Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2016-Implications for Assam
C D Sahay, Distinguished Fellow, VIF

The Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2016 (CAB) has created a division in Assam along historical fault lines. The differences hark back to the language riots of 1960-61, and then again in 1972, with violent conflicts between the entire Assamese and the Hindu Bengalis and with those killed in the clashes/police firing being raised to the status of ‘martyrs’.

In historical terms, it may be recalled that way back in 1836, following the Treaty of Yandabo and induction of Bengali speakers in Assam for manning clerical positions, Bengali was made official language of Assam, a position it retained till 1872. It may also be mentioned here that in colonial times, Cachar was considered, along with Sylhet, as part of the mostly Bengali speaking Surma Valley as opposed to the mostly Assamese speaking Brahmaputra Valley. When Sylhet became part of then undivided Pakistan, a number of Hindu majority districts were amalgamated with Cachar. Given the language divide, it had even been suggested that Cachar should have been separated from Assam. There was even the argument, as mentioned by Sanjib Baruah in his book, ‘India Against Itself’, that Cachar has been more tied to Bengal than the rest of Assam.

It is perhaps in this historical context that the CAB, 2016 has stoked ancient fears among the ethnic Assamese. Opposition to the CAB, 2016 has emerged from variety of organisations including the All Assam Student Union (AASU), the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS), and some Muslim organisations. Militant outfits, both those in talks with the government, and those continuing with violence, have opposed the CAB, 2016. The ULFA faction, led by Paresh Baruah, has sought to intensify violence on this issue. In contrast, the Bengali Hindu organisations, particularly in the Barak valley, have supported CAB, 2016 and demanded its early passage.

Arguments have been made that CAB, 2016 discriminates against the Muslims and it also dilutes the ‘Assam Accord’ as it may lead to an influx of Bengali Hindus and may alter the demographic composition of the state in favour of Bengalis and that it would also lead to the alienation of tribal land.

Some of these fears seem exaggerated. The mere passage of the Bill is not likely to open the floodgates for Hindu or minority migration from Bangladesh. This could have been more likely had the BNP-JeI led government had been in power in Bangladesh, as had happened in 2001-06, when these parties were in power and when there was a sharp increase in atrocities against Hindus inside Bangladesh. These had included physical attacks on Hindus, rape of Hindu women, vandalisation of temples, seizure of Hindu property and forced conversion to Islam.

According to 2011 census of Bangladesh, Hindus constituted just 8.96 % of the overall population of Bangladesh against 28% in the then East Bengal as per 1941 census. According to the latest census of 2011 census, there were just 1, 24, 92,500 Hindus in Bangladesh. Even in a worst-case scenario, the migration will not all flow into Assam, but also into West Bengal and Tripura, besides others centers in India where the migrants could make their future. Assam has just a section (nearly 263 km) of the 4100 km long Indo-Bangladesh border, with the longest stretch being with West Bengal (2217 km), Tripura (856 km), Meghalaya (443 km) and Mizoram (353 km). It should also be kept in mind that the movement in Assam to assert ethnic Assamese and tribal identity, much of which has been directed against outsiders including Bengali settlers, would act as a dampener to migration to Assam.

Migration of Bengali Hindus from erstwhile East Pakistan and now Bangladesh, has not been of a constant, steady magnitude but has risen and fallen with the level of atrocities and excesses on them in Bangladesh. In fact, the current trend in migration from Bangladesh to Assam and West Bengal has been that of economic migrants, predominantly Muslims, many of whom have since fraudulently regularised their resident status in India. It is these migrants who pose the main demographic threat to Assam. There have also been attempts at radicalisation of such elements and in the most recent instance, a module of Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) was unearthed in Assam following the arrest of one Kamruz Zaman of Kanpur, on September 13, 2018. Kamruz Zaman, along with three HM associates, was on a recruitment mission for militancy in Kashmir. Several of his Assam based associates were picked up from minor towns such as Hojai, Lanka and Byrnihat, the last being in Meghalaya. Earlier, in 2014, a major Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) footprint was revealed in which as many as 52 persons were arrested in Assam.

Assam is not the same as it was in 1950s and 1960s and much has been done to preserve and protect Assamese identity, though as in any multi-ethnic State, there will always be differences and tensions. It may be mentioned that even though the Assam Accord does not have a defined time frame for implementation, the Central and State governments have under taken a number of measures to protect and preserve Assamese identity as also to fulfill the clauses of the Accord. The most recent of these has been the decision on January 2, 2019 to set up a High Level Committee for implementation of Clause 6 of the Accord and measures envisaged in the Memorandum of Settlement, 2003 with the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) and other measures relating to the Bodo Community. Besides, a massive exercise to update the National Register of Citizens (NRC) has been on since February 2015, under the supervision of the Supreme Court. The Government has further taken initiative to enter into negotiations with the militant outfits in Assam and the Northeast leading to a sharp decline in violence by militant outfits. Both during 2017 and 2018, the level of violence was the lowest in the last three decades. Inauguration of the longest river bridge (Dhola-Sadiya Bridge) in May 2017 and the longest Road-cum-Rail Bridge at Bogibheel on December 25, 2018, have been two recent notable achievements in linking parts of the State.

The current anti-CAB, 2016 stir has been rather erroneously liked to the ongoing efforts of the Central Government to implement the Assam Accord. The CAB, 2016, by itself, is not likely to exacerbate the ethnic, linguistic and religious imbalance in that region or for that matter any other part of the country. The provisions of the CAB, 2016 should be seen more as humanitarian measure to provide succor and long overdue relief to the distressed minorities who have, over the years, come in from our immediate neighbourhood to escape victimisation and atrocities committed on them by the local governments and radical groups. They are not necessarily linked to the flow of illegal migrants from Bangladesh into India’s Northeast and even West Bengal and Bihar in a process that even dates back to the Partition and later.

What the CAB, 2016 aims to do is that these minority migrants are not treated as illegal migrants, thereby ensuring that they are not arrested and deported. This gives them an opportunity to apply for gran of citizenship under the due legal process of citizenship through naturalisation. And to mitigate their long period of suffering, the other provision of the CAB, 2016 provides for a reduced waiting time to six years, almost in line with what is available to Overseas Citizen of India (OCI).

It may also be noted here that the CAB does not per say grant citizenship to the minority community migrants. All it does is to ensure that they are not treated as illegal migrants and enables them to apply for grant of citizenship under the established procedures under the law. It would therefore, be appropriate to delink the CAB, 2016 from the implementation of the Assam Accord and the NRC exercise.

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