Although the new citizenship law came as a ray of hope, civil society groups and activists say that the clause 6 committee recommendations and the continuing citizenship trials have disrupted their faith in the government.
Guwahati, Assam: With the Assam Assembly elections in 2021 drawing closer, the longest running mandate of citizenship has once again taken centerstage in Assam’s politics.
The most recent trigger is the clause 6 committee report leaked by two of its members, Samujjal Bhattacharya of the All Assam Students’ Union and senior advocate, Niloy Dutta, last month. AASU is a signatory of the Assam Accord, a tripartite agreement between them, the Union and State government signed in 1985. Per the agreement, 24 March, 1971 was set as the cut off date for citizenship.
The proposed cut off year to define who an Assamese is, however, has been recommended at 1951 – the year when the first Census in post Independent India and the first NRC exercise were carried out.
Although it is still pending legislation, and the Assam government is yet to send its feedback to the Centre, Bengali Hindu groups are alarmed by it. Even the mere recommendation of 1951 as the cut off date, said Shyamal Sarkar a member of the Bengali Hindu Federation, reveals the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government’s ‘double standard’.
“The Assam Accord — which is seen as such a holy accord that we had accepted — identifies the cut off year at 1971. They should follow this,” Sarkar said. If 1951 were to be accepted as the cut off year, he added, it would reduce Bengali Hindus to ‘second class’ citizens in the state.
According to clause 6 of the accord, constitutional safeguards were to be placed for the protection of Assamese people – a demand that remain unfulfilled by the Asom Gana Parishad, a political offshoot of AASU, and subsequently, Congress government in the state. A committee formed by the Home Ministry in July 2019, led by (Retd) Justice BK Sharma, drafted the set of recommendations based on state wide consultation.
Along with the definition, the committee has recommended 80-100 percent reservation for Assamese people in government posts, land rights, the implementation of the Inner Line Permit along with retaining Assamese as the official language of the state.
Sarkar, who heads the Bharatiya Gana Parishad (BGP), said that plans were on to contest at least 40 seats in the 2021 election after they lost all hope with the BJP-ruled government. A regional party formed in 2015, the BGP fought just 11 seats in the Assembly elections in 2016 and 4 seats in the 2019 general elections.
Subimal Biswas, the former President of BGP, said that the State Election Commission recognised the party a month after the polling date was announced, giving them only little time to campaign. “However, we still managed a decent performance, falling short of only 1400 votes in Bijni,” he told Firstpost.
Unlike previous election years, where the party contested seats in middle and lower Assam, Biswas said that they would not restrict themselves this time and fight in Upper Assam and Barak valley, too.
“Bengalis are the second largest majority in Assam after the Assamese yet we were not given a single seat in the clause 6 committee,” he said. “Our politics is not about Hindu or Muslim. We stand with all oppressed people”
Unlike the 2016 election, in which the BJP swept the polls in a strong majority using the NRC as a mandate to drive away ‘illegal’ foreigners, regionalism will define the 2021 election.
Already, three fronts have been floated to oppose BJP’s Citizenship Amendment Act – the Assam Jatiya Parishad by AASU and the Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chatra Parishad (AJYCP), Anchalik Gana Morcha led by the journalist turned Rajya Sabha MP Ajit Bhuyan and United Regional Party Assam. The Akhil Gogoi led Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti is set to launch their own political party.
Biswas said that although CAA was supposed to be in their favour, they are yet to see its ‘benefits’. “The rules still have to be considered and if this is again like the NRC where we have to show our papers, then it won’t work for us,” he said.
“Moreover,” he added, “the Central government was supposed to frame the rules within 6 months and now they have asked for a 3 month extension”.
Sensing the popular vote tilting against the BJP post the CAA, the Indian National Congress and All India United Democratic Front have joined hands to defeat the BJP and its ‘communal’ agenda.
Congress spokesperson, Sushmita Dev, who lost the Lok Sabha seat from Silchar last year, told Firstpost that everything that was promised to the Hindu Bengalis only takes away from their rights.
“Compare the accord signed by former Primer Minister Rajiv Gandhi, which gave deemed citizenship if you came before ‘71,” she said.
“In CAA, you’ll have to fill a form and there’s no guarantee that you will be accepted or rejected but by then you’ve already identified yourself as a foreigner,” Dev added. This ‘half baked solution that has diluted the rights of Hindu Bengalis in a sly way’, she said, is becoming more and more apparent now.
BJP State President, Ranjit Kumar Das said that the fate of Bengali Hindus would be secure once the CAA rules are framed. In terms of the proposed recommendations for clause 6, he said it wasn’t needed in Upper Assam or Barak valley.
“In my personal opinion, clause 6 should only be applied in the border districts, where not only the Assamese but the Hindus have been reduced to a minority,” he said. “If we reserve seats for the indigenous Assamese here, then the Bengalis will also be safe”
Notices in the middle of the pandemic
A year since the National Register of Citizens was updated, which excluded 19.2 lakh applicants in the state, the rejection slips are yet to be issued to those excluded. The NRC authorities have cited the pandemic as a reason for delay in serving the ‘speaking orders’, which are to explain the reasons for an applicant’s exclusion needed for them to file an appeal in the Foreigners’ Tribunal.
Meanwhile, citizen groups have raised alarm over notices served by the foreigners’ tribunals, the quasi judicial courts in Assam that conduct citizenship trials.
The new citizenship law, however, revised the cut off date to 31 December, 2014 for non-Muslim religious minorities from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. But despite the new statute, notices with references going back as early as 1998 have been served upon Bengali Hindu residents in the last several months, even during the lockdown.
The Citizen Rights Preservation Committee, Assam wrote to Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal, saying that as the country is living through the COVID-19 pandemic, the foreigners’ tribunals in Cachar and other districts of Assam were issuing ‘random foreigners notice’ to people. They requested to hold the notices until the pandemic was over.
“It doesn’t seem like the government is interested. Whatever the commitment of the CAA may be, in practice, they are doing the opposite,” Secretary General, Sadhan Purkayastha said. Sarkar said that the BJP government is not Hindutvadi, it’s just playing politics.
“We are Hindus but what is happening here? We are still in the detention centres and receiving notices to prove our citizenship in the foreigners’ tribunals,” he said.
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