The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 that seeks to confer Indian citizenship on Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians who have fled persecution in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan has become a sore point in Assam. Resentment has been brewing against the bill, which was introduced by Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh in the Lok Sabha on 19 July last year.
Soon after its introduction, the powerful All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP, which is a partner in the BJP-led coalition government in the state) and 26 ethnic organisations, besides a host of intellectuals and prominent personas, voiced their strong opposition to the bill and announced state-wide stirs. Since then, anger has been simmering against the bill and this has translated into a latent disquiet with the BJP-led governments in the state and the centre.
The failure of the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC), to which the bill has been referred for eliciting views from a wide spectrum of citizens as well as political and non-political bodies, to meet organisations like the AASU who represent the indigenous Assamese-speaking people of the state, has also added to this disquiet. More so since the JPC has already met leaders of sundry bodies from the Barak Valley in southern Assam, which is home to about 37 lakh people, almost all of them Bengali-speaking. Half the population of Barak Valley are Hindus and a little over 48 per cent are Muslims, and many of them are new or old immigrants from East Bengal (which became East Pakistan in 1947 and Bangladesh in 1971).
Minority in their own homeland
The opposition from AASU, AGP and other groups and individuals to the proposed amendments to the Citizenship Act, 1955, is primarily due to the fear of the Assamese-speaking people of being reduced to a hopeless minority in their own land. This fear, widespread as it is among the Assamese, is based on hard facts. According to the 1991 census, Bengali-speaking people formed only 21.67 per cent of the population of Assam while the Assamese-speaking were in a majority at 57.81 per cent. A decade later, the percentage of Bengali-speaking people rose to 27.54 per cent while that of Assamese-speaking people fell to 48.8 per cent (the remaining were Bodos, Misings, Rabhas, Karbis and others). It is feared that at present, the percentage of Bengali speakers (Hindus and Muslims) would be about 35 per cent of the state’s estimated population of 3.32 crore.
A caveat, however, would be in order here: the steep rise in the number of Bengali-speaking people in Assam is primarily due to illegal influx of mostly Bengali-speaking Muslims from Bangladesh. Compared to the number of Muslims who enter Assam (and other states of eastern India and north-eastern India bordering Bangladesh) for economic reasons, the number of Hindus who flee religious persecution in the form of murders, rape and torture and other atrocities in Bangladesh and seek refuge in Assam is miniscule. This is borne out by the fact that the Muslim population in Assam has seen an alarming rise over the past few decades. Muslims now make for 34.22 per cent of Assam’s population (up from 30.9 per cent in the 2001 census), while the percentage of Hindus has declined to 61.46 per cent from more than 63 per cent. This sharp rise in the percentage of Muslims can only be explained by the large scale illegal immigration of Bengali-speaking Muslims from Bangladesh.
This is not to say that the fears of the AASU, AGP and others are unfounded. The desire of the Assamese-speaking people of Assam, who have already been reduced to less than 50 per cent of the population in their own state, to preserve their identity cannot be denied. Be they Hindus or Muslims, the Bengali-speaking populace are justifiably viewed by the Assamese-speaking people as posing a grave threat to their identity. It is but natural for the indigenous Assamese to not only oppose the illegal influx from Bangladesh, but also any move to confer citizenship on these immigrants, Hindus included.
Assam’s population has increased by more than 330 per cent in the six decades from 1951 till the last census in 2011. This is a phenomenal rise that is much more than the natural rate of growth and can only be explained by the unrestrained influx of Bangladeshis, an overwhelming majority among them being Muslims, into the state. In 1951, only 24 per cent of the state’s 80.29 lakh people were Muslims. But even then, most of these Muslims were of Bangladeshi origin; they had been encouraged by the British and then the Congress and Muslim League governments in the pre-Independence era to settle down in Assam and cultivate the vast tracts of arable land lying fallow in the state. Post-Independence, successive Congress regimes bartered away Assam’s, and the nation’s, interests by encouraging this illegal influx to create Muslim vote banks that helped the party cling on to power. While Muslims account for more than 34per cent of Assam’s population now, the percentage of Assamese-speaking people have fallen sharply from 66 per cent in 1951 to less than 47 per cent today.
