Citizenship Bill: Hindu Biharis Were Once Assam's 'Saviours', Now its Hindu Bangladeshis

BJP’s Citizenship Bill pits Hindu Bangladeshis as Assam’s saviour against migration, much like a pre-Partition era idea mooted by Rajendra Prasad by settling Bihari peasants in the state.

New Delhi: To quell the unrest in Assam’s Brahmaputra Valley against the Narendra Modi government’s decision to pass the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2016 in the Lok Sabha, top BJP leader from Assam, Himanta Biswa Sarma, claimed to the Press on January 7, “If there is no citizenship bill, at least 17 (assembly) seats will go to the Jinnahs.”

Aside from hinting at the fact that the Bill could likely create an instant voter bank for the BJP in 17 of the 126 assembly seats of Assam, what Sarma wanted to highlight was the need to create such a voter base. He felt that Hindu-Bangladeshis would now have to be brought to Assam by the Assamese as a saviour to thwart the demographic change, which he claimed to have been caused in the state only due to migration of Muslim ‘Bangladeshis’.

From six Muslim-majority districts in 2001, the number grew to 11 as per the 2011 Census, which rang alarm bells for the majority community – long caught in a fear of becoming a minority in their homeland. Sarma’s comment in Guwahati was basically to hammer on that point and justify the Modi government’s latest vote-catching net for the 2019 general elections – mainly keeping West Bengal in mind.

What did the JPC report say?

If you go through the portion of the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) report supporting the Bill, submitted in the Lok Sabha on January 7, Sarma was, however, only putting forward what it contended.

The committee said that protecting indigenous Assamese people “is the responsibility of both the central government and the state government of Assam.” Therefore, the solution is to extend the citizenship cut-off date for the Hindu Bangladeshis to December 31, 2014, and thereby “negate the possibly mala fide design of the vested interests in the neighbouring countries.”

Basically, the JPC contended that there has been a calibrated effort by “neighbouring countries,” which obviously includes Bangladesh, to change the demography of Assam. Something along the lines of what Army Chief Bipin Rawat said in February 2018, embroiling him in controversy.

Also read: Seventy Assam Orgs to Move SC Against Centre’s Notifications on Citizenship Rules

However, what is significant is, while several Assamese organisations/ groups protested the proposed amendment on the ground that “the burden of the illegal migrants would be passed on to the state besides conferring political and economic rights upon such migrants to the detriment of the indigenous communities,” the Modi government – through the Ministry of Home Affairs – submitted a statement to the Committee saying, “There is no specific report on unexpected demographic changes of certain North Eastern States, particularly Assam due to influx of migrants from Bangladesh.”

The committee didn’t agree with the MHA, pointed at “successive Census” reports indicating demographic changes, stating, “But the illegal migrants claim that they are original residents and citizens of India as they have been able to obtain documents including ration cards, driving licenses, passports, etc.”

Home minister Rajnath Singh speaking at the Lok Sabha. Credit: PTI

What is interesting is that the committee, like Sarma, justified the proposed proviso to the Citizenship Act by stating that the new cut-off date of December 31, 2014, for the Hindu-Bangladeshis therefore “assumes significance as it has been intended to determine eligibility and prevent further influx into India.”

Recognising the fear of the majority community of getting outnumbered, the committee said the re-settlement package and compensation to be given to the state by the Centre to accommodate the migrants, “should motivate and encourage the state government to help settle such migrants specially in places which are not densely populated, thus causing lesser impact on the demographic changes and providing succour to the indigenous Assamese people.”

Is the state equipped to implement the Act?

Here, the question arises: Where does Assam have such “places” to accommodate more migrants? The state – hugely affected by annual floods – is already producing landless people. Will the state have to accommodate the migrants at the cost of those who are already awaiting the government’s promise to give them land? This is also somewhat contrary to the Centre’s recent announcement that the state government would work towards fixing a land policy to protect the interests of the indigenous population.

