'Bangladeshis – Hindu or Muslim – Staying Illegally in Assam Post-1971 Will Have to Go'

AASU adviser Samujjal Bhattacharya says after the final draft National Register of Citizens is published on June 30, the Modi government would have to give constitutional safeguards to the people of Assam as per the 1951 census.

Guwahati: The All Assam Students Union (AASU) is yet again at the forefront of an anti-foreigner agitation in the state. Though it doesn’t have the intensity of the Assam Movement recorded between 1979 and 1985, the ongoing agitation against the Narendra Modi government’s decision to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955, certainly has the propensity to turn into a mass movement against yet another central government. The amendment is being sought by the BJP government to grant Indian citizenship to Hindu Bangladeshis among others coming from two other countries – Pakistan and Afghanistan. If amended, the Act would come in direct conflict with the Assam Accord of 1985, signed by AASU with the Central government to find a solution to the anti-foreigner movement.

The man leading the joint protests of AASU as a conglomeration of 28 indigenous and ethnic organisations of Assam is Samujjal Bhattacharya – former AASU president and at present the adviser to the powerful student body.

In an interview with The Wire, Bhattacharya delineated the issues around the agitation on the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016. Among other things, he made certain positions of his organisation clear – rejection of the 2016 Bill and the 2015 notification of the Modi government to allow Hindu Bangladeshis residing in the state without valid papers; demand for constitutional safeguards to people of Assam as per 1951 census; sealing of the India-Bangladesh border “on war footing” and an agreement with Bangladesh to streamline the process of deporting those immigrants from that country found staying in Assam “illegally” after the final draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in the state is complete this June 30.

Bhattacharya also pointed out that the Centre’s recent decision to form a committee to look into granting constitutional safeguards to the people of Assam “is nothing new”. Edited excerpts:

Chief Minister of Assam Sarbananda Sonowal with AASU chief adviser Samujjal Kumar Bhattacharya inspecting the Indo-Bangladesh border area at South Salmara in Mankachar. Credit: PTI

SBP: What is AASU’s stand on the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016? Earlier, we heard some AASU leaders say on record that they don’t mind if Hindu Bangladeshis are given Indian citizenship and settled outside Assam.

SB: We are primarily stating two points. One, we want complete rejection of the Bill. Two, the people of Assam had taken the burden of refugees coming from East Pakistan/Bangladesh till March 24, 1971, on behalf of the country, as per the Assam Accord. No other state did what we did. If we don’t highlight these two points at this time, we, the people of Assam, are finished, we would become a minority in our own land.

When we speak about rejection of the Bill, the argument often given to us by those in support of it is that it is an all-India Bill, not specific to Assam and hence we shouldn’t come in its way. But our argument is, we were told by the Centre in 1985 that you would have to take all those who entered Assam from East Pakistan/Bangladesh till 1971, unlike other states; that we can’t distribute them elsewhere. But now the Centre tells us that we will also have to take in those who came from Bangladesh till 2016. So our question is: Why we again? This is our logic.

An AASU delegation met the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) members during their one-day visit to Guwahati on May 7. What did you state there?

AASU presented to them (JPC) the same stand. We were asked if Assam and the rest of the Northeast were to be exempted from the Bill, what would be our opinion. We said it would be meaningless. How would the government stop people who would be made Indian citizens from settling anywhere, including Assam and the Northeast? So we said the Assam Accord is already there and the spirit of the Accord must be reflected in any amendment brought to the Citizenship Act. Beyond the March 24, 1971 cut-off date, as mentioned in the Accord, we would not accept anybody from Bangladesh, Hindu or Muslim.

What was JPC’s response to this?

We were the first to be invited even when they were doing the hearings in Delhi (in 2017). We had won the game there too. We were given only 15 minutes but it stretched to 45 minutes. They tried to dominate us initially but we went with a strategy. They acknowledged that the Assam situation is different. We appreciate it. They told us to wait to have informal meetings with the members during lunch as there were a few more organisations waiting to present their point of view, which we did. There, everyone agreed that they would have to find a solution to it. But all these conversations were off the record.

Is AASU also seeking constitutional safeguards for the people of Assam on the basis of the Accord?

