Assam was waiting to boil once the Centre gets succeeded in amending the Citizenship Act that provides legal rights to stay in India to religious minorities or refugees, except for Muslim, from the neighbouring countries. A number of indigenous organisations, local politicians, intellectuals, media personalities, etc. from Assam have unanimously opposed the recent initiative of the Centre to endorse the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, in the Parliament, but, suddenly, the voice got dilute and the local media of Guwahati soon started to ignore the razing issue.
The debate emerged as soon as the Union Government prepared to pave ways for granting citizenship to those asylum seekers, who had already taken shelter in the country prior to December 31, 2014. The people of Assam has witnessed rigorous protests by a number of influential bodies like All Assam Students’ Union, Asom Sahitya Sabha, Krishak Mukti Sangram Samity along with a number of outfits representing the ethnic populace.
Need not to mention that the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party has supported the move, whereas, Asom Gana Parishad, Congress, All India United Democratic Front, CPI, CPM, etc. has continued opposing it. The primary reason to oppose the Centre’s move was that ‘in a federal and democratic set-up’, New Delhi was forcing legislation against the interest of Assam and its people. The new provisions are being understood as to turn the Assamese people into a minority in their own state. Moreover, the development would affect the long accepted and sustained secular principles accorded in the constitution of a republic (India).
“The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, is clearly aimed at affecting the people of Assam rather selectively. It is, therefore, discriminatory in nature and deserves to be abandoned immediately if India claims to be a true democracy that respects the wishes, aspirations and fears of the people instead of trying to ram a perverse law down the throats of millions,” read an editorial of a Guwahati-based newspaper.
Meanwhile, a forum opposing The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, has surfaced in the State and it has declared protest programs against the Centre’s plan to grant citizenship to those seeking asylum in the State. The forum comprising a number of Assamese authors, journalists, academicians, political observers, etc. recently joined in a sit-in demonstration in the city with sizable participation. The forum, somehow, succeeded in getting assurance from the AGP leaders that if the bill is amended they would quit Sarbanad Sonowal-led government in Dispur.
However, the debate had a major turn when a leader from Asom Sattra Mahasabha, an organisation representing the Vaishnavite monasteries of Assam, placed a memorandum in front of the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC), supporting the amendment in New Delhi very recently. At least, two other organisations representing Bengali and Nepali communities of the state also supported the Centre’s move. However, over 25 indigenous outfits vehemently opposed the amendment.
The local media targeted Asom Sattra Mahasabha and went on terming it as Jatidrohi (anti-Assamese). Both the print and electronic media outlets in Assam were poured in with news and views against the organisations, following which they retreated from their earlier stand, issued an apology to their millions of followers and also suspended the leaders who went to attend the JPC hearing in New Delhi.
However, a media statement from a patriotic forum changed the atmosphere astoundingly. Expressing concern over “creating sentiments with unhealthy debates” and “aggressive attacks on the organisations,” the Patriotic People’s Front Assam (PPFA), which supports the Centre’s amendment initiative, issued a statement emphasising on rational debates over the pertinent issue, which was eventually published by most of the Guwahati-based morning dailies. The forum, comprising a group of nationalist individuals, claimed in the statement that “a section of Assamese intellectuals and civil society groups had tried their best to project The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, in a bias perception as if the whole initiative is Assam centric.” “Those biased individuals have made the hue and cry that once it turns into a law, millions of Bengali Hindu people from Bangladesh would be dumped into Assam and the practice will continue for decades,” it added.
The PPFA statement also claimed that the motivated elements “cleverly avoided the fact that those asylum seekers are not merely Bengali Hindus, but also a mix of Rajbongshi, Hajong, Jayantiya, Bishnupriya, Chakma, Garo, Khasi, Adivasi, etc. people.” “Moreover, all these people are the victims of Pakistan’s partition game plan and had to live in a foreign land for which they are not at all responsible,” the statement asserted.
It also clarified that the initiative is meant to allow citizenship for those Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Christian, Jain and Parsi refugees, who were persecuted because of their religious practices in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan and had already taken shelter in India prior to December, 31, 20 14, and there is no provision to bring more Bangladeshi (or Pakistani and Afghan national) after the said date.
Extending support to the amendment, the PPFA, however, demanded that the asylum seekers from the neighbouring countries must be distributed judiciously across India. Moreover, those who prefer to stay legally in Assam should adopt the Assamese language. The PPFA, also, reiterated its old stand to detect all illegal immigrants from the then East Pakistan (present Bangladesh) with the cut-off year of 1951 as it is applicable to the entire nation. It argued that the spirit of Assam Movement (1979 to 1985) was to deport all foreigners since 1951, in which Khargeswar Talukder, the first martyr of Assam and over 850 martyrs sacrificed their lives. The forum also claimed that the immigrants who entered India between 1951 and 1971 (December 16) should be treated as East Pakistani nationals, as Bangladesh emerged as a sovereign nation only after December 16 (not March 25, 1971, as often reported by media) following the surrender of Pakistani forces under the leadership of Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi, popularly called AAK Niazi to the Muktijoddhas (forces of Bangladesh freedom struggle).
However, father of Bangladesh Sheikh Mujibur Rahman declared the independence of Bangladesh on March 25, 1971, but, the land was very much under the Pakistani authority till December 16 of the year, hence, it cannot be termed as Bangladesh (so as the residents as Bangladeshi nationals), the statement added.
Finally, the PPFA statement even argued that if the deportation of illegitimate immigrants (Bangladeshi) becomes impossible or too difficult to deal with because of serious humanitarian and international crisis, the Union Government should think of offering work permits (without voting rights) for them to resolve the issue amicably.
Suddenly, the print media in Guwahati has lost interest in debating over the issue. The city-based satellite news channels too have completely ignored the PPFA statement, subsequently shutting the doors to talk about the issue logically. The alternate media gave space for the debates, where unhealthy, bias and irresponsible outbursts dominate the space. By now, a number of organisations namely Hindu Jagaran Mancha, Hojai Nagarik Samaj, Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad, etc. came out with official statements supporting the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. They claimed that the initiative would affect the Assamese community as a whole, but would help the nation to a greater extent in the days to come.
The author is a Northeast India-based political commentator