Citizenship Bill revives old fears in Northeast
The controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill 2016 has once again revived memories of a 150-year old festering sore in Assam, and indeed the entire Northeast region. Even as surveys are underway bill for the introduction of the bill, an age old fissure between the two major linguistic communities of Assam, Assamese and Bengalis, has again come to the fore. Geographically, the broad dividing line, though far from watertight, is between the Brahmaputra and the Barak valley. By and large, Assamese speakers are generally opposed to the proposed bill and the Bengali Hindus welcome it.
The bill seeks to amend Citizenship Act of 1955, to make the route to Indian citizenship easier for illegal migrants who are Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. The bill will also make these illegal immigrants not liable to be imprisoned or deported.
The Citizenship Act 1955 allows acquisition of Indian citizenship by naturalisation by an applicant who has resided in India during the last 12 months, and for 11 of the previous 14 years. The Bill relaxes the 11-year requirement to six years for immigrants belonging to these religions and three countries. Conspicuously absent from the list of favoured illegal immigrants are Muslims.
The exclusion of Muslims makes the new bill sectarian, but the opposition in Assam is also for fear the bill would go against the Assam Accord of 1985, which ended six years of agitation for the detection and deportation of foreigners from Assam, spearheaded by the All Assam Students Union. The accord fixes the cutoff point to decide the illegality of an immigrant, as midnight of March 24, 1971, and this is irrespective of religion. The current effort in Assam to update the National Register of Citizens, NRC, to identify non-citizens is based on this principle. The argument is, the bill would nullify the NRC exercise.
The question is, how would the segregation of Muslim from Hindu immigrants to term the former as illegal and the latter as legal affect Assam? History of the colonial period Assam, which then was almost the entire Northeast, with the exceptions of the independent kingdoms of Manipur and Tripura, may provide the answer. In fact, the communal frictions being witnessed today in the wake of the preparation for the bill is strongly reminiscent of the partition period politics in Assam.
In a nutshell, Assam was annexed by the British and made a province of British Bengal with the signing of the Treaty of Yandaboo in 1826 between the British and the Burmese after the latter were militarily pushed out of Assam, which the Burmese had invaded and occupied. Assam then was agrarian and largely unfamiliar with the British administration, therefore the British brought in educated middleclass Bengalis well acquainted with the British system from adjacent Sylhet district of eastern Bengal to run their lower bureaucracy. These Bengali middleclass, mostly Hindus, came to dominate Assam affairs, and treated the Assamese with a measure of condensation. In 1937 they influenced the British to make Bengali the official language as well as the medium of school education in Assam, arguing Assamese was a dialect of Bengali. The nascent and weak Assamese middleclass then were unable thwart this but the seeds for future conflicts were sown. As the Assamese middleclass expanded and deepened the resistance grew and in 1873 Assamese language was restored as the official language of five districts in the Brahmaputra valley. The following year Assam was also separated from Bengal to be a chief commissioner’s province.
There was all the while another bigger wave of immigrants into Assam from eastern Bengal, and these were largely land hungry Muslim Bengali peasants. The earlier Muslim immigrants easily integrated with the Assamese society, identifying themselves as Assamese speakers, but this soon changed with the changing colour of politics of the Indian freedom struggle, which soon shaped into a contest of religious nationalisms, pitting Hindus against Muslims. It was then Assam saw a unique a triangular rivalry. At one level it was a clash of linguistic nationalism between Assamese speakers and Bengali speakers. At another it was friction between Hindus and Muslims as elsewhere in India.
At the time of partition, quite tragically, it was the former which held in Assam. The Hindu Bengalis in Sylhet desperately wanted to be included in India and one of the ways of ensuring this was for Sylhet to be treated as part of Assam for then the combined population of the province would be Hindu majority. But embittered by past rivalries between the two linguistic communities, and fearful of being reduced to a linguistic minority in their homeland, the Assamese, then under the leadership of Gopinath Bardoloi of the Congress, refused.
This fear of a demographic upset is shared everywhere in the Northeast, and they all are wary of the Citizenship Amendment Bill 2016. Meghalaya has openly denounced it, and indications are, most of the rest of Northeast would too. The fear is of unregulated immigration regardless of religious affiliations of the immigrants, or their citizenship status. Indeed, the adjective “illegal” often added to immigrants in this context, is a fig leaf to give this fear acceptability in the Indian national discourse. Nowhere is the nature of this fear more undisguised than in a 1929 memorandum submitted by the Naga Club formed by a very recently emerged Naga elite, to the Simon Commission, then preparing the grounds for administrative reforms in India. The third paragraph of this memorandum reads: “we have no social affinities with the Hindus or Musalmans. We are looked down upon by the one for our ‘beef’ and the other for our ‘pork’ and by both for our want in education…”
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