The recently passed Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) has been at the centre of a lot of political turmoil lately. It is a boon for the thousands for persecuted religious minorities of Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. For some, the question is: why not of other neighboring countries? For others, it has meant a violation of the values enshrined in the Indian Constitution.
While one may debate on that, having considered the idea of reasonable accommodation within the broad framework of the Constitution, the reason Assam has stood up against the Act is very distinct.
For Assam, it is a question of identity beyond religion. It is a question of ethnicity and the socio-cultural heritage of the state. The Northeast region of India has been burning for decades on the matter of illegal immigration from Bangladesh.
The ongoing protest against legal measures to both legitimize illegal immigration through the CAA and delegitimize it through the National Register of Citizens (NRC) has become a major challenge to the present political dispensation.
Having caught media attention and the proverbial spotlight, the history of why Assam has stood up against it can be traced back to a century old exploitation of this naturally and culturally rich region. The Northeast region has over 220 ethnic groups speaking as many dialects. The hill states such as Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland are predominantly tribal in nature with a great degree of diversity within the tribal groups.
Historically, the demographic profile of Northeast is an outcome from the ancient and continuous flow of immigrants primarily from the regions of Tibet, Indo-Gangetic India, the Himalayan regions and the present day Myanmar and Bangladesh.
The oldest documented group of immigrants in this region is perhaps the Austro-Asiatic language speaking people from the South East Asia even centuries before the era of the Christ. Later, groups of immigrants who spoke mostly the Tai, Tibeto and Burman languages arrived and settled in various parts of Assam and built the “Greater Assam” much before the modern nation state of India was born in 1947.
Not many outside the north-east know that even the Mughals could not conquer Assam, with the famous Battle of Saraighat being a historical defeat of the Mughal forces at the hands of the Ahom. Greater Assam was not even a part of India during British Rule.
It became a constituent state of India only post independence. The British era witnessed a large scale influx of Bengali speaking people, followed by Nepalese and the tribal people from central India. This migration however, was planned and executed by the British in the overall interest of their empire and economic benefits.
Tea plantation, oil and coal extraction, besides administration, were primary reasons for bringing these people into the state. Be it the influx of people from regions such as Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Bengal and Andhra Pradesh, to work as indentured workers in tea gardens or the influx of people from Bengal to work as officers, lawyers and clerks (mostly from Sylhet after it was separated from Bengal Presidency in 1874 and in greater numbers from 1905, when the Bengal province was divided), the resultant unease within the indigenous population, partly due to the discontent and frustration at having the resources and opportunities in their state being wantonly taken away by those whom they regarded as ‘foreigners’ seeded a demographic divide, more in the minds and collective psyche of the people than in historical records and ledgers.
Even though they eventually became an integral part of the indigenous Assamese community & culture, it is recorded that between 1905 and 1921, the immigrant population from East Bengal increased four times over, thereby creating tensions and imbalances in the population of the state.
Between 1901 and 2001, the population of India grew by 331% while the population of Assam grew by 710%! This difference in growth could primarily be attributed to the uncontrolled immigration from different parts of the subcontinent, particularly from the densely populated Bangladesh.
The 1971 Indo-Pakistan war led to a surge in the immigration of refugees from Bangladesh, with around 1.2 million migrants being added in the ten year stretch 1971-1981! Thereafter, till the present, the porous borders (some which apparently have different parts of the same household in two countries) have facilitated unchecked and unabated immigration across the border, mainly due to relatively better security and economic opportunities for people in Assam and other parts of our country.
The massive demographic pressure on Assam eventually led to a massive agitation and mobilization of the indigenous people against it. Land was one of the most visible resources that saw encroachment by illegal immigrants, with the native populace losing land as the land to man ratio declined rapidly. The change in the demographic share of population resulting in natives becoming a minority in many parts of their own state, imposition of an non-native language – Bengali and migration of natives out of their homeland for need of earning livelihoods acted as the first spark for a fire that would consume the entire state for decades to come.
There were repercussions felt across the state, often in violent ways, such as in the Nellie Massacre of 1983 that claimed 2,191 lives. The attempt to pre-empt the cultural subversion of the Assamese society by illegal immigrants triggered the mass movement known as “The Assam Agitation” spearheaded by the All Assam Students Union (AASU) and All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP) during 1979-1985 against illegal immigration.
Starting with one Khargeswar Talukdar, there were 855 people recorded by the state government as martyrs during the six-year-long mass movement. This agitation resulted in the signing of historic Assam Accord.
India agreed to take responsibility of all migrants who entered India on or before March 24, 1971. Thus, according to this treaty, anyone who entered
Assam before that cut-off date is legal inhabitant of Assam irrespective of religion.
This accord also provided for delayed citizenship to those who came to Assam between January 1, 1966 and March 24, 1971. Thus, those who entered Assam from Bangladesh without permission on or after March 25, 1971, are the illegal immigrants provided all those who came before that deadline became citizens through the legal process akin to naturalization.
