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Posted at: Jan 22, 2019, 6:47 AM; last updated: Jan 22, 2019, 6:47 AM (IST)

Reach out to those opposing citizenship Bill

Sanjoy Hazarika

Sanjoy Hazarika
A distrustful narrative has emerged again in a state and region where division and confrontation run deep. There is a need for dialogue now more than ever to calm the waters. The Union Government should reconsider its insistence on the passage of the Bill. That would be an act of statesmanship. The sedition cases, filed suo motu by the police, should be withdrawn.
Reach out to those opposing citizenship Bill
Turmoil: Assam and other parts of the North-East have erupted in protest against the proposed law.

Sanjoy Hazarika
International Director, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative

POLITICS is pretty complex in this country. But take a look at the challenges before the little state of Assam, the biggest of the eight north-eastern states whose total demographics (barely 4.2 crore) together make up just 3 per cent of India’s population. Assam itself has over 70 per cent of the region’s population. Also, there are no less than 220 ethnic and linguistic groups in the triangular land-locked space, linked to India by a narrow corridor that is barely 27-km wide at its narrowest point.

Predictably, Assam erupted in protest and anger — as did other parts of the region — with street marches and attacks on government offices after the contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Bill was passed in the Lok Sabha recently. The Asom Gana Parishad stormed out of the BJP-led coalition in Assam. The pro-talks faction of the United Liberation Front of Assam denounced the move, with one of its leaders saying that when “there is widespread resentment among the people of Assam against the Bill… it would be difficult to continue with the peace talks.”

Such sentiments are par for the course in the North-East, where the Centre is often perceived as an interfering and stern stepmother, insensitive to local concerns and needs. But what is important to note is that BJP allies in three states have strongly objected to the proposed law, demanding its review and rollback. The BJP-led government in Manipur wanted a state of exception to prevail and sought to be left out of the law’s purview.

And then there is the National Register of Citizens (NRC), which seeks to define who is an Indian citizen in Assam and who is not. At the last count, more than 31 lakh of those left out (40 lakh) of an earlier list had filed claims seeking their inclusion in the NRC.

Critics have attacked the Centre for going against what they say is the core of identity politics in Assam — the 1985 Accord between the Centre, state government and All Assam Students Union which laid down that all Bangladeshis who came illegally after 1971 would be deported. Religion was not an issue. 

The proposed law changes that and moves the goalposts completely: it says that non-Muslims (Sikhs, Hindus, Jains, Parsis, Buddhists and Christians) who came illegally after 2014 from Bangladesh, Pakistan or Afghanistan would be accepted, giving them a 43-year back-dated stamp of approval. This is at the heart of the current turmoil in a troubled region that has seen so much bloodshed, insurgencies, bitterness and suspicion.

The Assam Accord of 1985 called for specific constitutional protection for local communities, which has not yet been provided, and economic development packages for the state. Some of the latter have been implemented.

In an effort to deflect criticism on these issues, the Central Government has announced two initiatives. Both are floundering. The first was that it had approved Scheduled Tribe (ST) status for six small Assam communities, currently classified as OBCs (Other Backward Classes).

The ethnic groups, which have been campaigning for ST status for years, say the declaration falls far short of a law. One leader said his organisation’s opposition to the citizenship Bill was non-negotiable.

The Centre’s second move to set up a committee to look at another promise made in 1985, of special constitutional safeguards for indigenous people, was a non-starter. Four of the six members, including prominent litterateurs and a distinguished former civil servant, declined their nominations. Incidentally, no woman was named on the committee.

To add to the anger, pressure and confusion, the Guwahati city police filed sedition charges against 80-year old scholar Hiren Gohain, one of the region’s most outspoken and respected intellectuals, and two others, including radical peasant leader Akhil Gogoi. At an open-air public meeting opposing the Bill, they are alleged to have spoken about the demand for independence.

However, in the YouTube-broadcast version, Prof Gohain is seen saying that he sought ‘constitutional rights’ and the struggle was for the rights of Assam and Indians, that democratic methods were the right way to “protect the secular nature of the Constitution”. It is appalling that time and again, one of the earliest pieces of legislation devised by British colonialists to impose their rule on Indians is used by successive governments to suppress their fellow nationals.

Such short-term measures can only cement opposition, which is growing beyond party lines.

The words of the Forum for Naga Reconciliation, spoken in a different context, ring so true here: “Peoples living in a pluralistic world find it difficult to accept a definition that is imposed on them.”

A distrustful narrative has emerged again in a state and region where division and confrontation run deep. The Union Home Minister, probably worried about the stability of three state governments where the BJP has a share and the fallout elsewhere, says he will consult with the chief ministers. However, he needs to reach out to those who are spearheading the movement. They need to be consulted and included in the dialogue process.

The need for conversation is now more than ever to calm the waters, for the sake of transparency. The Union Government should reconsider its insistence on the passage of the Bill. That would be an act of statesmanship. The sedition cases against Prof Gohain and others, filed suo motu by the police, should be withdrawn.

As in the past, the periphery has spoken. Is Delhi listening?

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