Skip to main content

North-East protests snowball as indigenous people feel "increasingly" threatened

By Nava Thakuria*
It was a spectacular rally in the pre-historic city of Guwahati on January 23 last that strongly opposed the Indian Union government’s latest initiative to amend the country’s citizenship Act in favour of religious asylum seekers from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Organized by the All-Assam Students’ Union (AASU) along with 30 indigenous groups at the historic Latashil play ground of Guwahati on the southern bank of mighty Brahmaputra, the demonstration witnessed vivid participation of thousands of people from different sections in the society.
Not only Guwahati in the Brahmaputra valley of Assam, but most of northeastern localities presently witness an uproarious situation against the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government in New Delhi. The region, surrounded by Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet (now under China), Myanmar and Bangladesh, has recently observed a Bandh (shut down) protesting against New Delhi’s adamant attitude to pass the citizenship amendment bill in the Lok Sabha and prepare to placing in the Rajya Sabha soon.
For almost two years now, civil society groups and a large section of writer, artiste, media personalities etc. of the region have been opposing the move to grant citizenship to the religious asylum seekers from India’s neighbouring countries. They came out with clear demand that the Narendra Modi-led government’s move to benefit the Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian asylum seekers must immediately be abandoned.
Their logics include: Indian citizenship cannot be conferred on the basis of religion, as it is a secular country, and if done, it would go against the spirit of the Constitution. The other one, which has been supported by 95% of protesting organizations, argues that Assam has already taken the burden of numerous illegal migrants (from 1951 to 1971) and it should not get more migrants, as it would destroy the state’s demography and Assamese as a language.
The protest gained momentum when the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) on the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016 arrived in Guwahati in May last year for public hearings. A number of indigenous organizations, local politicians, intellectuals, media personalities etc assembled on the venue and raised their voices against the bill. However, the subsequent hearing in Silchar of Barak valley witnessed a different picture as most of the organizations supported the initiative.
When the Lok Sabha passed the bill on January 8, the anti-bill protests got escalated in the region. The local media were full of anti-bill statements, plentiful news related to agitations, along with long newspaper editorials and charged television talk-shows. Many political observers even started comparing the situation with another session of historic Assam movement in the making.
The Assam agitation, launched in 1979 with the demand to detect and deport all illegal migrants (read Bangladeshi nationals) from the country, culminated after six years with an accord signed by the agitators with the Centre in presence of the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Leaders of AASU and now defunct Asom Gana Sangram Parishad agreed to accept everyone entering Assam prior to March 25, 1971 as legal Indian citizens.
The movement started with the ultimate goal to deport all illegal migrants on the basis of national cut-off year (1951) for which over 850 people sacrificed their lives and thousands others faced humiliations in different occasions. But the agitators, most of whom later became seasoned politicians, never tried to validate the accord with legal frameworks. Shockingly, the accord was never passed in Parliament for endorsement.
The present-day movements have been led by AASU leaders along with the Northeast Students’ Organization and many Assam based ethnic civil society groups, where they maintain that Assam would burn if the bill is passed in the upper house of Parliament. AASU adviser Samujjal Bhattacharjya commented in various public meetings that the BJP-led governments in both New Delhi and Dispur had been hatching conspiracies to destroy the peaceful ambience of the region, as the bill would threaten the existence of indigenous people in the region.
Lately two northeastern chief ministers belong to the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance family have come out raising voices against the bill. Meghalaya chief minister Conrad Sangma and Mizoram chief minister Zoram Thanga have opposed the initiative and asserted that they would not take any burden of foreigners in their states. Even Manipur chief minister and a senior BJP leader N Biren Singh expressed his concern over the probable negative implications of the initiative in his State.
Arunachal Pradesh chief minister Pema Khandu and Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal have supported the move, arguing that it would not affect the region. Remaining silent over the matter for months, Sonowal now start making voluminous public comments that the Centre’s new initiatives would never harm the local populations but benefit them in the long term.
Sonowal stated that a section of vested interests was trying to create disturbances in Assam by spreading misinformation that 19 million Bangladeshi Hindu nationals would get citizenship as an immediate outcome of the bill. It cannot encourage any foreigner to come to India as the bill has a cut-off date of 31 December 2014, asserted the young chief minister.
“The bill, if duly passed in Parliament, will simply allow the Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Parsis and Christians to apply for citizenship after a mandatory residency of seven years. Once they apply, the citizenship applications will be verified by the local authorities,” stated Sonowal, adding that his government is duty-bound to protect the interests of indigenous communities of Assam.
More blatant arguments were put by Himanta Biswa Sarma, the powerful minister in Sonowal’s cabinet, where he asserted that the citizenship amendment initiatives would help the local Assamese population. Expressing serious concern over the aggressive mentality of Bangladeshi Muslim settlers, Sarma claimed that the initiative would prevent Assam from becoming another Kashmir.
In various public discourses, Sarma openly suggested that Assamese people should support the non-Muslim asylum seekers from Bangladesh to safeguard their political, social and cultural rights in Assam. He also criticized the anti-Assam forces (read Naxal/Leftists) which continue crying against the amendment bill. In a recent public debate, Sarma commented, “They want us to be slaves of a particular civilization (read Islamic). However, in this civilisational fight, we must win.”
Lately, a forum of patriots expressed concerns over the prevailing turbulent situation in Assam along with few other parts of the region and urged the Centre to assure the local people that the region would not be affected by the citizenship law amendment initiatives. Patriotic People’s Front Assam (PPFA), in a recent statement, also called upon the Union government to review the cut-off year for detection of illegal migrants in Assam (from 1971 to 1951).
“A nation should not have two separate cut-off years with one meant specifically for one province to detect illegal foreigners. Challenging the 1971 cut-off year, Asom Sanmilita Mahasangha has already approached the Supreme Court of India and the case is still pending. Few other organizations including Prabajan Virodhi Mancha are also raising voices against it,” said the PPFA statement, adding that it wants the apex court to settle the matter so that the issue can be resolved for good.
---
*Senior Guwahati-based journalist

