Assam on the Boil Again, this Time Over Hindu Migrants from Bangladesh

Guwahati: Activists of the AJYCP vandalise an Assam State Transport Corporation bus during the 12-hour Assam bandh in Tinsukia. Credit: PTI Photo

The Modi government’s decision to grant asylum to Bangladeshi Hindu migrants in Assam is fomenting widespread anger among ethnic Assamese – even as the refugees say they have no place to go back to.

Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuva Chatra Parishad activists and others in Tinsukia, Assam protesting the Modi government’’s decision to grant refugee status to Hindu immigrants from Bangladesh. Credit: PTI Photo

Far from the theatre of national politics and the glare of prime time national news, a cauldron of ethnic tension is simmering in Assam – yet again on the volatile issue of immigrants from Bangladesh residing in the north-eastern state without valid papers.

In the last three days, just about every district of the state saw protests and street processions, led by the All Assam Students Union (AASU). The trigger was a notification sent to the state administration by the Centre early this week, announcing its decision to allow all Bangladeshi Hindus living in Assam who sought shelter before December 31, 2014, “due to religious persecution or fear of religious persecution” in their country to stay.

While the notification applies to all Hindu immigrants including those from Pakistan, staying anywhere in India, in Assam it takes on a different colour. In the early 1980s, students’ organisations led by AASU had spearheaded a six-year-long agitation on the issue of undocumented migrants. The protests grew violent and eventually led to the deaths of many agitators before the then Rajiv Gandhi Government relented, signing the Assam Accord with AASU leaders in 1985, which put an end to the agitation – even though many of its clauses are yet to be implemented.

The memory of that agitation was revived when hundreds of AASU members came out on the streets on September 9 with placards and slogans demanding immediate implementation of the Accord and expulsion of all undocumented Bangladeshi immigrants, and burnt copies of the Central government’s notification. What added fuel to their fire was Governor P.B. Acharya’s statement that there is “nothing sacrosanct about the Assam Accord” – which was roundly condemned by protestors. On the evening of September 10, they hit the streets again, in processions with torchlights. Twenty six organisations representing ethnic Assamese have joined AASU in the protests, which show no sign of abating.

Opposing points of view

According to Assam-based organisations representing the community of Displaced Bengali Hindus (DBH), there are anywhere between 59 and 75 lakhs of them in Assam, out of a total of 3.5 crore said to be scattered across India. They say that religious persecution in Bangladesh makes it impossible for them to go back, and have for years demanded that they be granted not just refugee status but Indian citizenship. These demands were once again made recently during their meetings with Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders in New Delhi and Guwahati. The BJP-led Centre, by allowing them to continue to stay in the state without legal papers, has in effect met their demand half way.

However, AASU and local ethnic groups see the Centre’s decision as coming in to direct conflict with the core principles of the Assam Accord. AASU advisor Samujjal Bhattacharya says that his organisation is opposed to the Modi government’s decision because “Assam can no longer be the dumping ground for Bangladeshi migrants. Assam took a lot of refugees during and after Partition and during the 1971 war. It is after all, a small state with a high unemployment rate. These people can be given space in some other state.”

He further says that they are also opposed to the decision because the BJP is approaching the issue from the religious point of view. “In Assam, it can’t be done that way because there is already an Accord in place. For us, that Accord is the rulebook which says anyone from Bangladesh residing in Assam from March 1, 1971 onwards, whether he/she is a Hindu or a Muslim, is an illegal immigrant and therefore [must] be expelled from the State,” he says.

Sahadev Das, president of the Assam chapter of the Nikhil Bharat Bengali Udbastu Samanay Samiti (NBBUSS), one of the main pan-India organisations championing the cause of the DBH, welcomes the Modi government’s move but reiterates their main demand for Indian citizenship. “Refugee status doesn’t fully solve the problem. We want citizenship for the Bengali Hindus from Bangladesh residing not just in Assam but across India simply because they can’t go back. If they do, they run the risk of being killed for religious reasons. Where else will they come if not to India? The illegal Bangladeshi Muslims can be sent back because they don’t have any such problem.”

