Interview: 'AGP Will Break Alliance If BJP Passes Citizenship (Amendment) Bill'

Former Assam chief minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta says his party, a part of the NDA alliance, can, however, have no truck with Congress in the 2019 general elections.

Guwahati: For some time now, Assam has been boiling. The streets across the state, barring the Barak Valley, have been witness to a slew of protests, aimed at the Narendra Modi government’s move to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955, to accommodate citizens of Bangladesh, besides two other countries, as Indians on religious lines.

In a state that left hundreds dead and many injured during a mass agitation against undocumented immigrants from Bangladesh, leading to an agreement with the central government to expel those foreigners who entered the state after March 25, 1971, the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016 has been widely viewed as a violation of that promise.

At the forefront of the opposition against the Bill is former Assam Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta. The youngest chief minister of an Indian state till date, Mahanta was catapulted to that stature by the anti-foreigner agitation between 1979 and 1985 which he led as the president of the All Assam Students Union (AASU) before grabbing power as the head of the new political entity – the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP).

In an interview with The Wire, Mahanta dwells at length on why he chose to be the chief adviser of Asom Andolan Sangrami Mancha, which is spearheading the protests against the Bill even though his party, the AGP, is a part of the BJP-led government in the state and a National Democratic Alliance (NDA) partner at the Centre.

On June 11, Mahanta, along with AGP president Atul Bora and senior party leader Keshav Mahanta met state governor Jagdish Mukhi to give a memorandum stating their party’s position on the proposed amendment. Both Bora and Mahanta are part of the Sarbananda Sonowal government.

“This evening, we will be leaving for New Delhi to give similar memoranda to the president, the prime minister and the Union home minister to press our points on the Bill,” Mahanta told this correspondent minutes after visiting Raj Bhavan. (The AGP leadership met President Ram Nath Kovind on June 13 and Union home minister Rajnath Singh on June 12.)

Edited excerpts from the interview:

What is AGP’s position on the Citizenship Bill? Is it a complete rejection of the Bill or should it exempt Assam from its purview, like some organisations in Assam had earlier stated?

Our position is complete rejection of the Bill. We don’t support its amendment as it violates Clause 5 (8) of Assam Accord which explicitly says that any foreigner who entered Assam on or after March 25, 1971, shall continue to be detected, deleted and expelled in accordance with law. Also, according to Clause 6 of the Accord, the people of Assam also have to be given constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguard for the protection and promotion of their cultural, social and linguistic identity and heritage.

Lately, there have been media reports about two lines of thought within the AGP regarding the Bill. While those who are a part of the Sonowal government are said to be dithering, some others within the party led by you are leading the opposition against the Bill. Are there really two viewpoints?

Absolutely not. The party’s stand is one – rejection of the Bill. How can anyone from AGP support it when 855 people had sacrificed their lives for the Accord? AGP was born out of Assam Accord. Our party president has already made it clear that if the Bill is passed, we will walk out of our alliance with the BJP.

Since AGP didn’t actively take initiative against the Bill at first, I, as the former AASU president, took the lead to bring together all the organisations that were part of the Assam agitation to form the Asom Andolan Sangrami Mancha. But I said AASU being an apolitical organisation should lead the agitation. If a political party like the AGP takes the lead, then many organisations would have difficulty joining the Mancha, such as the Assam Sahitya Sabha.

One big reason behind the success of the Assam Movement was its apolitical nature. We had then formed Assam Gana Sangram Parishad simply for that reason. So, as many as 28 organisations came together to form the Sangrami Mancha of which I am the chief adviser. Apart from being part of the Mancha, I have joined the AGP leaders Atul Bora and Keshav Mahanta to give a memorandum to the state governor today (June 11). I am part of the party’s delegation to New Delhi to give memoranda to the president, the prime minister and Union home minister expressing our position on the Bill.

AGP leader Prafulla Kumar Mahanta leading a protest in Guwahati against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016. Credit: PTI

AGP leader Prafulla Kumar Mahanta leading a protest in Guwahati against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016. Credit: PTI

You mentioned the demand for constitutional safeguard as per the Accord. It has been raised by student and civil society organisations like the AASU and Prabajan Virodhi Manch (PVM). They, however, have spelt out categorically that it should include only the descendants of those whose names feature in the 1951 Census. As a signatory of the Accord, do you support it?

Personally, I feel it would not be possible to stick to the 1951 Census. During our rule (1985-1990 and 1996-2001), we looked into it. The copies of the 1951 National Register of Citizens (NRC), based on the Census report, were available with the then state government run by the Congress, the local police thanas (police stations) and the Jamiat Ulema-E-Hind. Most likely, a copy was also available with the Registrar General of India. However, those original reports are either completely missing in many districts or are damaged due to lack of proper care. So, the 1951 NRC for Assam is not available completely.

