New Delhi: Come December 10, the Narendra Modi government – in all likelihood – will route it through parliament the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019. This would lift the roadblock to granting Indian citizenship on the basis of an applicant’s religion.
This, in spite of the Constitution being hinged on secularism.
In terms of Assam though, which has been witnessing a fierce and renewed bout of protests against the Bill, its passage in parliament would imply what could have happened had a powerful BJP government been at the Centre in 1985, instead of the Rajiv Gandhi regime.
In August that year, the leaders of All Assam Students Union (AASU), the Assam Gana Sangram Parishad and the state and the Central governments entered into a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to bring an end to the six-year-long anti-foreigner agitation in the state. The MoU, popularly known as the Assam Accord, said only those who had settled in Assam from East Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh) on or before March 24, 1971 would be granted citizenship.
Those who enter the border state after that date would be detected and deported back to their home country. Since the leaders of the agitation had agreed on humanitarian grounds that Assam – unlike the rest of India – would have an exclusive citizenship cut-off date that would grant general amnesty to undocumented immigrants from East Pakistan for more than two decades after independent India was born, the Centre would grant “constitutional safeguards” to the “Assamese people”. A clause yet to see the light of the day, even though the accord was signed 34 years ago.
Importantly, the accord didn’t have any provision for preferential treatment of any undocumented immigrant from East Pakistan on the basis of religion, even though the BJP’s ideological fount – the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – had batted for it since the start of the student’s agitation. The RSS believes that Hindus coming to Assam/India – even undocumented immigrants – must be treated as saranarthi (refugees) and only the Muslims should be looked at as ghuspetia (infiltrators) and ‘foreign nationals’.
Assam’s support to Mukti Bahini
When Mukti Bahini began fighting the West Pakistani might, the people of Assam offered complete support. Many camps were set up on the Assam side of the border too, primarily what is Meghalaya today. Assamese youth, employed by the army then, lost their lives fighting the Pakistani army on that side of the border. A memorial or two on Meghalaya’s Garo hills, bordering Bangladesh, is a testimony to it. Some top police officials belonging to the Assamese community, such as Hiranya Kumar Bhattacharjee, trained the Mukti Bahini cadres clandestinely, for which he was granted the Friends of Bangladesh award by the Sheikh Hasina government.
However, the spurt in refugees from East Pakistan, mainly Bengali speaking Hindus, began to alarm a large section of people in Assam. They began to worry whether they would return home. That the tribal population of another border state, Tripura, had become a minority due to the arrival of refugees from East Pakistan post-Partition, began to feed on the festering fear of the Assamese, who were pitted against the Bengalis in colonial Assam, including having to accept Bengali as an official language for decades.
Former AASU general secretary Atul Bora (senior), now a BJP leader, wrote about a particular incident of assault on a local group by supporters of the refugees in his book Xodou Axom Satro Xonthar Odhibexonor Xomopexu (A Summary of the Conventions of All Assam Students Union). The incident, he said, led many to worry what was to follow. He wrote that on April 17, 1971, at the Lumding railway station in upper Assam, a group of Bengali people, facilitating the travel of refugees to different parts of the state, had beaten up the Nalbari representatives of the Assam Sahitya Sabha on their way back from the Makum convention. While the men and the women were attacked and pulled out of the train bogey for refusing to vacate their seats to the refugees, their luggage and musical instruments were broken up. It led to a huge uproar in the state.
Soon after, the AASU, he narrated, began to take up the issue of the return of the East Pakistani refugees from Assam with the government. During an annual convention of Cotton College in Guwahati during that time, Bora, as the general secretary of the college students union then, had snatched the mike of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi while screaming loudly that her government send back the refugees from Assam. On April 19, 1972, the AASU also submitted a memorandum to Mrs Gandhi, demanding that she send the refugees back by July that year.
One of the major flashpoints of the anti-foreigner agitation was also thousands of objection forms filled by the AASU’s Mangaldoi unit prior to the 1979 by-poll to the Mangaldoi Parliamentary constituency, demanding that the Election Commission of India revise the electoral rolls before voting takes place. They claimed that the rolls contained the names of thousands of ‘illegal immigrants’ or ‘foreigners’.