Comments

TRENDING

Nirma varsity demand for higher fees 'illegal', violates Article 14: Letter to Gujarat HC

Counterview Desk
Students of Gujarat’s top private institute, Nirma University, situated in the outskirts of Ahmedabad, in a letter to the Chief Justice the state High Court, have complained that the authorities are demanding “full fees” from students, without taking into account the “disproportionate impact” the lockdown has on the livelihood of students and families.

Buddhist shrines massively destroyed by Brahmanical rulers in "pre-Islamic" era: Historian DN Jha's survey

By Our Representative
Prominent historian DN Jha, an expert in India's ancient and medieval past, in his new book, "Against the Grain: Notes on Identity, Intolerance and History", in a sharp critique of "Hindutva ideologues", who look at the ancient period of Indian history as "a golden age marked by social harmony, devoid of any religious violence", has said, "Demolition and desecration of rival religious establishments, and the appropriation of their idols, was not uncommon in India before the advent of Islam".

Vulnerable to Covid-19, sharp rise in murder of Indian journalists during pandemic

By Nava Thakuria*
Vulnerability of working journalists in India is no way an alien issue as the populous country loses a number of working journalists to assailants as also medical emergencies. Even though there was only one casualty in the Indian media fraternity during the first half of 2020, who was targeted for journalistic work, India has begun witnessing an alarming number of media casualties during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Govt 'assures' Gujarat HC no action against MBBS students defying corona sahayak order

By Our Representative
The Gujarat government has assured the High Court that no action would be taken against Part-I and Part-II MBBS students of the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC)-controlled NHL Medical College and LG Hospital and Medical College. The assurance follows the direction by Justice SH Vora to the State government not to prosecute or initiate action against the students who were defying the college authorities’ order to work as corona sahayaks (helpers).

Renounced US citizenship to serve workers, tribals, Sudha Bharadwaj 'odiously' in jail

By Atul, Sandeep Pandey*
Professor Sudha Bharadwaj has been in jail since August 2018. She was taken into police custody on August 26, 2018 on suspicion of being involved in Maoist terror activities after Republic TV claimed that she had allegedly written a letter to Maoists and was conspiring to create public disorder and unrest in India.

Cruel legacy of Green Revolution? Covid-19 underscores 'risky, fragile' food system

By Moin Qazi*  The Covid-19 crisis has highlighted the risks of an unhealthy diet and the extreme fragility of food systems. The economic reconstruction that will follow the pandemic is the perfect opportunity to provide better nutrition and health to all. The pandemic should spur us to redefine how we feed ourselves, and agricultural research can play a vital role in making our food systems more sustainable and resilient.

Plant organic, eat fresh: Emlen Bage's journey from migrant labour to agri-entrepreneur

By Chandrashekar and Kriti*
Who is a farmer? Type this question in the google search and check out the images? You can see men thronging the screen. This is the popular perception around the globe. Well one can understand how difficult it would be for a woman to defy this perception.

Dichotomy? US Hindutva groups oppose racism, mum on Modi's 'anti-minority' stance

By Our Representative
The Hindus for Human Rights (HHR), a US-based advocacy group, has noticed a major dichotomy between the stance taken by RSS’ US arm, Hindu Swayamsewak Sangh (HSS), expressing “shock” at the “painful killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others”, all of which suggest “the tragic tale of racial injustice” in US, and HSS’ “hatred” for India’s religious minorities and Dalits.

High youth unemployment: India 'fails' to take advantage of demographic dividend

By Varun Kumar
As coronavirus pandemic continues amplifying challenges among youth with regard to employment opportunities, government policies have further resulted in economic slowdown, leading to mass unemployment and loss jobs. According to the International Labour Organisation report “Covid-19 and the World of Work” (May 27, 2020), around 94 percent of the world’s workers are living in countries with some sort of workplace closure measures in place.