There are other complications also. Suppose a person originally belongs to the Sibsagar district. His NRC details would be found in Sibsagar Treasury or in Jorhat Treasury as Jorhat was the administrative headquarters then. Similarly, the people of Golaghat district should find their names in Sibsagar district as it was earlier part of it. But the treasury, instead of keeping those records, passed them on to the local thanas which didn’t keep those records properly. Same is the case with Dibrugarh and Tinsukia districts.

Still, old records for Upper Assam would not be very difficult to collate and verify considering how there has been less migration of foreigners there; but from Nagaon onwards, it would be extremely difficult to sieve the citizens from non-citizens. For instance, there are some common names, say Habibur Rahman. In the legacy data shown in the ongoing update of the NRC data, there have been many cases where people have shown themselves as sons or relatives of such a name. There is no foolproof way to check the authenticity of their claims. One of our party men was forced in a char (sand bank) area to become a witness before the NRC authorities for some people and claim that they were his relatives. He came out in the open only when there were reports in the local media that those found giving false evidence for foreigners would be punished. It was nice of him to have declared it but not many would do it.

So, what I want to highlight here is that the foreigners have their documents ready while many indigenous people don’t; they are just banking on their surnames. The problem has been that the border (with Bangladesh), as promised in the Accord, never got sealed till date. During our AGP government’s time, we had the pushback system. The Police and the Border Police would catch foreigners infiltrating through the open border and push them back whenever there was no security blanket (on the Bangladeshi side).

I want to point out here that the Accord spoke of 1966 as the base year for citizenship check; so I feel it can be looked into for constitutional safeguards for the people of Assam. Children of many of those who entered Assam after 1971 have anyway become citizens by naturalisation. So, 1966 can be looked into as a possible year but finding records may still be difficult. In that case, a mechanism will have to be introduced to look for indigenous people. It will include both tribal and non-tribal people and also Assamese Muslims.

As you pointed out, though the Accord said the names of those foreigners who came to Assam from January 1, 1966, up to March 24, 1971, shall be deleted from the electoral rolls for ten years before being regularised again, no one talks about it anymore.

Yes, people now don’t talk about it. It got suppressed in the entire narrative on who would be a citizen and who not to be. The year 1966 was made the base year because we had to absorb those refugees who came to Assam till 1965 because of the Nehru-Liaquat pact facilitating people from East Pakistan to enter India. Then, we had to agree to accept those who came till March 1971 because of Indira-Mujib pact. But we got 1966 as the base year for citizenship check. So, if checks were to be done properly, we would know how many people entered Assam between January 1, 1966, and March 24, 1971. The Accord has the provision for it.

I want to point out that there is no doubt Assam had absorbed the largest number of people coming from East Pakistan/Bangladesh, unlike other parts of the country. Those refugees who settled in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar from counties like Nepal during the 1965 war haven’t got Indian citizenship yet. But in Assam, they have. Their names are in Assam’s voters’ list. Even after we have absorbed so many people, the government of India is getting a Bill that will affect Assam even more, which is not acceptable.

Early last year, the ruling Awami League organised a conference where many people from different Indian parties were invited. I was also there along with my wife Jayashree Goswami Mahanta (former MP, awarded Padma Shri in 2018). Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was present at a dinner held at the end of the conference. On being asked, she categorically said that she hadn’t got even a letter from the Indian government on deportation of illegal Bangladeshis of Assam. Then my wife asked – why not Bangladesh open an immigration office in Assam? She said her government was very keen but the government of India hadn’t given her space. Thankfully, it has become a reality now (in May 2017). An immigration office will give a legal channel to Bangladeshis to visit Assam and there will be an official record on the number of Bangladeshis visiting the state.

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Credit: Reuters

While the Citizenship Bill wants to grant Indian citizenship to Hindu Bangladeshis (among others) on religious grounds, many find it difficult to understand that people of a state which elected BJP in 2016 are opposing it.

That is because our sense of Assamese pride and sub-nationalism, which we call jatiotabad, is based on language, not religion. Assamese people are proud of their culture and language which crosses the boundary of religion. In 1960, RSS leader from Bengal, Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, visited Assam. He said the states were being divided on the basis of language. So whoever would move to any state should adopt the language of that state. At that time, the Bengalis who moved to Assam, didn’t oppose it, like they do now. The problem with the Bill is that many small ethnic communities within the Assamese fraternity are beginning to assert their ethnic identity through language.