Hiranya Bharracharjee, then the Border Police DIG, is said to have aided the students in filling the forms. Bhattacharjee told this correspondent in an interview to The Wire in 2018 that he was approached then by RSS members from Bengal to overlook the Bengali undocumented migrants residing in Assam, which he had refused to do.
Well, why I am I flipping back to those days?
RSS and the Assam agitation
For two reasons. One, to highlight that the RSS indeed tried to influence the turn and focus of the agitation in Assam as per its ideology at various points in time. The reason why BJP leaders like Atal Bihari Vajpayee engaged with and advised the student leaders then is also linked to this ideology of the RSS. It, however, failed to get the result it had sought.
Two, that the RSS members in Assam, facing the heat of the anti-CAB agitation in the state these days, have been peddling the notion in public fora – wrongly – that the agitation was only triggered by the Mangaldoi incident.
By doing that, the Hindutva outfit wants to deflect a part of the history of Assam’s anti-foreigner agitation, a part which could highlight the fact that the first spark for the fear of the ‘bohiragoto’ (outsider) in Assamese community, including the student fraternity, in independent Assam was because of large scale migration of Hindu Bengali refugees from East Pakistan during the faceoff between the Mukti Bahini and the Pakistani army. It is a known fact that Hindu Bengalis were particularly targeted by the army then, forcing them to flee East Pakistan through the open border to India.
By attempting to erase from the public mind an important cause that had fuelled the sentiments behind the state’s anti-foreigner agitation – the arrival of refugees, mainly the Bengali Hindus, due to the Bangladesh Liberation War – the RSS is trying to inject a communal angle to the state’s migration issue. It wants to establish a view that it was only because of ‘Muslim illegal immigrants’ who were on the electoral rolls of Mangaldoi (they particularly highlight Dalgaon assembly constituency, which was then held by Congress MLA and former chief minister Syeda Anuwara Taimur) that had led to the agitation. But the leaders of the agitation had never made that communal division of undocumented immigrants.
Now, going back to the first reason – the RSS’s attempt to influence the students agitation as per its ideology – one must point out certain facts. Primarily, why Vajpayee and the BJP were the political face to offer support to the state’s student leaders, and not RSS leaders like Rajju Bhaiya, even though they were frequenting Assam then.
The ‘foreign hand’
Acting on feedback from state Congress leaders, Shankar Dayal Sharma and Yashpal Kapoor, the first emissaries of Mrs Gandhi to the state soon after she returned to the saddle in 1980, spoke in New Delhi about a ‘foreign hand’ causing trouble in Assam. They claimed that a bout of violence that took place in the run-up to the 1980 Lok Sabha elections was linked to the visit of Rajju Bhaiya, who would later go on to be the RSS chief.
While on January 20, 1980, then home minister Giani Zail Singh spoke at the Lok Sabha about ‘foreign powers’ exploiting the local sentiments, Mrs Gandhi, as the prime minister, also spoke about it four days later in the lower house. She also claimed that the movement was taking a secessionist turn.
An interesting development followed. Two days later, Vajpayee, accompanied by Janata leader Ravinder Varma, landed in Guwahati, stayed for four days, met various people, and later told the media that it was neither taking a secessionist nor a communal turn.
That Vajpayee trooped to Assam to allay Mrs Gandhi’s claims in parliament, especially about a possible RSS link to it, indicated that there was a lot at stake for the BJP/RSS’ ideological interests in the state. That he took along Varma, also a parliamentarian, did highlight that they were visiting only as concerned opposition bench members and not as an RSS member.
Though Rajju Bhaiya denied having any role in the agitation, then RSS chief Bala Saheb Deoras had reportedly said in Nagpur that a few persons from the RSS might have contributed (to the agitation) in their individual capacities.
Since then though, the likes of Rajju Bhaiyya and K.S. Sudershan, in charge of the North East at that time, began to lie low and Vajpayee – as a political leader of the Hindu right – took the lead in advising the students from time to time.
Though Vajpayee was closely involved in AASU’s negotiations with the government of Mrs Gandhi and came up with certain possible solutions to the Assam problem, with which the government had engaged with, the RSS couldn’t quite push through its ideological belief in the MoU that was signed in 1985 after Mrs Gandhi’s assassination.
This was mainly because the Rajiv Gandhi government had the final negotiations with the AASU leaders in near secrecy, with the details unknown to opposition leaders, who were not involved in the process.