A brief history of Assam, Assam Movement & Assam Accord and the implementation of NRC & CAA

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|Parag Chamuah|

The Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 is the burning issue in India at present. A bill that was transformed into an Act with the President’s assent on 12th December 2019, it is a multidimensional issue in itself. At this hour, it is imperative to understand the history and antecedent conditions of the Act to be able to form an opinion on the same.

The Citizenship Amendment Act 2019, is an Act of the Parliament amending the Citizenship Act of 1955 granting Indian citizenship to illegal migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, belonging to six religious classes namely Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians who entered India on or before 31st December 2014. It also seeks to relax the requirement of residence in India for citizenship by naturalization from 11 years to 5 years for these migrants.

The Union Cabinet cleared the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019 on 4th December 2019. It was passed by the Lok Sabha on 10th December 2019 and, subsequently, in the Rajya Sabha on 11th December 2019. In operation, it shall apply to tribal areas of Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram or Tripura as included in the Sixth Schedule to the Constitution and in the areas covered under “The Inner Line” notified under the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation, 1873.
The Burning Region Northeast: A brief History of Northeast & Assam.

Looking into the historical and geographical factors of the pre and post independence era, one can somewhat trace the trajectory of territorial disputes in the country. Before partition, India comprised 17 provinces and 565 princely states which was reorganised to 14 states and 6 Union Territories. At present, it stands at 28 states and 9 Union Territories.

Diving a little deeper, one can find the reasons of militancy in Northeast. The Treaty of Yandabo which was signed on 24th February 1826 after the end of the First Anglo-Burmese War. Along with many other clauses, one of the main ones was that the Assam, Manipur, Rakhine (Arakan), and the Taninthayi (Tenasserim) coasts, south of the Salween River would accede into British India. The fundamental reason for the rise of revolts by the various insurgent groups in Northeast was that the erstwhile Assam (Assam, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Mizoram) and Manipur was never a part of Burma, so the treaty was illicit and till date, groups like PLA, NSCN, ULFA and many others are waging a war against India to get freedom and sovereignty of their individual states.

Coming back to CAA, the three subject countries- Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, share an international land boundary of 106kms (PoK), 4096kms (Meghalaya, Assam, Tripura, West Bengal & Mizoram) and 3233kms (Punjab, Rajasthan, Gujarat & J&K) respectively. Of all the international boundaries of these countries, the border with Bangladesh is the highest and most porous and has been profusely used by illegal immigrants and by insurgent groups to their respective benefits, since the time of independence.

As per census 2011, the total population of Northeast India is 46 million with 31 million of them living in Assam alone, accounting for 68 percent of the population.. Of the 31 million, Assamese is spoken by around half that population, approximately 15 million. Next is Bengali at 9 million and the rest comprises Hindi, Bodo, Karbi, Dimasa, Rabha, Mising and many others. According to the 2011 census, 61.67% were Hindus and 34.22% were Muslims. Christian minorities (3.7%) are found among the Scheduled Tribe and Castes population. The Scheduled Tribe population in Assam is around 13%, of which Bodos account for 40%. Other religions followed include Jainism (0.1%), Buddhism (0.2%), Sikhism (0.1%)and Animism (amongst Khamti, Phake, Aiton etc. communities).

It is estimated that between 1991 and 2011, the share of Assamese speakers in the state fell from 58% to 48%. This is matched by a quick rise in the share of Bengali speakers from 22% to 29% during the same period. In a short period of 20 years, from the position of the majority group, the Assamese speakers have become one of the many minority linguistic groups of the state. With statistics like this, it is only natural for the Assamese to fear the loss of identity in the future.