So, in the upcoming census, our tribes like the Rabhas, Tiwas, etc. would list their own languages as their mother tongue and call Assamese their second language. In such a scenario, if both the Hindu and Muslim Bengalis state their first language as Bengali, think of the status of Assamese language in Assam itself. That is our primary concern. Unfortunately, the agitation against the Bill is being given the anti-Bengali and anti- Hindu colour by those with vested interests.

There used to be a concept of ‘Na Axamiya’, which many had endorsed. It was about those migrants who adopted Assamese as their language and therefore being termed as ‘Na’ or new Assamese. We now hear less of it.

Yes. Jyoti Prasad Agarwala not only spoke about it but was also a big example of it. Even Bhupen Hazarika spoke about it. But it remained half done. Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, as I mentioned, too spoke of it. Nothing happened. There is also another communal theory related to immigrants you have to reckon here, which is ugly and scary; the theory of changing the demography of Assam. In Samaguri, Maulana Arshad Madani (head of Jamiat Ulema-E-Hind, Assam) gave a public lecture that your population in the last census was five lakh and it will have to be ten lakh in the next census. What did he mean by it?

You said that during the AGP rule too, efforts were made to get constitutional rights for the people of Assam. Will you spell out what exactly those efforts were?

We had set up three committees to look into different aspects to give various rights to the khilonjia (indigenous) people of Assam as per the Accord. The committee that looked into ways of giving constitutional and political rights was headed by AGP leader and former union minister Dinesh Goswami. The nodal ministry for implementation of the Accord was the union home ministry. Goswami told us that he had submitted his report but the home ministry now says it doesn’t have it. Goswami is no more, so we don’t know what happened to it.

Another committee headed by Parag Chaliha (Former MP) was set up to look into protection and promotion of Assamese culture. His report is there. It was because of the recommendations of that report the Sankardev Kalakshetra was set up in Guwahati. The third committee was formed under the veteran economist L.C. Jain to look into ways of bringing in economic development of the state. It was because of Jain’s recommendation that Assam got the central financial contribution for all the schemes changed from the 70-30 ratio to the 90-10 formula during the term of V.P. Singh.

However, the biggest block for us to implement the Accord turned out to be the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act, 1983. It just made things impossible for us to fulfil the main issue of detecting and deporting the illegal migrants. The Act favoured them.

Finally, the Act was set aside by the Supreme Court in 2005 in response to a petition by Sarbananda Sonowal.

As a government, it became impossible for us to fight the Act. So, during our second term, we took a cabinet decision to approach the Supreme Court. Initially, it was thought that Pradip Hazarika (AGP legislator) would file the petition. Sonowal then recently joined us (in 2001). Finally, it was decided that he would file the petition in the SC. What I want to point out here is that it was AGP which led the fight to scrap the Act. (Sonowal joined the BJP in 2011.)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal in Guwahati. Credit: PTI/Files

Recently, there was news about you attending the swearing-in ceremony of H.D. Kumaraswamy in Karnataka along with non-NDA leaders. Who invited you and why didn’t you finally go?

I was invited by H.D. Devegowda. Telugu Desam Party (TDP) leader N. Chandrababu Naidu (considered an old friend of Mahanta) was to attend it too. Finally, we both couldn’t go. It was not that I didn’t go, but I couldn’t.

AGP went with the BJP in the 2016 assembly polls in Assam. However, AGP is going to contest the coming panchayat polls alone. Would your party contest the 2019 general elections alone too?

Till now, there has not been much discussion over it within the party. We are yet to take a decision.

Does that mean AGP is open to siding with the Congress?

No, it is not possible.

Why not?

It is against the basic principles of our party. AGP, as I said, was born out of Assam Accord, which was also to stop the Congress rule in the state. Though, it is also true that some of the AGP leaders have gone and joined Congress. In fact, in 1985, then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi called me and my colleague Brighu Phukan to Delhi and asked us to join the Congress. We refused. If you remember, Gandhi didn’t come to campaign for his party in the 1985 assembly elections because he thought we would ultimately join his party.

There was a formula floated by Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) leader Akhil Gogoi recently that, to topple the BJP-led government, you should take the lead from the AGP and with support from Bodo People’s Front and the All India United Democratic Front with Congress giving outside support. Do you want to comment on it?

One can try out that formula just to change the government but what would be achieved after that? There is enough experience of such governments to show how unstable they can be. Think of the I.K. Gujral government which was supported by the Congress from outside. It withdrew support in less than a year’s time. I think it was just propaganda by the Congress to strengthen its party.