On 11th December 2019, the Rajya Sabha passed the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) 2019 (turning it into the Citizenship Amendment (CAA), which guarantees Indian citizenship to all ‘persecuted’ minorities from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.
While the popular narrative of this act revolves around the ‘exclusion of Muslims’ and its relation with NRC-NPR, and it has been given a communal angle; the opposition to this act varies, as far as north-east India is concerned, particularly Assam.
Here, the protest is not on religious lines but more on ethnic lines, which have broader implications for the security and development of the region.
The rally is not only about the current Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). But, it is also an expression of frustration of the people, against the non-compliance of the political establishment, to implement the ‘Assam Accord’ which was signed in 1985, after a long drawn six-year struggle popularly known as ‘Assam Agitation.’
When the partition is discussed, it is generally related to Punjab and West Bengal, with refugees flocking to these states but hidden in public domain.
There are countless stories of refugees coming from Bengali speaking Sylhet district of Assam, which was carved out and merged with East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) by a referendum, called the Sylhet referendum.
The then Assam leadership, led by Gopinath Bordolai, did not mind giving Sylhet to East Pakistan as they were wary of Bengali hegemony; if a Bengali speaking district would remain part of Assam and would eventually turn Assam into a Bengali-speaking state.
They were afraid of the Bengali domination because of the disastrous experience that the Assamese people had faced, when Assam was made part of Bengal, from 1836-1874, and the official language was changed to Bengali.
Many Bengali intellectuals at the time, (and some even now), refused to acknowledge the uniqueness of the Assamese language and culture. They ended up treating Assam and the Assamese people as an extension to Bengal and the Bengali culture.
The period between 1836-1874, gave rise to ‘Assamese sub-nationalism’, against the Bengali hegemony, which is crucial to understand the events that followed the partition.
With Bengali-speaking Sylhlet merging with East Pakistan, Assamese people were a majority in Assam again. In a rally in Guwahati, Gopinath Bordoloi famously said, “Assam for Assamese.”
This statement was never fulfilled in the real sense, as three subdivisions (Cachar, Hailakandi, Karimganj) opted for India and had to merge with Assam, which was later promoted to districts and were collectively known as the ‘Barak valley’ with Bengali as its official language.
While the then political leaders were right in anticipating the fallout of Sylhet being a part of Assam, what they did not expect was a large number of refugees who came to Assam.
Additionally, they could not predict the violence that was unleashed against them by the Assamese Sub-nationalists under the slogan “Bongal Khedao” (Drive all Bengalis), which continued from the late 1940s to the early 1960s.
Another significant impact that the partition had on the northeast region, was the lack of connectivity. All the four hundred miles of border areas from East Pakistan, China, and Burma runs through hills, and it was severely affected with Sylhet, going to East Pakistan.
Even today, the connectivity is one of the most significant issues faced by Northeastern states, with no alternate routes available to the region.
The segregation of India into the “mainland” and the “north-east” has always been a common trend in the public domain.
While this terminology makes more geographical sense for the island Union Territories, excluding the northeast is both illogical and immoral.
This runs down deep in the minds of political establishments in New Delhi. The apathy started right after independence. Assam (at that point time, Assam included a large part of today’s northeastern states) was at the receiving end of the Center’s discriminatory attitude towards it.
The oil field (Regulation and Development) Act of 1948 empowered the Central Government to fix the royalty for Assam at 10%, which was negligible.
Most of the tea estate headquarters were in Kolkata, and a lot of state exchequer was lost. When crude oil was discovered in Naharkatiya in upper Assam, by Assam Oil Company, it was used to build the oil refinery at Barauni in Bihar.
The logic fails to answer the transportation of oil through pipelines, thousands of kilometres away; when the original site was chosen as Silghat in Upper Assam, which would have saved both money and time. After a lot of protests, a small refinery was built on the outskirts of Guwahati, known as Noonmati Refinery.
At no point in the country’s history has a student body been as powerful, to change the nature and tide of the politics in a state, as AASU.
The organisation traces its birth to the food shortage in the state, which forced many students to come on the streets for protests and led to the formation of the All Assam Students Union (AASU) 1966. And since then, it has played a significant role in shaping the politics of Assam.
The porous border between Assam and East Pakistan provided a much-needed route to the people from that area who wanted a prosperous life in this part of the world. While some came for economic security, the period from 1966-1971 saw a significant chunk of people coming to save themselves from the wrath of the Pakistani army.
East Pakistan became Bangladesh on 26th December 1971, but the migration across the border continued unabated.
The fear of Bengalis becoming dominant in Assam was more pronounced with Tripura becoming a Bengali majority state; after the indigenous people of the state had reduced to less than 30% due to massive-scale migration, during partition in 1947, and in 1971, during Bangladesh Liberation war.
While there was growing resentment against the Bengali immigrants, the immediate trigger to the Assam Agitation was the death of Mangoldoi MP Hiralal Patowary, which resulted in a by-election in that constituency.
A year before that, on 24th October 1978, the then Chief Election Commissioner, S.L Shakdhar, had emphasised the presence of improper addition to the electoral rolls and had referred to the broad-scale inclusion of foreign nationals in some states including the ones in the north-east.
While he had never mentioned Assam in his statement, AASU later adopted it in its demand for the revision of the electoral rolls in the state.
AASU called for a boycott of Mangoldoi by-election until the electoral rolls were revised and foreigners’ names deleted. Candidates were prevented from filing nominations, and in a protest on 10th December 1979, Khargeshwar Talukdar, the general secretary of Barpeta AASU unit, died in a police firing. Since then, 10th December is celebrated as Shaheed Diwas in Assam.
