Is Assam Mirroring the 'Idea of India' on the Citizenship Amendment Bill?

Acceptance of the NRC as a sanitising process for identifying the ‘genuine’ and the ‘fake’ Indian is full of pitfalls.

In India, ‘citizenry’ has been defined by the Citizenship Act, 1955 and subsequent amendments to it. But it continues to be an ‘unsettled’ issue in Assam and the Northeast. The Census indicates that between 1901 and 1991, the population of India grew by 354%, while for Assam it increased by 676%. Consequentially, during 1971, only half the population in Assam were residents of the current territory  in 1901.

Colonialism, migration and partition overwhelmingly contributed to this process. This scenario, both for subsequent state-led development and politics of mobilisation, remained pivoted around negotiating the ‘indigenous’ vis-à-vis the ‘other’. The social contract so generated, thereby, remained in a flux.

For colonial India, negotiating Partition has been largely linear – a vivisection based on religion. For Assam, it was the intersectionality of religion and language. The urge to become a majority after Partition created minorities of different hues, whose negotiation determined the moves of the political chessboard in Assam.

The Congress leadership, although fought against the Muslim League’s demand for its inclusion in Pakistan, remained a mute spectator to the loss of Sylhet, a Bengali speaking district, to the Muslim League, through controversial referendum. While the former negated the ‘religious’ (read Islamic) threat, the later, ensured the ‘correct’ (read Assamese) linguistic identity of the state.

The urge to transform Assam into an Assamese ethno-religious state seemed to have been accomplished. But post-colonial narratives suggests that neither the perceived victory of a ethno-religious homogeneity lasted nor the perceived loss of the Assamese identity ebbed out.

Also read: Tulsi Gabbard, the Citizenship Bill and the New Indian Identity

The recent hype related to the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2015 is a contemporary manifestations of this inherited ‘threat’ from colonial Assam. The perception generated that the NRC is a part of the Assam Accord (1985) is highly misleading. Acceptance of the NRC as a sanitising process for identifying the ‘genuine’ and the ‘fake’ Indian is full of pitfalls. Except for a few, individuals and organisations, including the left have fallen prey to such a machination.

Census 1951 indicates that the NRC was a casual process by ‘unqualified and ill-qualified persons’ from February 9 to 28, 1951, where information from the Census slips were used sparingly to create field notes, what is referred as the NRC 1951. Observers suggest, while transcribing the information from the Census slip to the NRC, three questions, were left out: ‘displaced persons’ (question 6), ‘bilingualism’ (question 8) and ‘indigenous persons’ (question 13). Ironically, the NRC of 1951 is now treated as the cornerstone of ‘indigeneity’ and citizenry in Assam.

Again scholars observe, the NRC of 1951 – now treated as an evidence for updating – was referred as a ‘contemporaneous register’ and therefore under Section 15 of the Census Act, is not open to inspection neither can it be treated as an evidence under the Evidence Act determined in a judgement in Gauhati high court delivered in 1970.

Moreover, there is yet to be a legal framework to reconcile both the NRC’s which have been undertaken under two separate Acts, e.g. the NRC of 1951 (under the Census Act 1948) and the NRC of 2018 (under the Citizenship Act 1955 read along with Citizenship Rules 2003). Does this puts a question mark on the legality of NRC 2018 based on NRC of 1951?

The pivot of politics centering around the ‘indigenous-foreigner’ axis necessitated the constant reminding of the threats to the Assamese identity despite the Assam Accord (1985) where it was mutually agreed that March 24, 1971, will be the cut-off date for acceptance of citizenship through the addition of Section 6A in the Citizenship Act 1955.

Slowly but steadily, the executive, judiciary and the legislature along with civil society organisations as well as extra-legal organisations in Assam once again thought of  sanitising the population. Consequently, in May 2005, the three parties to the Assam Accord: the All Assam Students Union (AASU), the Government of India and the government of Assam agreed to a process of updating the NRC of 1951. There was an utter lack of any discourse – forget counter narrative – to such a process.

A protest against the Citizenship Bill. Credit: PTI

What was initiated by the Congress to be dealt with administratively and the left thought of somewhat eking out a space for itself by raising the post-facto issues has been transformed into a gainful option for the BJP by simultaneously bringing in the Citizenship (Amendment_ Bill, which perfectly suited its Hindutva agenda and a ‘tool’ in pan-Indian political mobilisation for protecting the ‘threatened’ Hindu in the upcoming Parliamentary Election of 2019.

The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in its present form intends to reduce the gestation period for becoming an Indian citizens – from the existing 12 continuous years out of the last 14 in India to 6 years of continuous residence – for the victims of ‘religious persecution’ from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Critics argue its selective criterion based on religion for grant of citizenship in India and importantly, the proposed amendment when read together with The Passport (Entry into India) Amendment Rules, 2015 and The Foreigners (Amendment) Order, 2015 technically allows the cut-off date for citizenship to be December 31, 2014.

The selection criterion based on religion goes against the basic tenets of the Indian Constitution, while the cut-off date violates the Assam Accord. The BJP supports the Bill in its effort to build a new India (read Hindu Rashtra) that accepts non-Muslims from other countries as citizens with open arms to atone for the mistakes of Congress during Partition, while treating fellow Indians as ‘others’ in the name of vigilantism and cow protection.

Also read: Govt Looking for ‘Middle Ground’ on Citizenship Bill to Appease Allies: Ram Madhav

In these critical times, the protestors in the Brahmaputra valley have chosen to put language above religion. The valley apprehends an amendment to the Citizenship Bill will reopen the floodgates for the migration of Bengali Hindus from Bangladesh to Assam, which may disturb the existing but ‘fluid’ social contract. Through a century old ‘miracle’, the Assamese speaking population increased by 966% during 1911-1971, against a total increase in population by 280% only.

So, although only half the population in Assam in 1971 were residents of the current territory in 1901, the natural leadership of the Assamese prevailed as the tribes, plantation workers along with migrant Muslim peasants from East Bengal ‘returned’ Assamese as their mother tongue in Census declaration. Over the years, the number of Assamese speakers has declined largely due to autonomy aspirations of the tribes. It is for the first time as per the Census 2011, Assamese speakers are below the 50% mark in Assam. An eminent threat thereby now exists for the Assamese of loosing their natural leadership in Assam.

The shift in understanding the Indian state determining its citizenry seems to be a shift from jus soli to jus sanguinis. It puts a question mark over the very idea of India! The unease over such a shift should have been a pan-Indian phenomenon. Assam and the Northeast is holding the mirror in front of the so-called ‘mainland-mainstream’ Indians. If the peripheries – otherwise relegated to a ‘state of exception’ – are rising in revolt, should the rest of India fall behind?

Gorky Chakraborty is with the Institute of Development Studies, Kolkata