Assam has borne the burden of this illegal influx from Bangladesh for decades. It has been forced by cruel circumstances to take in waves of economic, political and religious refugees from Bangladesh starting from 1947. Not only has Assam’s psychological, economic and physical capacity to take in any more immigrants been crossed, there is little room for even accepting the 1.5 lakh-odd Bangladeshi Hindus who have come in with valid documents but have overstayed in Assam. At least twice that number have come in illegally in the last few decades. The prospect of these five lakh-odd Bengali Hindus being granted Indian citizenship and, thus, permanent residential status, in Assam does not naturally appeal to the Assamese.
Bengali Hindus also to blame
More so since the Bengali Hindus have done little on their part to integrate themselves with the Assamese. This is the primary reason that the Assamese have always looked upon Bengali Hindus as ‘outsiders’. Despite having resided in the state for decades and even generations, most Bengali Hindus cannot speak Assamese fluently. Barring a few notable exceptions, no Bengali Hindu has made any contribution worth the name in the field of art, culture and literature of Assam. In contrast, other communities, including the Marwari business community, have done a much better job of integrating themselves with the indigenous Assamese of the state. One of Assam’s foremost cultural icons--Jyoti Prasad Agarwala--was a Marwari.
Bengali Hindus in Assam have preferred to segregate themselves from the Assamese mainstream and lead cloistered lives. Even social interactions between the Assamese and Bengali-speaking Hindus are more of an exception than the rule. No Bengali Hindu takes to learning Assamese formally in school, college or university. Ironically, Bengali-speaking Muslims make it a point to study Assamese and many students in the Gauhati University’s Assamese department are Bengali Muslims.
The schism between Assamese and Bengali Hindus was created in 1960 when the then Congress government wanted to make Assamese the sole official language in the state. Bengalis, primarily those living in the Barak valley, rose in revolt. But the opposition by Bengalis was met with a brutal crackdown and anti-Bengali riots. The Bengali language movement was initially sought to be suppressed, but after the death of 11 persons in police firing in Silchar on 19 May, 1960 (observed as language martyrs’ day), Bengali was declared as the official language in the Barak valley.
But the movement and the acrimony it created led to a deep divide between the two communities, a divide that exists even today. The common complaint from Bengali Hindus is that they are discriminated against by the Assamese, while the Assamese refrain is that the Bengalis never want to identify themselves with Assam and the Assamese. Had this divide not existed and had relations between the two communities been cordial, perhaps the Assamese would not have objected to the proposal to grant citizenship to Bengali Hindus.
Hindu refugees do need a home
Having said all that, it is also imperative that Hindus fleeing religious, economic or social persecution in Bangladesh (or in any other country, for that matter) should be granted refuge in India. As Prime Minister Narendra Modi has repeatedly said, India has a moral responsibility towards Hindus who face harassment and sufferings in other countries and has to accommodate them within this country. However, it is a fact that Assam has done much more than its share in such accommodation and it should be the turn of other states to provide refuge to Hindus refugees from Bangladesh now. The proposed bill should, thus, incorporate clauses that safeguard the identity and interests of the Assamese and make way for the resettlement of Bengali Hindus who have come from Bangladesh into Assam after 24 March, 1971 (the cut-off date for detection and deportation of foreigners as per the 1985 Assam Accord) in other states of the country. That would the fair and just step for Assam and its indigenous people.
And as for those Bengali Hindus who came in before 24 March, 1971, they would do well to integrate themselves into the Assamese mainstream and identify themselves with the state. If Bengalis in West Bengal can demand that all non-Bengalis there learn Bengali and identify themselves with Bengal, there is no reason why Bengalis residing in Assam should not also learn Assamese and contribute to the rich social and cultural milieu of Assam.
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