(Exclusive): Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s move to grant citizenship to Hindus from Bangladesh even those came after 1971 has backfired in Assam.
The amendment to the Citizenship Bill introduced by India’s ruling BJP aims at granting citizenship to Hindus from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan even if they came to India after 1971.
25th March, 1971 was declared as the cut off date under the 1985 Assam Agreement between agitating groups and Indian government — anyone coming to Assam after that from Bangladesh or Nepal would be identified as foreigner.
But Modi’s effort to privilege Hindus was in keeping with the BJP’s long declared political line in Assam that Hindus are refugees as victims of religious persecution in Bangladesh — different from Muslims who are, in BJP’s view, economic migrants.
The move brought Bengali Hindus flocking to the BJP’s fold and helped the party win the 2016 Assam elections with a thorough religious consolidation.
But as the party floated the amendment, trouble started in Assam.
Regional Assamese groups, like BJP ally Asom Gana Parishad, the All Assam Students Union (AASU) which led the anti-migrant agitation (1979-85) and Krishak Mukti Sangram Samity, opposed the amendment.
They said this would violate the Assam accord provisions. In their view, the migration issue is not a religious issue — a Bengali migrant from Bangladesh, Hindu or Muslim, is unwelcome in Assam because they threaten the indigenous Assamese.
So for the last few months, Assam has witnessed continuous agitation against the BJP’s decision to grant citizenship to Hindus from Bangladesh. The Congress has also opposed the move, describing it as a ‘conspiracy’ to divide Assam on religious lines.
BJP’s chief minister in Assam Sarbananda Sonowal is privately uncomfortable with the party’s decision but had no options but to back it.
The BJP and RSS see this as crucial to the Hindutva agenda that helped them win Assam by getting support from Assamese and tribal Hindus (who oppose migration) and Bengali Hindus (who seek citizenship as projected victims of persecution).
But Sonowal is no RSS trained swayamsevak (volunteer) — he has emerged from the stable of Assamese regional politics as a former AASU president and AGP MP who piloted the challenge to the pro-migrant IMDT act that the Supreme Court finally quashed in 2004.
Be that as it may, Sonowal is now caught in a crossfire — he can’t go against the party high command but finds it difficult to carry along his allies from Assamese regional groups that he brought to the BJP coalition.
The brewing tensions exploded this week at Silapathar in Assam’s Dhemaji district, forcing the Army staged a flag march after activists of a Bengali Hindu organisation ransacked the office of the All Assam Students’ Union here demanding Indian citizenship for Hindu Bengalis who came to Assam from Bangladesh after 1971.
The lesser known Nikhil Bharat Bangali Udbastu Samannay Samiti (NBBUSS) that organised a mass rally demanding amendment of the Citizenship Act 2003 and a halt to harassment of Hindu Bengalis over the foreigners issue, later took out a procession through the town and its activists targeted the AASU office. They also damaged the swahid bedi (martyrs column) on the AASU office premises.
Following this act of vandalism, business establishments, financial institutions, schools and colleges were automatically closed in the district as the situation became tense.
The district administration organised a peace meeting at Silapathar police station after the vandalism with representatives of political parties, student organisations and the public. Attending the peace meet, Lakhimpur MP Pradan Boruah, Jonai MLA Bhuban Pegu and Dhemaji DC Rashni Apranji Karati appealed to the general public to maintain peace and harmony.
On the other hand, a public meeting was also held on the Silapathar LP School premises today to protest and condemn the vandalism incident. Several speakers from ethnic bodies like TMPK, ATASU, ADSU, AKRSU and other organisations expressed grave concern over the incident.
So, ethnic tensions are seeming to get the better of the BJP-RSS sponsored Hindutva politics in Assam yet again.
Modi and his north Indian RSS-BJP compatriots have limited understanding of Assam’s complex social fissures, something that stands exposed now.
Indigenous Assamese groups initially treated Bengali Hindus as their biggest challenge to jobs and opportunities in the colonial period and in the first 20 years of Independence.
That changed after the reorganisation of Northeast which left Assam a much smaller state after the creation of tribal states like Nagaland, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh.
After that, the ethnic Assamese and tribal groups stood worried with Assam’s changing demography — 37 percent Muslim population, mostly of East Bengali origins.
The six year Assam agitation began in 1979 with a call to cleanse the electoral rolls of foreigners. The first casualty was Dr Robin Mitra, a scientist with Oil India limited based in Upper Assam. Later the movement, penetrated by RSS, took a violent anti-Muslim turn, culminating in the massacre of 2000 Muslims of East Bengali origin at Nellie.
But the BJP and AGP (along with other Assamese regional groups) have been divided on the migration issue.
The BJP sees it from a religious angle — Hindus are refugees and need shelter, Muslims are economic migrants and should be pushed out.
The AGP, AASU and other regional groups want all migrants to be identified and evicted — Hindus and Muslims alike.
The BJP sponsored amendment had raised hackles in Bangladesh where the Hasina government saw it as not only adding to religious tensions in a sensitive border zone but also as a move that might encourage Hindus to leave Bangladesh and erode a critical votebank of the Awami League.
Now that trouble has erupted in Assam and Hindus are not seen as welcome there, this might work to the Awami League’s advantage, atleast in a limited way.
But a conflagration in Assam following the Silapathar incident may expose chinks in the BJP’s armour and thwart Modi’s move to position the party strongly in India’s Northeast.
Sonowal is seeking to defuse these tensions by pushing to get six indigenous communities declared as Scheduled Tribes. That includes Koch Rajbongshis, Ahoms, Moran, Muttocks, Chutaias and the Tea Tribes (whose ancestors from Central India’s tribal regions).
If this works out, more than 50 percent of Assam’s population will be Scheduled Tribes and Assam, like neighbouring Meghalaya, will be a tribal state.
That will erode fears of an immigrant take over of political power and guarentee it remains with indigenous people.
Time for a fresh bout of socio-political engineering in India’s troubled Northeast.
Subir Bhaumik is a former BBC Correspondent and author