Assam Movement

The Assam Movement or the Assam Agitation (1979-1985) led by All Assam Students Union (AASU) and the ‘All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad’ (AAGSP) was a popular uprising to drive out the illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The movement ended with the signing of the Assam Accord by leaders of AASU-AAGSP and the Government of India under PM Rajiv Gandhi. During this period of six long years of the historic movement, reportedly, 855 people (later on 860 according to AASU reports) sacrificed their lives in the hope of an “infiltration free Assam” in the 1979-1985 Assam agitation. In addition, the infamous Nellie and Khoirabari massacre also took place during this time claiming the lives of 2,191 and 100-500 respectively.

Assam Accord

The Assam Accord (1985) was a Memorandum of Settlement (MoS) signed between representatives of the Government of India and the leaders of the Assam Movement in New Delhi on 15 August 1985. The fundamental aspect of the Assam Accord was: 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. Further details are available on public domain which can be referred to, for detailed information.

Post 1985, Assam witnessed a multiple change of governments; from the Indian National Congress to the Assam Gana Parishad and finally the BJP’s maiden entry in 2016 with CM Sarbananda Sonowal at the helm, an erstwhile member of AASU who also signed the Assam Accord.

National Registrar of Citizens (NRC)

In May 2005, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of UPA-I who also happened to be a Rajya Sabha member of Assam, chaired a tripartite meeting with the Centre, the Assam government and the AASU where an understanding was reached that steps must be taken towards updating the NRC to fulfil the promises made in the Assam Accord. The modalities for this were approved by the Centre in consultation with the Assam government.

In July 2009, an NGO called Assam Public Works moved the Supreme Court pleading that the names of those migrants who have not been documented should be removed from the voters’ list. The NGO requested the court to begin the NRC updation process. In August 2013, the petition filed by Assam Public Works came up for hearing and in Dec 2013 the Supreme Court directed the exercise to update the NRC process. The actual exercise began on February 2015. The deadline set by the Supreme Court of 31st December 2015 was missed and since then the Supreme Court has been monitoring the entire process. The government published the first list on 31st December 2017 where the number of illegal immigrants stood at around 3.5 million. The final revised list was released on 31st August 2019 with around 1.9 million illegal immigrants identified.

Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB)

The CAB 2019 was introduced in the Lok Sabha by Home Minister Amit Shah seeking to amend the definition of illegal immigrant for Hindu, Sikh, Parsi, Buddhist and Christian immigrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, who have lived in India without documentation.

It was subsequently passed in both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha where large numbers of MPs voted in favour of the Bill mainly because of the assurances given for safeguarding the rights under Inner Line Permit and Sixth Schedule of the Constitution except only Sikkim MP who voted against CAB. Also, all the opposition MPs, mostly from Congress and AIUDF voted against the Bill. They opposed it on three grounds- First, the bill is anti-Muslim as it leaves out only Muslims. Second, it has selectively picked only three of the nine neighbouring countries and finally, it has also excluded the sectarian Muslim minorities like Ahmadiyas and Shias who are also persecuted to some extent (which I as an author agree to some extent).

The Home Minister however, countered stating that the Muslims were not included because they cannot be considered to be persecuted in an Islamic state. Further, citing examples of how Muslims have been granted citizenship in the past as per standard laws, he mentioned that Muslims can still apply for citizenship in India.

Why Assam & Northeast is leading the fight against CAB?

The Northeast India is home to almost 220 ethnic groups with their own distinct languages, dialects cultures and heritages. Since much of Northeast is made up of indigenous tribes, it is governed by the Inner Line Permit system, an official travel document issued by the Government of India to allow inward travel of an Indian citizen into a protected area for a limited period and the Sixth Schedule comprising some of the regions of the states of Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura. When the CAB was first tabled in the lower house of the Indian Parliament there was a widespread fear among the people of Northeast that their lands would be encroached upon by Bangladeshis owing to the porous international boundary and eventually the government had to wait till the winter session of the 17th Lok Sabha where it was tabled again but with new modifications where ILP and Sixth Schedule Areas will be exempted from the implementation of the CAB. Thereafter, the Bill went on to be passed from both the houses of the Indian Parliament and eventually became a law with the assent from the President of India on 12th Dec 2019.