Yes. Both the issues (The Bill and the constitutional safeguards) are different. The Bill is being brought for the post-1971 situation. Our stand in that regard is that those who entered Assam post-1971 will have to go, whether Hindu or Muslim. The constitutional safeguards are for those residing in the state prior to 1971. We have taken people till 1971 and in lieu of that came Clause 6 of the Accord. So our point is, give us what we deserve, what is due to us. And it should be unconditional. It can’t be in lieu of the Bill.

Union home minister Rajnath Singh recently announced a decision by the Centre to form a committee to look into providing constitutional safeguards to the people of Assam.

Well, the committee is not a new thing. A committee was formed earlier also. When G.K Pillai was the Union joint secretary (Northeast) in the home ministry, there was a tripartite sub- committee comprising AASU, Assam government and the Central government to look into providing constitutional safeguards as per the Accord. The members included three representatives from AASU and three each from Assam and Central governments. The present Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal was also a member of that committee as an AASU leader along with me. Pillai, as the JS (NE from 1996-2000), was the chairman. We gave many proposals to that committee. But Pillai told us that if we give too many proposals, we won’t be able to go forward. That time, we even wanted the same status for Assam as Jammu and Kashmir. He told us not to withdraw any suggestions but asked us to highlight those “which you want immediately and which I could also throw at the government”. He clearly said that this was just a sub-committee and that there would be a formal committee and then the suggestions would go to the political level. Make the foundation (of the demands) in such a way that it can reach the Union cabinet and then you people lobby for your demands, he suggested. His suggestion was good.

Our first suggestion then was seat reservation in local bodies, Assembly and Parliament. The minutes of those meetings were recorded. Then the question came, to whom and how much? We took suggestions from well-known anthropologist from Gauhati University, Bhuban Mohan Das, and historian Herembo Borpujari. We came up with a formula which was accepted by the Centre. Unfortunately, at the political level, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) didn’t back us then. So we couldn’t go ahead with it. But the official record of that formula has remained.

Over 32 years have passed since the Accord was signed and we are yet to be given what was promised. So it should be taken forward. Last year, when we had a tripartite committee meeting with the Union home minister, it was decided that the sub-committee (during Pillai’s time) would be revived. Clause 6 and 7 of the Accord, which deal with constitutional safeguards and the economy of the state, respectively, would be looked into. However, even in a home minister-level meeting where the Assam chief minister (Sonowal) was present, the decision to revamp it didn’t get much traction. And now we hear that they will do it. So there’s nothing new.

Samujjal Bhattacharya (middle) on a hunger strike against the Citizenship Bill in Guwahati along with All Bodo Students Union president Pramod Boro (right) on May 30. Credit: PTI

Meanwhile, in 2015, Assam Assembly Speaker Pranab Gogoi took up the issue of constitutional safeguards as per the Accord during the Congress government on the basis of the formula accepted by the Centre. He consulted all the 28 indigenous and ethnic organisations. But he was prevented from tabling his report by both Congress and the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF). However, last year, as the Assembly chairman, Gogoi tabled it.

The Pranab Gogoi committee also defined the term ‘Assamese’.

Yes, AASU, along with all the 28 organisations felt that there has always been some controversy or confusion about who is Assamese. So we sat together to thrash it out once and for all. I must point out that it is not just these jatiyo sangathans that AASU consulted, but also all the literary bodies (there are nine of them) representing various indigenous groups living in Assam and they too broadly agree on our definition. We only have to call an official meeting with these bodies to formalise the term. We are more or less on the same page with them, barring one or two points. We gave that suggestion to Gogoi during our consultations with him, which was reflected in the report he tabled in the Assembly. We welcome that report.

So what does that definition entail?

The Assam Accord mentions the term ‘Assamese people’. So some tribal organisations and ethnic groups asked us whom did AASU mean by ‘Assamese people’. We said since our childhood, we have grown up knowing that all the tribes, the jati janagustis, together form the term Axomiya (Assamese). And that was what was reflected in the Accord. So AASU took a resolution that by Assamese people we mean Axomiya, Khilonjia (indigenous). However, some tribal literary bodies feel it should be khilonjia axomiya and khilonjia janajati. It is more specific, no harm.