This treaty directs the Indian government to safeguard and preserve the identity and culture of the indigenous people of Assam. This was a historic mandate and an accord that was accepted by all parties involved. This mandate was an outcome of years of bloodshed and sacrifices by the natives who resumed their usual occupations and lives thinking to realign themselves to the political and demographic realities.
The recent steps taken by the Government of India imposing its political might are perceived as nothing short of backstabbing the people of Assam. They have been left ruing their decision to support the BJP in the state elections but have risen democratically against it.
Provisions under CAA provide citizenship to all illegal immigrants belonging to religious minorities from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, who came into India, on or before December 31, 2014.
It has been suggested by independent observers that the immigrants may not have to produce any evidence of persecution and date of entering Indian border either. Hence, the new cut of date becomes irrelevant.
Regardless of the religious question, as Assamese people, we see it as a brazen violation of the Assam Accord and as something that thereby hurts Assamese sentiments. The Northeastern states may get the first sunrise of the country, yet the darkness of unemployment and underdevelopment still envelops its people.
After seeing the way in which the Assam Accord has been violated, the northeastern states with special status have had to revisit the conception of their ‘special status’. They understood their identity and culture both are definitely under constant threat of greedy political interest.
The oneness of this region as a whole is also a major reason for the remarkable participation by all the states. We appreciate the sentiment of the Government of India, of safeguarding the rights and interests of those who have faced religious persecution in their home countries. One of us has had ancestors who had to come over from Bangladesh, losing property and facing persecution, in 1947.
However, there are some pertinent questions that we feel must be addressed. Firstly, the proof of persecution needs to be properly assessed. Secondly, the discussion of this Act should have been undertaken with the countries under the purview of the Act before it was passed, particularly around deportation of illegal immigrants who cannot be protected under Indian law and policy.
There seems to have been little by the way of discussion and negotiation on this front. Thirdly, within the country, there must be ways to share and redistribute the demographic pressure due to the immigrants across the various states of India. Given the Assam Accord, the contribution of Assam to this should be nil as the state has been taking enough burden of illegal immigrants so far.
Lastly, we must consider if our country capable enough to bear the additional burden of the new citizens, particularly with the economy in a weak state and employment being low. Isn’t there hunger and widespread poverty among existing citizens? Would it not add to crime rate too?
These are points and questions not as much to undermine the sentiment of this Act but rather to look at critical nuances that must be evened out.
Remembering that democracy is all about discussions and debate, dissent and deliberations, and discourses that move from there, the recent internet blockade in Assam and the tagging of the Assamese protesters as anti-national, when hundreds of freedom fighters were Assamese, is appalling.
A government is not the nation and the nation is not the government, and one has every right to question it and its policies. Policy-based support or criticism of a government is a leisure that seems to be becoming tougher by the day. As aware and concern citizens we believe the need of the hour for the nation is to secure the economic growth and form better refugee policies followed by diplomatic discussions with the respective neighboring countries.
It is the duty of government of India to understand and respect the sentiments and trust of Indian citizens first. When it comes to the question of Assam, the common man has a number of unanswered queries. For one, why have repeated governments not been able to protect the interest of the Assamese community in the last 35 years since the Assam Accord was signed?
While a wing of the agitation went the militant way with ULFA, and the other went with a political party (the Assam Gana Parishad), what are the outcomes of this sustained movement for which 855 people laid down their lives, if a central government can so brazenly violate an understanding?
Yes, Assam is a part of India and Assamese are Indians first, but there must always be an active respect and consideration of the identities of the various states, in the spirit of federalism and decentralisation. Why Assam still have to face an identity crisis? Why Assamese people in the rest of India still have to prove their Indianness? Why the people of the Northeast still have to face racist snides on their physical features, food habits and cultures?
Why cannot there be more opportunities in the state, be it in terms of education, jobs, medicine, tourism, communication, transportation or processing and usage of natural resources? We feel that this crisis gives us a chance to reflect.
We believe the need of the hour is for the indigenous people of Assam to concentrate on economic development and building strong political relations with all the states of India, particularly in the Northeast.
There should not be a repeat of opportunist flag bearers (if any) of agitations to take unfair advantage of local sentiments and political ambitions. The handicraft, tourism and fine arts industries must be reinforced, and technology must be used effectively to make the primary and secondary sectors, particularly agriculture, oil, fishery and tea, more efficient.
Assam must truly be the economic, political and cultural gateway of India to the East. Political accountability needs to be improved and people must vote for performance rather than party politics and pipe dreams.
When performance becomes the only norm to win elections, none can stop a state from development, and that in turn cannot stop the state from standing out and standing strong, proud and united, with the rest of the country. We hope the Indian government and the people of rest of India take the concerns of the Assamese people seriously, and help make the state an integral part of the sovereign Nation.