While this Bill protects and safeguards the ILP states of Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Nagaland and newly inducted ILP state of Manipur it selectively applies to the remaining states of Northeast (Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Sikkim). This is primarily the main reason why the Northeast India is agitating like never before.

Assam which lies at the centre stage of these agitations has been protesting that this Bill is in violation of the Assam Accord which the centre signed in 1985. In their defense, the Home Minister of India and also the Chief Minister of Assam has time and again clarified that there are enough constitutional safeguards for Assam through the committee formed under Clause 6 of Assam Accord which 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.” Additionally, they have been maintaining that the 12 member committee under the Chairmanship of former Gauhati High Court judge Justice (retd) Biplab Kumar Sarma which also includes Ramesh Borpatragohain (Advocate General, Assam), Niloy Dutta (Advocate General, Arunachal Pradesh), Subhash Das (former IAS), Pallav Bhattacharya (former IPS), Dr. Srishtidhar Dutta (retired professor), Sumanta Chaliha (author and columnist), Dr.Jaikanta Sharma (professor & columnist), Wasbir Hussain (senior journalist), Samujjal Bhattacharya (Chief Advisor, AASU), Dipanka Kumar Nath (President, AASU), Lurinjyoti Gogoi (General Secretary, AASU) and Satyendra Garg (Joint Secretary, MHA) as Member Secretary will prepare a Report based on which any action on the implementation of CAB will be taken in any region in Assam.

For mainland India and the mainstream Indian media who have even a little knowledge on the subject and the fight of Assam and Assamese people from 1979 till date, are against the Bangladeshi influx and aggression as opposed to the Hindu-Muslim discourse which is being portrayed elsewhere. At present, the protests have spiralled out of the state and are now in places like Bengal, Kerala and Delhi, where it has taken a communal angle. On the contrary, Assam is perhaps one of the most secular regions in the entire country where people from all walks of life irrespective of their caste, creed, language or religion are protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act which they claim is in violation of Assam Accord.

Opinion of the Author

It is a known fact that religious minorities have faced widespread persecutions in the three countries so it is a moral duty on the part of India to protect these persecuted people as they are from Indian origin and there is nowhere else for them to go and seek refuge. As far as Assam is concerned, I feel the protection exists for safeguarding of the indigenous people which has been re-assured by the PM, Home Minister and CM, but unambiguous clarity, there needs to be a concrete document which states that the Brahmaputra Valley will be exempted from CAA, as was recently demanded by the AGP while moving a petition to the Supreme Court of India.

Lastly, the final and the most important process under the ambit of the NRC, which was to expel/deport the illegal immigrants detected in the NRC from Assam, I have a strong feeling that in today’s scenario in 2020 it would not be possible to achieve, owing to reasons like the International Repatriation Laws to India’s relation with Bangladesh, to UN and rise of radical fundamentalism to destabilise the region and also the difficulty of dealing with individual case to case basis of the detected illegal immigrants. Any forceful measure by the Indian Government or the people of Assam through any mass movement will only lead to more Nellie & Khoirabari massacres which will have repercussions internally and globally in the future. Back in the 80s, it was controllable because there was no Cable TV or Internet or Mass Media but today, the scenario is completely different- more so with the emergence of terrorist groups such as the Al Qaeda, the ISS or HUJI. In this state of affairs, the best measure would be to strip them of their civil rights and only allow them basic human rights along with the batch wise relocation of these people to other Indian states. And as for us, the future of Assamese and Assam lies in our hands and how we conduct ourselves today. Indeed, we are a very sensitive and emotional race but then, we should have a practical approach for the coming future especially with NRC process in its closing stages. Any misadventures can have long lasting ramifications on us and it won’t take long for Guwahati to turn into Gaza. We have to overcome all odds and make ourselves culturally and economically stronger. Joi Aai Axom. Jai Hind.

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