The Gogoi committee also suggested the 1951 National Register of Citizens (NRC) based on the 1951 census report as the basis for granting constitutional safeguards to the people of Assam.

Yes. Till March 24, 1971, whoever has come to Assam is welcome. But when it comes to constitutional safeguards, it should be for only the descendants of those whose names feature in the 1951 census, Hindu or Muslim. Not just AASU, this is the stand of all the 28 organisations. As citizens, they would get all their rights, but not constitutional safeguards. The Speaker’s committee report endorses that stand.

AASU is also talking about “a time-bound action plan” regarding the Bill and implementation of the Accord.

Yes, we are saying that the solution to the anti-foreigner agitation lies in the Assam Accord. Why are we opposed to the Bill? It is because it violates the Accord. So, a time-bound action plan is required to fully implement the Accord. It is a five-pronged plan. One, complete rejection of the Bill. Two, constitutional safeguard to those defined in the Gogoi committee report as Assamese; three, sealing of the India-Bangladesh border on war footing; four, the land belonging to the satras (Vaishnava monasteries), the tribal belts and forest areas be cleared of encroachments; and five, there should be a bilateral agreement between India and Bangladesh to deport the immigrants found illegally living in Assam once the NRC is updated. Even the Supreme Court has talked about the need for India to open dialogue with Bangladesh to streamline the process of deporting such immigrants. That is why we are insisting on it.

Bangladesh will have general elections this December and the government of India seems to prefer the return of Sheikh Hasina’s government. But the welfare of that country can’t be at our cost. Instead of opening a dialogue on the issue, the Central government issued a notification in 2015, an executive order, which said those who entered Assam due to religious persecution in Bangladesh without valid documents or documents that might have expired, could stay. That’s not acceptable to us. We asked the JPC where it was recorded that so many people fled Bangladesh due to religious persecution? What was the method used to determine it? Those were our questions. So, along with the rejection of the Bill, we also want scrapping of that executive order.

The Citizenship Act says one can be an Indian citizen either by naturalisation or registration. Under registration, it is clearly said that one can’t be a foreigner; that one should be of Indian origin; and significantly, that he/she can’t be from undivided India. So Bangladesh can’t be included in it and this is what the Central government aims to change by amending the Act.

The Accord also spoke of deleting the names of those who entered Assam between January 1, 1966 and March 24, 1971 for 10 years.

This couldn’t happen only because detection hadn’t happened. It is a process. Once the detection takes place, which is happening now under the NRC update, those names would go off the electoral rolls for 10 years. Since 1971 became the cut-off year for deportation of foreigners, the entire focus, for all practical purposes, became 1971, not 1966, as they would anyway continue to stay in Assam. The NRC update process is unique to Assam, as you know. Unlike in the rest of Assam, there is house to house enumeration for determination of citizenship, but in Assam it is by invitation and, therefore, the forms.

Is the NRC being updated as per a tripartite agreement among AASU, state government and the Central government in 2005?

Yes. The government wouldn’t have agreed to it had we not resorted to agitation. The first ASEAN car rally was being planned by the Central government as part of the Look East policy (in November 2004). The then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was to come to Guwahati for the flag-off ceremony. We took a position that we would protest. Being an international event, we felt that we should use pressure tactics to get what we want. Thereafter, a PM-level tripartite meeting was organised where it was agreed to update the NRC. And yet, there was no political sincerity. We were told that it would be implemented in two years’ time, but nothing happened. The meetings kept getting delayed. Then a pilot project was rolled out, which also stopped due to violence (by All Assam Minorities Students Union in 2010 in Barpeta demanding cancellation of the NRC update). Then a committee of group of ministers was formed and new forms for NRC enumeration came. We approved those forms. The Supreme Court, meanwhile, intervened.

Various figures have been floating over the years when it comes to giving an estimate of undocumented immigrants residing in Assam. What is AASU’s estimate?

The NRC update is a process that has never happened in India. Successive governments didn’t do anything, so the Supreme Court is doing it. Everything is taking place under the supervision of the apex court and as per the Accord. So the point is simple, those who have pre-1971 documents will find their names in the NRC, and those who haven’t, wont. The process is not based on the various numbers stated over the years. It is an objective process. But we in the AASU feel what comes out should somewhat tally with the figures thrown around by the government. The UPA government said in Parliament that there were about 1.20 crore illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, out of which 50 lakh were in Assam and 57 lakh in West Bengal. The NDA government is now saying there are two crore of them across the country. Various demographic surveys have also come up with their projections.

