The Centre’s proposed move to grant citizenship to persecuted religious minorities from neighbouring countries has created sharp divisions in Assam. The divisions have come to the fore as the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) on the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill concluded its three-day visit to Assam on Wednesday.
A senior state official who did not want to be named said the government has received more than 45,000 emails protesting the move to grant citizenship to ‘Hindu Bangladeshis’, adding that if the Bill is passed, it could lead to “chaos”. On Monday, hundreds protested in Guwahati, with placards reading ‘Assamese nation will never accept the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill’.
The Bill proposes to amend the citizenship laws so as to not treat Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Parsis, Christians and Jains who are in a minority in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan as illegal migrants, making them eligible for Indian citizenship.
“Assam is not a dumping ground for foreigners. The BJP will have to chose if it wants to be with indigenous people or Bangladeshis,” said Sammujjal Bhattacharya, chief advisor to the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), the powerful students’ body that led the Assam agitation of the 1980s.
AASU, bodies representing other indigenous groups, the All Assam Muslim Students’ Union, and political parties, including BJP ally AGP, Badruddin Ajmal’s AIUDF and Congress, have submitted that the “Assam Accord” is sacrosanct. They said there cannot be any change to the cut-off date — March 25, 1971 — and those who came later have to be deported, a demand that has kept the pot simmering for close to three decades now.
“Amendment to this Bill is going to violate the Assam Accord. Our country is secular, you cannot divide it on religious lines,” said AGP leader and former chief minister Prafulla Mahanta.
“Assamese will become a linguistic minority. The culture will be destroyed if the Bill is passed,” said Atul Bora, AGP president and cabinet minister, who has threatened to resign.
Assamese organisations hold a protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, in Silchar on Wednesday. (Sadiq Naqvi/HT)
But pressure is building up on them to withdraw from the alliance. “People want we should quit the government,” said Mahanta.
The BJP backing the Bill has put chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal too in a Catch-22 situation. “Sonowal, Atul Bora come from AASU. They should understand what problems may arise with this amendment,” Mahanta said.
Activist Akhil Gogoi of the Krishi Sangram Mukti Samiti said the Bill will “open floodgates for 1.2 crore Hindus in Bangladesh to swamp India”.
Meanwhile, in Barak Valley, organisations representing Bengali-speaking Hindus are infuriated over protests in the Brahmaputra Valley.
Over 300 organisations met the JPC in Silchar on the Barak Valley leg of the visit with most demanding that the Bill be passed and how the Assam Accord is not sacrosanct like the “Quran or Bible”.
“The whole Bengali community continues to be looked upon as suspected illegal immigrants,” said Himadri Roy, president of Sara Assam Bengali Aiyko Manch.
Several Bengali speakers, including Hindus, fear that once the NRC exercise is completed, they will be declared foreigners and thrown in detention camps.
“The Constitution says that those whose parents or grandparents are born in undivided India cannot be treated as illegal immigrants,” said Prasenjit Biswas of Citizens’ Rights Protection Co-ordination Committee. “That the state will be flooded with Bangladeshi Hindus is a bloated argument by ethno-centric Assamese groups.”
Sujit Tiwari, a professor at Karimganj College, claimed Assamese groups are mixing up “refugees” and “infiltrators”, a reference to the Bengali-speaking Muslims.
Meanwhile, the BJP says the Bill is an ideological commitment. “Moreover, the refugees don’t just include Hindus, They include indigenous groups such as Koch Rajbongshis, Bodos and so on,” said Ranjit Kumar Dass, BJP state president. On the question of the Bill creating a divide, he is dismissive: “Organisations with no mandate are making a lot of noise.”