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Divisions on Citizenship Bill, NRC Push Assam Back on Rocky Road to Anarchy, Chaos

The citizenship bill exposed the traditional fault-line between the two major communities, which dates back to British Raj days.

Anirban Choudhury |

Updated:November 11, 2018, 1:09 PM IST
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Divisions on Citizenship Bill, NRC Push Assam Back on Rocky Road to Anarchy, Chaos
People whose names were left out of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) draft stand in a queue to collect forms to file appeals near an NRC center on the outskirts of Guwahati on August 13, 2018. (AP)
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Assam is once again on the precipice. With opinions sharply divided between the people of Barak and Brahmaputra valleys over the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, the state has now been virtually spit down the middle, socially and geographically.

With daggers drawn, tension is simmering between members of the Assamese community primarily residing in the Brahmaputra Valley and the Bengalis, dominant in the Barak Valley and residing in a few pockets of the Brahmaputra Valley.

Ever since the Bill got momentum, especially with the Joint Parliamentary Committee members visiting the state earlier this year and subsequently submitting its report, the state witnessed deep linguistic polarisation, reminiscent of the anti-foreigners’ movement days (1979-1985). And with the kind of provocative statements coming from either camps and a large section of the state’s media (mostly electronic) unabashedly acting as agent provocateurs with utterly biased and inflammatory content aimed at inciting communal passion, Assam clearly is seemingly once again hurtling on the track to anarchy and chaos.

The state government’s mysterious silence on such a crucial issue with ominous portent and even in the face of extreme provocations has not helped matters. Despite the open threats and intimidations emanating regularly from those opposing the Bill and equally irresponsible statements from a section of the ruling party leaders, Dispur has miserably failed to tackle the situation by even communicating properly — no clear statement till date vis-à-vis the content of the Bill nor the BJP or the Assam government’s stand on it.

Actually, the Bill seeks to provide citizenship to immigrants belonging to Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Parsi and Sikh communities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan who had entered India illegally prior to December 31, 2014 following religious persecution. Thus, it isn’t Assam or Bangladeshi Hindu-specific and there is a cut-off date. Also, there are some members from tribes like the Garos, Khasis, Rabhas, Chakmas, etc, from Bangladesh who are residing in the Northeast illegally. The Bill is expected to come in handy for them too.

But, with no counter-narrative from the ruling dispensation, the jatiyatabadis (aka nationalists) have been quick to exploit the fluid situation to their advantage, if not running riot. No doubt, their hypothesis that Bangladeshi Hindus numbering about 1.70 crore would overwhelm Assam’s ethnic communities once the Bill is passed is getting popular credence in the Brahmaputra Valley.

They are also pointing out that it will repudiate the Assam Accord of 1985 that fixed March 24, 1971 as the cut-off date for detection and deportation of illegal Bangladeshis, besides the ongoing update of National Register of Citizens (NRC) under the Supreme Court’s monitoring. However, Bengali organisations feel that justice will be finally done to scores of Bengali Hindus who had fled erstwhile East Pakistan due to religious persecution and were being hounded decades later in the land they had chosen to live.

Influential organisations like the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) are even trying to mobilise support from other ethnic groups across the other North-eastern States and even political groups outside, including NDA partners like JD(U), against the Bill.

And the current situation reached a flashpoint when five innocent Bengalis were shot dead by unidentified gunmen (suspected to be militants) at Dhola in Tinsukia district on November 1. But what was even more disturbing was the somewhat militant opposition by several organisations opposed to the Bill to the Assam bandh called the following day by some Bengali organisations to protest the killing. Now, contrast this with the fact that such bandhs called in the past by other communities in the backdrop of targeted mass killings by militant outfits were generally met with popular empathy, if not sympathy.

The latest episode clearly exposed the underlying simmering tension between the Assamese and Bengali communities, besides confirming that linguistic polarisation was near complete as between the two valleys. This is also borne out by the fact that the killing was not widely condemned, with even the Assamese intelligentsia preferring to remain mum and hardly any editorials against it.

All these have fuelled a sense of insecurity among a large section of the Bengalis residing in the state, especially those in the Brahmaputra Valley.

There is no love lost between members of the two communities, but the Bill has certainly helped exacerbate the somewhat latent mutual suspicion (if not hatred) that always characterised the nature of their relationship. It has exposed the traditional fault-line between the two major communities, which dates back to British Raj days.

Of course, the ruling dispensation has to apportion a major share of the blame for its somewhat inept handling of such a critical issue that has the potential of flaring up and quickly spiralling out of control and tearing asunder Assam’s fragile social fabric. But the BJP, which is leading a three-party alliance government, can be somewhat excused for its indecisiveness given the fact that it is torn between the pull and push of retaining support base within both the Assamese and Bengali communities. Its alliance partner and regional party AGP has already come out loud and clear against the Bill.

In this backdrop, the two-phase panchayat elections scheduled on December 5 and 9 are being seen as crucial and an acid test for the BJP, coming as it is in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha election. Also, the current situation couldn’t have come at a more inopportune time for the dominant ruling coalition partner given the fact that it is already under fire from many quarters over the ongoing update of NRC.

Meanwhile, the current tumult has brought to fore once again the complex social structure of the Northeast that defines its political landscape too, especially the latent feeling of insecurity among many ethnic communities, primarily about their culture and language. Unlike in rest of the country, polarisation in this part primarily tends to be along ethnic and linguistic lines as borne out by the region’s politico-social history. The fear of being overwhelmed by another community is paramount — the Bodos or Karbis vis-à-vis the Assamese or the Assamese vis-à-vis the Bengalis, etc. The current hullabaloo over the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill reflects this reality.

However, it is widely believed the current conflagration is unlikely to inflame any further. A re-run of foreigners’ movement days is doubtful due to several factors, including inherent contradictions within the construct of greater Assamese society and a strong undercurrent of “nationalistic” sentiment. Many also see AASU leaders meeting the bereaved of the Dhola massacre victims as part of their conscious effort not to be seen as pursuing a parochial agenda. The elders, too, don’t want a return to the tumultuous days of foreigners’ movement. At the most, many believe only the state’s political discourse would get more toxic.

Finally, full credit to Assam’s aam aadmi for having exercised utmost restraint in the face of extreme provocations for the past few months. There hasn’t been a single stray incident of communal violence. However, both Dispur and Delhi would do well not to allow the current situation to adrift any further and actively engage with all stakeholders to clarify their misgivings about the Bill, instead of rushing with it in Parliament.

(The author is a Guwahati-based journalist. Views are personal)
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