Assam has always been a fertile ground for identity politics ever since the 1979 by-election results in Mangaldoi showed an unprecedented rise in the number of registered voters. The by-election was necessitated following the death of the Lok Sabha member, Hiralal Patowary, in 1978.
The “sudden rise” of voters – particularly Bengali Muslims – resulted in a fear psychosis among the people of Assam in terms of perceived threat to the indigenous people’s culture, language, literature, customs and traditions. The demography of the State was all about to change. The indigenous people of the State were living in constant fear that the illegal Bangladeshi nationals would one day start ruling over Assam.
This rise in the number of unregistered voters led to the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) demanding that elections be postponed till the name of foreigners are deleted from the electoral rolls. The Assam Agitation developed from here which continued till 1985. In fact, the 1991 Census reveals that there was a growth of 77.33 per cent of Muslim population in the State.
The Assam Movement was largely non-violent except for the Nellie massacre and it ended in 1985 with the signing of the Assam Accord. The reins of power came into the hands of young blood that had spearheaded the five-year-long Assam agitation – the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) who stormed the corridors of power in Dispur in 1985 and 1996. However, the larger implication of the movement is – it not only changed the political equation in Dispur but also gave a wake-up call to the greater Assamese community vis-à-vis protecting their identity.
This question of identity has awakened and reawakened us as a community time and again and has been a dominant pattern of our collective life; shaping and reshaping our collective conscience. Nonetheless, post-1979, the question of indigenous Assamese identity has almost invariably been a part of various political parties’ campaign. In fact, this catchy slogan of identity of indigenous people so resonates among the inhabitants that the party effectively communicating its agenda of protecting the ethnic identity eventually finds itself on the winning side. Once a political party loses touch with the locals, their downfall begins.
It is best exemplified by the gradual downfall of the AGP post-2001 – ever since the party lost touch with its roots and became too much involved in the dirty game of politics. Post-2001, the Congress again started winning the favour of the people of Assam and ruled the roost in Dispur till 2016.
Again, in the 2016 Assembly elections in Assam, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) also played on the sentiments of the indigenous people of Assam with the catchy slogan – ‘jati, mati, bheti’ – and scripted a huge success story in Assam – their first in the political history of the State. It was a landslide victory for the saffron party as their moot point was the rights of the indigenous people. Since the
Sonowal Government had come riding to power on the said slogan, this makes it incumbent upon the party to protect the identity of the indigenous people at any cost and respect the mandate for which it was voted to power.
But, of late, the Central Government as well as the Sonowal Government is doing little to protect the rights of the indigenous people of Assam. In fact, New Delhi is working overtime to ensure that the Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2016, gets passed in the Parliament so that illegal migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, who are of Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian extraction gets citizenship in India. They just have to reside in India for six years to become citizens of the country!
This means a Bangladeshi Hindu can illegally migrate to India, stay in a nearby State for a minimum period of six years and become a citizen of India. Is this not a farce? While we are struggling hard to transform our own demographic burden into demographic dividend, such a move would spell doom for Assam.
While there are larger implications of the Bill if it is passed by the Parliament, Assam would be its worst victim. Because, the Bangladeshi Hindu immigrants who have infiltrated alongside the Bangladeshi Bengali-speaking Muslims, would never like to move back to their own country. In fact, they would stay back, usurp our jobs legally and claim citizenship rightfully. This would virtually render our lifelong struggle for protection of identity futile. Be they Hindus or Muslims, Christians or Parsis, Sikhs or Jains, Bangladeshis are Bangladeshis .They are different from us in every aspect -they cannot jigsaw fit in the larger strand of Assamese culture just because of religious affinity. They are equal bearer of the same culture as the Bangladeshi Muslims are whom we want to deport. The Hindu Bangladeshis pose equal threat to our culture, language, literature, customs and traditions – protection of which we are fighting for decades.
The whole ‘Hindu Bangladeshi issue’ has engendered a renewed fear in the minds of the indigenous people of Assam in the sense that while we have been relentlessly fighting to deport the illegal immigrants, the Central Government is making a move to give citizenship status to illegal immigrants in the guise of Hindu Bangladeshis! The BJP Government in Assam should realise sooner than later that the people of the State can no more bear the burden of Bangladeshi immigrants – be it Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis or Christians. The Sarbananda Sonowal Government should show solidarity with the people of the State and communicate their concerns to New Delhi. After all, the party has come to power promising protection of rights of the indigenous people. Sonowal should oppose the passage of the Bill with all his might. If the State BJP fails to do so, it will fall from grace in the State.
It is not only the political but also the moral duty of the BJP Government in the State to ensure that the rights and interests of the indigenous people of Assam are protected. Sarbananda Sonowal himself has been in the forefront when it comes to fighting against illegal infiltration, a person who fought against the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) (IMDT) Act, 1983 eventually leading to its annulment by the Supreme Court in 2005. Under such circumstances, the indigenous people of Assam still harbour hopes on the young Chief Minister.
The whole Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2016, issue is a very sensitive matter. The Assam Government will have to act very judiciously keeping the interests of the indigenous people of the State in mind. It is an acid test for the Sonowal Government and if they cannot protect the rights of the greater Assamese community, they will meet a similar fate like that of the AGP Government.
Mokhjumi Ahmed is a post-graduate student of Sociology in Gauhati University. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org