Das’s organisation, along with another Assam-based organisation, Bengali Lok Manch, have been demanding amendments to the four Acts under which a person is declared an undocumented migrant by the tribunals set up by Assam Government under the instruction of the Supreme Court. (The SC has recently raised the number of such foreigner detection tribunals to 100 considering the large number of pending cases.)

A historically sensitive issue

The issue of undocumented immigrants from Bangladesh has been an age-old, pesky and highly emotional subject for the ethnic Assamese population. It has hinged on concerns that the high influx of people from Bangladesh through the porous border and their subsequent enrolment in the state’s electoral rolls (often believed to be done surreptitiously by political parties looking for easy vote banks) will harm their indigenous identity. Census figures showing an abnormal spurt in the state’s non-Assamese population in the period from 1971 till now has further heightened their concern.

Riding on that fear, the students’ agitation was launched in the early ’80s, leading to violent street protests and deaths before it finally ended with the signing of the Accord. While the Accord came with a slew of sops aimed at economic development of the state, the prime succour for the agitators was the cut-off date of March 1, 1971.

Though little from that bouquet of promises has been delivered in the last three decades, “there is a general understanding among the local Assamese population that those who came from Bangladesh on or after March 1, 1971, will have to leave Assam one day even if they manage to wrest voter I-cards, rations cards, etc. through political nexus or otherwise,” says Bhattacharya.The Central government’s latest notification, mentioning the new cut-off date of December 31, 2014, therefore, is being looked at by various groups that took part in the agitation as a prelude towards the dilution of the core principles of the Accord.

States Bhattacharya, “People of Assam launched an agitation for six years on the issue; so many people died for the cause. Since then, people waited for 30 years for the government to safeguard their ethnic identity, but look at the latest Census. If it continues to go this way, ethnic Assamese people are soon going to be a minority in their own state. The Guwahati High Court has already said that Bangladeshi migrants are becoming kingmakers in Assam. The Supreme Court, while striking down the IMDT Act as unconstitutional in 2005, in response to a writ petition by Sarbananda Sonowal (then an AASU leader and now a Modi government minister), said Assam is facing external aggression and internal disturbance because of the influx of illegal migrants from Bangladesh. These are not mere fears. In such a scenario, instead of implementing the Accord which would safeguard the rights of the Assamese people, the BJP is trying to dilute it. It is just not agreeable.”

The political angle

Guwahati: Activists of the AJYCP vandalise an Assam State Transport Corporation bus during the 12-hour Assam bandh in Tinsukia. Credit: PTI Photo

Counter-intuitively, some political experts see the latest move by the Modi government as a strategy to better the prospects of BJP in Assam. In recent years, the party’s popularity has steadily risen in the state, culminating in it winning of seven of the 14 seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, and the sweeping of the civic polls held this February. However, it still has to keep an eye on the poll mathematics in view of next year’s Assam elections.

A post-Lok Sabha poll survey in Assam showed that the BJP commanded 63% of votes from Assamese Hindus through its stand against Bangladeshi (Muslim) migrants. The survey also revealed that 62%of Bengali-speaking Hindus also voted for the BJP in that election.

With Assembly polls on the anvil, the party has two apparent fears. One, that organisations representing the DBH community have already threatened the party that if it doesn’t solve the issue of Bangladeshi Hindu immigrants – some of whom are in detention camps after being identified as undocumented – the community will not vote for it in the 2016 elections.

Two, the BJP fears that many from its Bengali Hindu voter base of 2014 might not be able to vote in 2016, because the recently carried out update of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) 1951 might have declared them ‘D-voter’–doubtful voter – in the absence of their ability to produce one of the 14 documents needed to prove citizenship. The notification can allay both the fears at one go.