Soon after, the call for the revision of electoral rolls was demanded for the whole state. The protestors called for the boycott of the general elections in 1980 until the electoral rolls were revised.
Crude oil was not allowed to pass from the state. In the general elections of 1980, only 2 MPs were sent from a state of 14 seats. In independent India, it is perhaps the only instance when the majority of people in a state had boycotted the elections.
With the economic boycott, the centre was forced to initiate a dialogue with AASU. On 1st February 1980, AASU, led by Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, met Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, which resulted in a series of talks with the centre.
The main reason for the same could be inferred by the statement of the then petroleum minister, PC Sethi, in which he said, that the country would face oil shortage if the oil blockades were not lifted.
Finally, on 14th August, after many rounds of talks between the Center and AASU, the ‘Assam Accord’ was signed between them, which resulted in the formation of Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), with Mahanta becoming the youngest CM of the country at the age of 32.
During its meeting with the emissary of Indira Gandhi, Prafulla Kumar Mahanta stressed that the fight was against Bangladeshis, not Bengalis. However, he could not give a logical mechanism of how to divide Bangladeshis and Bengalis because the language spoken across the border was the same.
Bengalis were targeted, chased, killed in a large number of mob-related violence. In response to that, Assamese settlements were also targeted in the Bengali dominated Barak Valley. Phrases like “if you see a Bengali and a snake, kill the Bengali first” used to be plastered on the walls. Married Bengali wives had to abandon traditional bangles (Shaka) to avoid identifying themselves as Bengalis.
The violence increased once the Center decided to conduct assembly elections in the state in 1983. There were mass protests against the decision. “It is democracy at gunpoint,” commented Sarat Sinha, former chief minister of Assam, talking about the violence unleashed before the assembly elections.
There were cases of kidnapping of candidates to prevent them from filing nomination papers. Most of the prominent AASU leaders were taken in custody. Schools and colleges were shut down. The Election Commission had to transport a large number of people from outside the state to work in the elections. There was massive security deployment to protect the life of the candidates and the election officials, with ordinary people left to defend themselves.
There were several cases of Bengali refugee camps being burned by the Assamese mob. Simultaneously, there were cases where Bengali mobs were targeting the Assamese community. The violence reached its threshold with what we commonly know as the Nellie Massacre.
On 18th February 1983, between 8 AM and 4 PM, a murderous mob comprising of people from nearby villages inhabited by the plain tribe, Tiwa, and two Assamese schedule tribes, attacked 14 Bengali Muslim villages.
The official count was 1,819, but the actual number is still unknown today. Most of the people who died were either women or children. The local resentment goes down to the British time when the shifting cultivation practised by Tiwa community lands was given to Muslim Bengali people of East Bengal origin.
Tiwa community people had to sell their properties to moneylenders of immigrant background. Since the Assam agitation took up the land alienation matter, they found resonance over the issue.
When Indira Gandhi was asked about the sluggish role played by the Center, she replied, “One has to let such events take their course before stepping in.” In its aftermath, a total of 299 charge-sheets were filed, but under the Assam Accord, no one was prosecuted for the incidents.
After six years of chaos, a short-lived peace had finally arrived with the signing of the ‘Assam Accord‘ in 1985. People, at the time, were convinced that the immigration issue would be settled once and or all. Still, after 35 years of signing it, this has not been fully implemented, and it has become a favourite political gimmick for the political parties in the state.
The successive governments both at Center and State have failed to fulfil the aspiration of people regarding the immigration issue. The fundamental flaw regarding the Accord is the Union Home Ministry implementing it. One fails to understand if the whole agitation was related to Assam, why was the state government not given the mandate to implement the Accord. The state government, with a grasp of ground reality, would have been in a better position to fulfil the promises made.
Another flaw in the Accord was its clause 6. It deals with safeguarding the indigenous people (Khilonjiyas) and their culture and providing reservation in legislative bodies. But it does not specify what it takes to be indigenous.
In Assam, it is commonly believed that all those who speak Bengalis are immigrants. But there are a large number of indigenous Bengali inhabitants in Barak valley, and they should also be treated as Khilonjiyas.
AASU talks about the 1951 NRC, which should be taken as the base year for constitutional safeguards, but there are a large number of cases of missing files, and there still has not been any consensus regarding the same.
In clause 5 of the Accord, it was mentioned that all those people who came to Assam from 1st March 1966 to 24th March 1971 were to be detected under the Foreigners Tribunal Act of 1946.
Subsequently, their names were to be deleted from the electoral rolls for two successive elections, after which their names were to be restored. And everyone entering after 24th March 1971 was to be detected and expelled.
The Center and the state government also displayed a lazy approach in implementing Clause 9 of the Act, which is about fencing the border to prevent infiltration. This was not achieved swiftly, and which has resulted in infiltration across the border till today.
From the clauses of Assam Accord, it can easily be inferred that CAB violates Clause 5, as it guarantees citizenship to the immigrants coming to state till 31st December 2014. No government, both in State and the Center, tried to implement the Accord, and additionally, this government has attempted to violate the very essence of Accord by bringing in CAB.
Political parties should have been sincere in solving the immigrant issue instead of playing with the sentiments of people of the state. Even those who became political leaders through this agitation did not actively participate in solving it.
A community becoming a minority in their land is itself a dark spot in the very idea of India. At the same time, it is also essential to avoid xenophobic tendencies towards Bengalis and to hold them responsible for the mess around it.
Bengalis, on their part, should also refrain from attaching to any outside influence and avoid exerting their dominance and recognising the distinctive nature of the Assamese community.