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Opinion: Fear of being a minority at home defines Assam’s complex ethno-nationalistic politics

Elections aside, the lurking fear that illegal immigrants will determine the state’s political future continue to the occupy Assamese mindspace

March 30, 2021 / 07:28 AM IST

“Assam is not a dumping ground for foreigners”. This was a dominant slogan in Assam in 2019 and early last year as the state erupted in a wave of protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). 


The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) faced the brunt of the massive opposition with thousands of people joining the protests, raising concerns ranging from cultural estrangement to economic deprivation, bringing the state to a standstill for weeks.


This deepened the strain between suspected 'illegal' foreign migrants and sons of the soil has, which, over the years, has created its own political grammar with sharp fault lines, growing ethnic sub-nationalism amid competing claims on land and agrarian economic opportunities.


Until a year ago, there was near undisputable opposition to the CAA provision among the Assamese speaking spanning across the length and breadth of the Brahmaputra Valley. 


It is not animosity for other communities that was behind the resistance. There continues to remain a growing fear, in Assam and the rest of the North East, about being reduced to a minority in their homeland, outnumbered by a swarming influx of immigrants from Bangladesh.


The opposition to the CAA stems from the fear that a flood of Bengali-speaking immigrants who will legitimately settle down in Assam and rest of North East can fast alter the existing cultural ecosystem, blurring indigenous identities.


There is a fear that the Assamese speaking will be reduced to a statistically weak minority in their own state. This could trigger a rapid cultural erosion in a state that takes immense pride in its progressive literature, music and cinema movement.


CAA and Assam Accord

While in the rest of the country, the opposition to CAA built along the Hindu-Muslim binary, the widespread outrage in Assam was that the legislation ran counter to the spirit of the Assam Accord of 1985.


The Assam Accord, signed between the then Rajiv Gandhi-led central government and the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), had fixed March 24, 1971 as the cutoff date for foreign immigrants. Those illegally entering Assam after this date were to be detected and deported, irrespective of their religion.


The CAA moves the cutoff date for six religions—Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists, Jains and Parsis, by more than 43 years to December 31, 2014, which is not acceptable to the Assamese-speaking in Brahmaputra Valley. They insist that all illegal immigrants, regardless of their religions, should be treated as illegal.


The Assam Accord, although not legislated in Parliament, is in the nature of “a public law contract” between the Indian government and the people of Assam. In spirit, it is similar to a “negotiated agreement”, between the state’s people and the Indian government.

 

The anti-CAA protests in Assam were founded on the premise that the law seeks to change nature of the agreement without seeking the consent of the Assamese people, resulting in a breach of contract.

 

There is also an economic problem. If tens of thousands start staying legally in Assam and North East, the pressure will first show in the principal economic resource—land.


Also, since these will be legitimate citizens, there will also be more people joining the queue of job hopefuls that can potentially lower opportunities for the indigenous and the locals.


Given this rather charged background, it has come as a bit of a surprise that the CAA has not snowballed into “the” main issue in Assam Assembly elections, contrary to what most analysts had reckoned a year earlier.


CAA, NRC and other promises

The opposition to CAA in Assam is a manifestation of the ethno-nationalistic identity and culture in the state. The protests gave birth to new political parties—Assam Jatiya Parishad led by former All Assam Students Union (AASU) leader Lurinjyoti Gogoi and the Raizor Dal led by transparency and human rights activist Akhil Gogoi—seeking to represent the “jatiyotabadi” Assamese cause and aspirations.


The Congress, which has allied with Badaruddin Ajmal-led All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), a party largely representative of the Bengali Muslims in Assam, has promised to repeal the CAA if voted to power.


On the other hand, CAA finds no mention in BJP’s election manifesto for Assam, as opposed to West Bengal where it announced the implementation of the law “in the first cabinet meeting” itself.


The BJP, however, has announced that it will focus on a corrected National Register for Citizens (NRC). The NRC was aimed at coming out with a credible list of bonafide citizens of India living in Assam. In the final list that was released on August 31, 2019, of 3.30 crore applicants, 3.11 crore people made it to the list, leaving out 19.06 lakh people. 


NRC in Assam was not meant to be a linguistic/religious/caste/ethnicity-based population census. Its limited, but extremely important, focus was to find out residency status in Assam through legacy data like parents' and grand parents' names in voters' list before March 24, 1971.


The CAA has queered the pitch for NRC on three counts. First, by having two cut off dates for illegal foreign immigrants—December 31, 2014 for Hindus, Buddhists, Parsis, Jains, Christians and Sikhs, and March 24, 1971 for the rest. Two, by making some illegal immigrants more equal than others. Three, it will open up the possibility of Indian citizens from other states to stake claims for their names being included in the NRC.


The BJP has rejected NRC as “faulty”, saying genuine citizens were left out while foreigners were included. Over the last couple of years, the BJP has expended considerable political capital and time on trying to become more ethnically inclusive, progressively reaching out to communities such as Mataks, Morans, Tiwas, Rabhas and Misings.

It will eventually boil down to the political rights of the people of the state. Migration has been a burning issue in Assam. Elections aside, the lurking fear that illegal immigrants, who will eventually become legitimate citizens, will be determining the political future of the state, continues to occupy the Assamese mind space.
Gaurav Choudhury is consulting editor, Moneycontrol.

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