So, if by June 30, when the final draft NRC would be ready, the figure of undocumented immigrants doesn’t match those numbers, would AASU take it up with the Supreme Court?

It would be hypothetical to comment on it now. All we are saying now is that the NRC staff is working very hard to put together a correct draft NRC as their national duty. AASU workers as well as those from the 28 organisations are monitoring it.

There is also the issue of 48 lakh married women who submitted the gaon panchayat secretary’s certificate to show their legacy data. Their names couldn’t come in the first draft of NRC released on December 31, 2017.

That document was allowed only for married women, as a supporting document, not the main document. If the main document doesn’t have their names, there is no use of the supporting document. So, 48 lakh married women submitted that supporting document, out of which 18 lakh have been proven as original inhabitants of the state. The rest 28 lakh remain. The SC has directed the NRC authorities to look minutely into each case. The process of verification is on.

AASU adviser Samujjal Bhattacharya with Union Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju in Guwahati. Credit: PTI

In the 2019 general elections, how much do you, as a close watcher of Assam politics, see this as an electoral issue?

AASU’s point of view is not oriented towards any elections. Our interest is only protection of the rights of the indigenous people of Assam. But what I see is that the majority people of the state will not agree to the Bill. There is no midway. It is more than clear, because the Bill is a threat to their language, culture and identity. Not just Assam, the entire Northeast is opposed to it. As AASU members, we are protesting within Assam. The North East Students Organisation (NESO) is taking it up at the Northeast level. Because of NESO’s initiative, we saw rejection of the Bill at the official level in Meghalaya and Nagaland. Very soon, we will see this in Mizoram too. NESO gave its presentation to the JPC also. So the ruling party and its government would have to understand it and act accordingly.

Some BJP leaders have been saying that Assam needs the Hindu Bangladeshis to protect it from becoming a Muslim state.

Well, we don’t agree to that viewpoint. I just want to point out that Bangladesh was formed not on the basis of religion but language. So how can religion alone now protect us? People wouldn’t accept it.

There are quite a few Bengali organisations in Assam, many of which have been called by the JPC. Has AASU entered into any talks with them?

We have been discussing not just with Bengali organisations but with Bengali intellectuals residing in the state too, besides talking to Marwari and Bihari organisations. We are doing it batch by batch. AASU with the 28 organisations is our brand on the issue. Then, we are engaging with All Assam Karmachari Parishad, All Assam Lawyers Association, Assam Sahitya Sabha, etc. In our informal talks with the Bengali organisations, we have clearly stated that they would have to decide on the issue; that it is a swadeshi-videshi (citizen-non-citizen) issue; and not anti-Hindu or anti-Bengali issue. It is anti-Bangladeshi; our identity would go if we allow them in.

Last year, we did see some tension between Assamese and Bengali Hindus in Assam, such as the protests in Nagaon (in August 2017) and in Silapathar (in March 2017).

Both these are different cases. In Nagaon, AASU was not part of the protests, other organisations were leading it. The Silapathar incident happened directly due to the Citizenship Bill. There was a meeting by supporters of the Bill and thereafter a rally was brought out by them and then they attacked the local AASU office. AASU has only stated its viewpoint on the Bill but we never stopped the supporters from having a meeting. It is a democracy, they can go against us. But our politeness should not be looked at by them as our weakness. Still, we didn’t allow any Assamese-Bengali conflict anywhere in Assam. There were strong protests against it but no clashes. We were focussed on the issue. There were many who tried to create trouble, cause violence, we didn’t allow it. The Assam movement taught us that tolerance is important. We shouldn’t fall into the trap set by those in support of the Bill.

Today, how relevant is the Na Axomiya concept, once endorsed by many in Assam? (Na or new Assamese concept covers those migrants who adopted Assamese language and culture as their own.)

It is clear, till 1971, whoever has come, they are welcome, but not beyond that. Also, those who came in from other parts and settled in Assam, should adopt the language and culture of Assam. It is only natural to do so.