But what is to be pointed out is that through this act of attempting to ‘balance’ the demography of Assam (basically to lessen the population of Muslims; Assam has the second largest Muslim population after Jammu and Kashmir), the BJP is trying to put in place a similar formula proposed in pre-Partition era Assam – when it was facing the brunt of immigration of Muslim peasants from East Bengal.

Also read: On the NRC, Even the Supreme Court is Helpless

It was none other than by Rajendra Prasad (later to be the first President of India) who felt that the demographic change in Assam should be balanced by “the Hindus of Bihar”. Prasad toyed with the idea of bringing Bihari Hindu peasants from the Chhapra district to Assam to do agriculture and had even sent his two brothers to the state to execute the plan.

“They bought thousand acres of land in Assam in order to start pioneering work for migration of the Chhapra peasants. But their mission failed miserably and they had to abandon their idea,” wrote Monirul Hussain in Assam Movement: Class, ideology and Identity.

Even during that time, though some mainstream India leaders saw the issue of migration in Assam only from the Hindu-Muslim axis, the Assamese saw it only from the community lines and rejected the idea. In post-independent India, here comes another moment in the state where Hindu-Bangladeshis are being peddled by some political leaders as the veritable saviours of the ‘Assamese people’.

Looking at the widespread anger at Sarma’s statement and the opposition to the Bill, it doesn’t seem, so far, that the state’s indigenous population has bitten into this ‘Hindu’ pill offered by the BJP/ RSS to suit their Hindu Rashtra agenda.

Enduring issues regarding granting of citizenship

What the Bill has done, so far, is only to pit the Bengali-Hindu community against the Assamese, thus reviving the old fault lines between the two communities. Like the Illegal Migrant (Determination) Act – brought by the Indira Gandhi regime in 1983 for Assam – eventually put a question mark on the citizenship of the entire Bengali Muslim community in the eye of the sub-nationalist forces, the BJP’s Citizenship Bill seems to be only trying to blur the line between genuine Indian citizens belonging to the Bengali Hindu community (many of whom left out of the NRC have filed claims) and Hindu-Bangladeshis.

What should also be pointed out is that a careful reading of the report highlights that there are still creases in regard to granting citizenship to Hindu-Bangladeshis in Assam due to the Assam Accord. It mentions that the Department of Legal Affairs did opine that the proposal in the Bill to legalise the Hindu-Bangladeshi minority who entered Assam till December 31, 2014 without valid travel documents “appears to be contrary to the Assam Accord.”

However, it’s the government’s Legislative Department that clearly tried to create space for them based on a technicality.

The report says:

“The Legislative Department has clarified that Section 6A of the Principal Act (brought into it as per Assam Accord) only deals with foreigners who entered India, from Bangladesh into Assam between January 1, 1966 and March 24, 1971. It doesn’t provide for any form of detection, deletion, or expulsion of foreigners beyond the said date.” Since it is not explicitly stated in 6A what should be done to those who entered Assam after 1971, the Department felt that it “appears not to” be in conflict with the proposed proviso. It, however, added that it would only be possible “if any case has not already been decided by the (Foreigners’) Tribunal constituted under the Foreigners (Tribunal) Order, 1964, under Section 6A.”

Once the new proviso is appended to the Act, those Bengali-Hindus whose cases have been pending with Tribunals could then be not treated as “illegal migrants” and given protection under the proposed amendment. But what will be the status of those Bengali-Hindus who have already been declared foreigners and kept in detention centres?

However much the government tried to bypass the cut-off date of the Accord, it failed to do so completely. Though a larger bench of the Supreme Court is yet to decide the validity of Section 6A, inserted into the Act for Assam as per the Accord, it had to take note that the SC is proceeding in the matter (related to updating the NRC), taking the Section as valid till then. The committee had to agree that till the apex court delivers its final verdict on the matter, 6A is valid.

So, it added in the report, “While endorsing the move of the government, the committee, however, is of the considered view that since the matter is still sub-judice, the government will have to tread with caution and take recourse to all legal precautions lest it causes embarrassment at a later date.”