too, have responded to the street protests and shutdowns and BJP allies in the region have threatened to quit the NDA if the Centre stays with the amendment.
Bhupen Hazarika’s artistic vision, while deeply humanistic and cosmopolitan, was rooted in the cultural landscape of Assam. His invocation of the region’s rhythms made him a people’s poet. He opposed the Emergency and championed the Assam movement in the 1980s. Tej Hazarika’s remark that the government is pushing a “painfully unpopular Bill” which undermines his father’s “documented position” should be read in this context. When he says that “adopting the Bill at this point in the manner in which it is being proffered, now or in the future, will ultimately have the sad and undesirable effect of… disrupting the quality of life, language, identity and power balance of the region”, he echoes the fears and anxieties of many in the Northeast. The government shall continue to turn a deaf ear to these voices at its own peril. It must recall the amendment Bill is yet to be passed by Rajya Sabha. That, surely, would be the perfect tribute to Bhupen Hazarika.