However, AASU’s Bhattacharya terms the notification “a betrayal of the hopes of Assamese people” by the Prime Minister himself. He further warns, “People voted for BJP in the last Lok Sabha elections because Modi promised to flush out illegal Bangladeshis during his campaign trail in Assam. If the BJP now decides to tweak the core clause of the Accord to grant citizenship to the Hindu Bangladeshis living in Assam, those votes by the ethnic Assamese to the party will vanish as quickly as they came.”

‘No place to go back’

Das, whose organisation represents the DBHs, says that they tried to convey the community’s fear of religious persecution if pushed backed to Bangladesh to the AASU leaders quite a few times but they refused to budge from their position. He also alleges that during the NRC update many bona fide Bengali Hindus residing in the state from before March, 1971 were classified as illegal immigrants.

He says, “There is a lot of harassment going on. I can name some people who have been kept in detention camps. One Bengali Hindu, Namita Chaudhury, whose family’s name is there in the 1969 list, has nevertheless been declared an illegal Bangladeshi and has been kept in the Kokrajhar jail. So is Dilip Biswas, a former MLA from Morigaon district, and his family. While he is in the Goalpara jail, his wife and two young daughters are in the Kokrajhar jail.”

Bhattacharjee refutes the allegation of harassment meted out to Bengali Hindus during the NRC update. “This harassment story is baseless. It is being made by those who don’t have any document to prove their Indian citizenship and want to enter the updated NRC somehow. The NRC lists 14 documents to prove that you came to Assam before March 1, 1971. A person has to show only one of the 14 documents. If you don’t have any one of them, then obviously you are a ‘Doubtful Voter’.” Explaining the process of identifying undocumented migrants further, he says, “There is a two-tier judicial system in place to stop harassment of genuine people. Once the police detect a suspected illegal Bangladeshi, the case is placed before one of the tribunals. If that tribunal, after checking the documents, and hearing the person, also declares him/her a foreigner, he/she can approach the Guwahati High Court. So there are enough checks and balances.”

Das, an advocate at the Guwahati High Court who has been fighting cases of Bengali Hindus declared D-voters by the tribunals, counters this, saying, “There are many Bengali-speaking Hindus who were poor then, also not very aware that they should include their names in the voters’ list even though they came to Assam before 1971. There should be a provision to verify the existence of such families with their neighbours.”

On August 22, Das’s organisation held a press meet in Guwahati stating a plan to soon file a petition in the SC to seek changes in the NRC guidelines. This March, AASU and the 26 organisations representing different ethnic groups of Assam decided to oppose any bid by Bangladeshi migrants both Hindus and Muslims to enter their names in the NRC without producing one of the 14 documents.

Confrontation ahead

While AASU and other bodies are planning to up the ante on their protests, the NBBUSS and organisations representing Displaced Bengali Hindus are themselves planning to take to the streets. According to Das, they met BJP General Secretary Ram Madhav during his visit to Assam this August and conveyed to him that they want changes in four Acts – the Immigrants Expulsions from Assam Act, 1950, the Passport Act, the Foreigner’s Rules, 1964, and the Foreigners Act, 1946, so that Hindus from Bangladesh can become Indian citizens.

“We want an Ordinance to be brought in this regard; he has assured us that it will be done.” Das says if the ruling BJP doesn’t bring in an Ordinance as per its promise within a month’s time, “we will take out mass rallies in Guwahati and New Delhi.”

Their threats seem to have had some effect, as evident from Ram Madhav’s comment– which followed the notification that the Tarun Gogoi government should now set free all the Bengali-speaking Hindus kept in the State’s detention camps (held there because India has no extradition treaty with Bangladesh).

Naturally, this has further provoked organisation such as AASU. Their leader Bhattacharya states, “We are planning bigger protests across Assam against the notification and will be joined by all the ethnic organisations.” The movement has received a fillip after Asom Gana Parishad leader Prafulla Mahanta, a signatory of the Assam Accord, stated at a press meet on September 10 to soon meet all those involved in Assam agitation “to draw a road map for the future course of action.” Any way you look at it, Assam’s cauldron of ethnic strife is set to boil over again.