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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 6 New Delhi January 27, 2018 - Republic Day Special

Assam in a Quagmire

Saturday 27 January 2018, by Barun Das Gupta

The Hindutva politics has brought Assam on the brink of a massive social unrest. The reason is the party‘s decision to grant citizenship to all Bengali Hindu immigrants from Bangladesh after March 25, 1971, while holding all Bengali Muslim immigrants as ‘illegal infiltrators’ to be deported to Bangladesh. Whether this will be at all physically possible (that is, whether Bangladesh will accept them) is quite another matter. Bangladesh has said repeatedly that not a single citizen of theirs is staying in Assam.

To end the seven-year-long ‘anti-foreigner agitation’ in Assam (1979-85), an agreement called the Assam Accord was signed by the organisations leading the agitation on the one hand and by the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi on the other in 1985. Para 5.8 of the Accord stated: “Foreigners who came to Assam on or after March 25, 1971, shall be expelled in accordance with law. Immediate and practical steps shall be taken to expel such foreigners.” The significance of March 25, 1971, was that Bangladesh declared independence and the liberation war started on that day. It was presumed that those who had come to Assam before that date were either victims of religious persecution (Hindus) or entered Assam due to economic reasons (Muslims). They would be allowed to stay on in Assam.

It needs to be mentioned that the present BJP Chief Minister of Assam, Sarbananda Sonowal was, at that time, a leader of the All Assam Students Union, one of the organisations spearheading the anti-foreigner agitation, and the AASU was one of the signatories to the Accord.

The BJP—and before it its earlier incarnation the Jana Sangh—had all along accused successive Congress governments in Assam of deliberately encouraging immigration of Muslims from East Pakistan/Bangladesh and allowing them to settle in Assam in order to increase the party’s ‘vote bank’. Now the BJP is being accused of indulging in vote-bank politics by granting citizenship to Hindu Bengalis from Bangladesh.

Before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, himself promised in public meetings that if the BJP came to power at the Centre, it would take steps to drive out all the illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, irrespective of their religion. In the 2016 State Assembly elections, the BJP emerged as the single largest party in Assam but it failed to get a majority on its own. It had just 60 legislators in a House of 126. It had to rope in the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) with its ten members to form a coalition government. It needed to expand its vote-bank.

The party moved for the amendment of the Citizenship Act. This evoked a strong protest from the Assamese people of the Brahmaputra Valley who feared that if this process continued, then they would be eventually outnumbered by the Bengalis in their own land. The result was that the age-old Assamese-Bengali antipathy, which had ended, was revived by the short-sighted policy of the BJP. Whatever support the BJP earlier had from the Assamese people was in danger of evaporating.

Then, in its desperate bid to saffronise Assam, it made another costly faux pas. Himanta Biswa Sarma, an ULFA-man-turned-Congressman turned-BJP-man who now holds Finance and several other portfolios in the Sonowal Cabinet, announced that the State Government would open twentytwo new ‘model’ colleges in Assam, all named after the late BJP leader, Deen Dayal Upadhyaya.

Immediately, there were angry protests from the civil society all over the State. The first question was: Who is Deen Dayal Upadhyaya? We have never heard his name. Then, when his identity was known, people asked, why name the colleges after someone whom none knows in Assam and who had no contribution in any field in Assam. Assam has a galaxy of luminaries. Why not name the colleges after them? There is Krishna Kanta Handique, the renowned scholar and Indologist, who was the first Vice-Chancellor of the Gauhati University. There is Lakshminath Bezbarua, the eminent litterateur. Then there is Birinchi Kumar Barua, the well-known historian and linguist. There is Padmanath Gohain Barua, who is considered the pitamaha (grandfather) of modern Assamese literature. Why not any one of them but an unknown man who had nothing to do with Assam? Faced with this volcanic eruption of indignation and sense of outrage, the Sonowal Government hastily retreated from its decision to name the proposed new colleges after Upadhyaya.

The AGP, which is the coalition partner of the BJP Government, is now in a fix. Several organisations are opposing the move to grant citizenship to Hindu Bengali immigrants from Bangladesh. The AGP is also with them. Its allies are asking it to come out of the BJP-led coalition government by withdrawing its two Ministers from the Sonowal Cabinet. But the Ministers do not seem to be enamoured of this idea at all. If the movement against citizenship gathers steam, the AGP may be in a serious crisis.

The BJP has also suffered another embarrass-ment recently. The firebrand peasant leader of Assam, Akhil Gogoi of the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samity, was arrested under the National Security Act and charged with sedition for delivering a speech in a public meeting at Moran in Upper Assam tearing the Modi Government to shreds for its decision to grant citizenship to the Hindu Bangladeshis in violation of the Assam Accord. He was put in Dibrugarh jail. On December 21 last year, the Gauhati High Court quashed the sedition charge under the NSA and set him free.

As far as ‘deportation’ of ‘illegal immigrants’

to Bangladesh is concerned—not one or two but thousands of them—this is a ‘mission impossible’ and both the Sarbananda Sonowal Government in Assam and the Modi Government in Delhi know it. Anyone familiar with the ‘deportation’ tamasha in Assam knows what actually happens. An ‘illegal immigrant’ living with his family in Assam for decades suddenly finds policemen knocking on his door. The policemen tell him he is an infiltrator, load him and his family onto a vehicle and take them to some place in the Assam-Bangladesh border. They are then pushed into Bangladesh. Their task finished, the policemen return.

What happens to the unfortunate family? They have no friends or acquaintances in Bangladesh either because they were born and brought up in Assam and had nowhere to go to in Bangladesh, or Bangladesh would not just accept them as Bangladeshi citizens illegally living in Assam. Most of these people, after wandering about for a day or two in Bangladesh, in all probability without a morsel of food, would re-enter Assam through some other point, return to where there home was, only to find that their land and house had been occupied by ‘local’ people. Then their gruelling efforts would begin to set up another home and find some source of income.

What the present exercise at determining ‘illegal Bangladeshi infiltrators’ will actually end in is that thousands of Bengalis, mostly Bengali Muslims, will be declared infiltrators but because it is not physically possible to deport them all to Bangladesh, they will be disenfranchised—they will lose their voting right. And actually this is what really matters. The ‘local’ people will be happy if these people are not allowed to take part in elections, either as candidates or as voters. If they cannot make their presence felt in the Assembly or Parliament, the ‘locals’ will feel secure. In all likelihood, their descendants will also be denied citizenship. These people will remain in Assam as Stateless people, without any right that citizenship confers. A very small number will try to enter West Bengal and get settled there. This elaborate exercise at preparing a National Register of Citizens (NRC) will end up by creating a large army of Stateless people.

The author was a correspondent of The Hindu in Assam. He also worked in Patriot, Compass (Bengali), Mainstream. A veteran journalist, he comes from a Gandhian family and was intimately associated with the RCPI leader, Pannalal Das Gupta.

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