Citizenship (Amendment) Act: The Assam perspective
Guwahati: Sam Stafford, 17, was shot dead during protests against Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) in Guwahati recently. He was among the five persons killed in Assam during the violent protests that were taken out across the state against the contentious law.
After the Act was passed, over 175 persons were arrested and thousands taken into custody. Life came to a standstill for a few days.
It was a flashback for many who had been through the traumatic Assam Movement that lasted for six long years starting in 1979. In that violent but popular agitation against illegal immigration, over 800 people, mostly young, were killed.
As a result, the spontaneous protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) got widespread support. Many saw it as an attempt to legitimise illegal immigrants again. Activists claim Assam has over 70 lakh illegal immigrants. The final draft of the controversial National Register of Citizens (NRC) to detect them put the figure at 19 lakh.
Since there were no protests following the announcement, it was presumed to be accepted by all, especially the influential All Assam Students' Union (AASU), who spearheaded the Assam Agitation.
All was quiet until the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAB) came up in Parliament and was passed. “CAA is protecting the illegal Bangladeshis, violating the historic Assam Accord and it is anti-Northeast, communal and unconstitutional. Assam Accord is very clear. Those who entered Assam before 1971 can stay in the state with every right of citizenship but those who entered after that, be it Hindu or Muslim, they must go. It is a national commitment. As they want the vote of the illegal Bangladeshis, as they have the number in Parliament, they will impose anything on us. But we won’t accept it," said AASU advisor Samujjal Bhattacharya.
The Assam Accord signed in 1985 promised an end to illegal immigration and protection of indigenous tribes and communities of the state. The cut-off date for migrants from East Pakistan to be accepted as citizens was set as March 25, 1971. Those who arrived post this date are to be detected and deported.
The Citizenship (Amendment) Act extends this agreed upon date to December 31, 2014, which is in direct conflict with the accord.
Senior journalist and author Mrinal Talukdar, who has written extensively on the Assam movement, alleged that the government is trying to provide settlement to the Hindu Bangladeshis excluded in the final draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC).
"It is absolutely clear that those who were excluded in the NRC, especially the Hindu Bangladeshis, they are to be taken in as citizens of India through Citizenship (Amendment) Act. Now, a new figure of 5,04,200 is being floated by Assam finance minister Himanta Biswa Sarma. But I would like to know from where did they get this figure. We all know that 19 lakh have been excluded. Out of that an imaginary figure of 5 lakh has been floated as if they are the only ones who have come in. One thing is sure that these are the ones excluded from the NRC. But what is not sure that the 5 lakh that has been quoted are the only ones of the 19 lakh. It is absolutely clear that the Citizenship (Amendment) Act is being brought in to include and protect the Hindu Bangladeshis," said Talukdar.
There have been apprehensions among the people regarding the violation of the Assam Accord. While people have been protesting for the safeguarding of Clause 6 of the Accord, it is Clause 5.8 that has actually been violated by the Citizenship (Amendment) Act.
Clause 6 of the Assam Accord says: “Constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards, as may be appropriate shall be provided to protect, preserve and promote the culture, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people.”
Clause 5.8 reads: “Foreigners who came to Assam on or after March 25, 1971 shall continue to be detected, deleted and practical steps shall be taken to expel such foreigners.”
These clauses have been violated by the Citizenship Amendment Act, claim protestors.
"Now Clause 5.8 of the Assam Accord and the provision of the present law, particularly Clause 2, is contradictory. Assam Accord was laid down in both houses of Parliament. On one hand, Assam Accord says that after March 24, 1971, nobody will be allowed to get citizenship and they will be deported. This is the clear provision of the Assam Accord under Clause 5.8 but in the present Act it has given a provision up to December 31, 2014 that all people will be granted citizenship. This is the contradiction," said Zoii Nath Sarmah, former Assam minister and ex-AGP leader.
The government’s announcement of a nationwide NRC has added fuel to the raging fire. After the ordeal people of Assam underwent in proving citizenship through legacy documents, apprehension has been raised that only a few sections of the Assamese society may be subjected to indignation.
Azizur Rahman, advisor of All Assam Muslim Students’ Union, feels that this is an act to polarise the Assamese society. "The state and the central government are using devious methods to create divisions in Assamese society. They are saying that the Act will not be implemented in areas coming under the 6th Schedule [of the Constitution of India]. They are saying that the Act will not be implemented in areas where ILP is required. A few days ago, they were trying to buy off the artists’ community by paying them a sum of money. They are saying that 55,000 jobs will be provided. These are conspiracies to polarise our society,” he said.
“Minister Himinta Biswa Sarma, while being biased against one community, named a few Muslims in order to convey that protests are being carried out by Muslims only. He is trying to polarise and create division in the society. The government in order to save itself is using unfair means but in no way Himanta Biswa Sarma, Sarbananda Sonowal, Amit Shah, Narendra Modi or anyone else will be able to divide the Assamese society. They will never be able to pacify the protests carried out by the people of Assam against the diffractive act and protests will continue," Rahman added.
Amid continuing protests in several parts of Assam, 60 petitions against the CAA have been filed in the Supreme Court of India, including one by the All Assam Students' Union (AASU) and the Assam Sahitya Sabha.
The AASU is strong-willed against the acceptance of the Act as it will change the demography of the state and as they fear it will even allow illegal foreigners to intrude upon the corridors of power.
“Assam and Northeast are not a grazing ground for illegal Bangladeshis. It is a threat to our language, culture and identity. We have 49 tribal belts and blocks encroached by illegal Bangladeshis. Forest land in Kaziranga have been encroached by illegal Bangladeshis, Satras encroached by illegal Bangladeshis. The entire demography has changed. The Supreme Court of India had said due to large-scale influx of illegal foreigners, there is external aggression and internal disturbance in the state of Assam. The Gauhati High Court had said that the illegal foreigners had become kingmakers and if this phenomenon continues, the indigenous Hindus and Muslims will become minorities in their own motherland and illegal foreigners will intrude the corridors of power. The Congress had imposed IMDT to protect illegal Bangladeshis and now BJP has imposed C(A)A to protect their vote bank of illegal Bangladeshis in Assam and we won’t accept it,” added AASU's Bhattacharya.
On December 18, the Supreme Court of India decided to examine the constitutional validity of the CAA, but refused to stay its operation since neither any date has been notified for the law to take effect nor any rule has been framed. The court will now hear the petition on January 22, 2020.
As the apex court stars proceedings, many in Assam fear that this could be the beginning of a long struggle reminiscent of the 1980s.