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'No govt promise will work at this moment in Assam'

By UTKARSH MISHRA
Last updated on: December 20, 2019 10:40 IST
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'The BJP is taking a risk in Assam, but it may face a tough time in the coming times.'

IMAGE: Protesters gather for a concert organised by All Artists of Assam against Citizenship Amendment Act in Guwahati. Photograph: PTI Photo
 

"The fear of marginalisation in Assam is old and is no less against Bengali Hindus than the Muslims and this is what the BJP has tried to change on the ground," Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty, who recently published the authoritative book Assam: The Accord, The Discord, tells Rediff.com's Utkarsh Mishra in the first of a three part interview.

How do you see the new law coming into effect in Assam?

We are witnessing massive protests in the north east, particularly in Assam.

Within the six religious groups (whom the bill grants citizenship to) there are also Christians.

So, it's no more an argument that this is against the secular credentials of the Indian Constitution.

You can certainly call it anti-Muslim, but you cannot call it purely anti-secular, because calculatively, the Christian community has also been roped into it.

I think the Bharatiya Janata Party also thought that it will pass muster within the north east by putting in the Christian community. But what we saw was non-acceptance of not just of the Hindus by the Hindus, but of Christians by the Christians also.

So, that brings us to the crux of the problem in the north east, that the issue is not about religion. The issue is about communities, about the fear the smaller communities have against the larger communities.

Because it is directly linked to not just economic control, but also to land and political control. The identity of most communities in the region is territorial, directly linked to the land.

People there often give the example of Tripura to justify why they fear influx from across the border and also the Bill.

A lot of refugees, mostly Bengali Hindus, settled down in Tripura from East Pakistan during Partition and later due to the Bangladesh Liberation War. It was also because Bengali was also spoken in that state. So people felt that it's better to settle down in those areas.

It, however, made the local tribal population a minority in their own state.

Today they don't have any political or economic hold over their state.

Many (refugees) settled in Assam too as the Sylhet division was part of the state till Partition. At that time Shillong was the capital of Assam, so you saw a lot of Bengali people settling down there as well.

The British colonial period had typically aggravated the fear of the host communities in Assam by pitting them against the Bengali migrants, both Hindus and Muslims.

Then, during Partition, there was an attempt to put it together with Bengal and possibly make it a part of East Pakistan. People vehemently resisted it. So the fear of losing one's identity, land, language and culture continued.

What the BJP is trying to do in Assam now is to dilute that fear by injecting a communal angle, by propagating that the Muslims are to be feared more than Hindu Bengalis.

They are the ones to be feared because they will make Assam a Muslim majority state. By doing this, the party is trying to formulate a Hindu axis in Assam.

In order to do that, it has also taken on board the regional parties like the Bodo People's Front and the Asom Gana Parishad.

So those left out of this axis are the Muslim voters of Bengali origin. So whoever gets their votes, be it the Congress or AIUDF (All India United Democratic Front), can easily be termed as Muslim appeasement parties.

So it is basically a political game to win elections. But the issue is far bigger than just winning elections.

The Congress had been winning elections, but people felt that it has not been able to provide any solution to the illegal immigrant issue.

So that's the reason people voted for another national party, the BJP. They voted because the BJP, in the Brahmaputra valley at least, said we are going to give you back your 'Jati, Mati, Beti'. So people didn't vote for Hindutva.

One will have to understand this to get the point why people voted for the BJP.

They have been shown a dream. And if anything upsets the dream, it is going to be challenged. And the Citizenship Act is one of those things.

In its vision document for the state prior to the 2016 assembly polls, the BJP said it would implement the Assam Accord in letter and spirit.

So, now with the government bringing in the Citizenship Act, there are massive protests as expected because it would go against the principal clause of the Accord.

The whole thing is that people will not accept the Citizenship Act till they get something.

Union Home Minister Amit Shah said in Parliament that his government has set up a committee to look into granting Constitutional safeguards to the Assamese people.

But no promise will work at this moment because people have waited for too long. And they also know that the Congress promised a lot too, but never delivered.

The BJP is going ahead and taking a risk in Assam, but it may face a tough time in coming times. That's how I see it.

You say in the book that the local people have realised that the Modi government is not going to deport the Hindus.
In such a scenario, what kind of compromise could be acceptable to local leaders in Assam, if at all they are ready to accept the Citizenship Act?

There is a general acceptability now that deportation is not going to take place. So however much the home minister or the prime minister himself says, 'ek ek ko chun ke nikalenge', people are not foolish.

People have understood that this is also political rhetoric to win elections. This is not going to happen.

And it's not that people don't know what at the prime ministerial level is happening with Bangladesh. Prime Minister Modi has assured Bangladesh that no one will be deported.

So the people are now seeing what best can we extract from New Delhi.

So that is where the Clause 6 committee (a 'high-level' committee to look into fulfilling the promises under Clause 6 of Assam Accord) is very important.

A lot would depend on whether the government is going to give to the people land protection, government jobs, and other protections that they (the people) are seeking, mainly land protection.

But it could have pushed for implementation of the committee's recommendations before bringing the Bill. This could have avoided the chaos we are witnessing in Assam these days.

You mention that the Sarbananda Sonowal government has already started giving land rights.

Not land rights, but land pattas, papers, to some landless people.

Land is a state subject. It can proceed on that front to allay some fears on the ground, but is not doing it.

As per the spirit of the Indira-Mujib pact, Bangladesh is committed to take back refugees who entered India after 1971. Aren't they legally bound to do so then?

That is where the whole thing is. it is the technical part. How will the Government of India prove that so and so has come after 1971?

You have to show some address, some government of Bangladesh's official papers or documents issued to them. Are they there? They are not.

Instead, it's the other way around. Many have been voting in Assam. Many have also found various ways of getting different documents.

What is Bangladesh today was East Pakistan some time ago and was also East Bengal (before that) and there have been people coming to Assam since then. So there are so many categories of people, say those who came in the 1900s and after Partition also, just before the Bangladesh war, till 1971.

The problem is with the people who came after 1971.

If you look at one community, say, the Muslims, all the same it can't work in terms of deportation but can only polarise and generate a fear of the other. It's only a vote-catching machine, but it cannot solve the problem.

The people, I feel, are looking for solutions now.

The decision to update the NRC (National Register of Citizens) as per the Assam Accord was also to find a closure. All the stakeholders came together on board and said, okay, let's sort this out once and for all and get rid of it.

Because every community is now tired and exhausted of seeing batches and batches of politicians being produced due to this festering issue and misusing this raw emotion.

That is the reason various stakeholders came together to update the NRC.

But it became a judicial process later. And that led to another set of problems.

Part 2 of the interview: 'Assam is today a laboratory for both Hindu and Muslim fundamentalist forces'


Utkarsh Mishra covers national affairs for Rediff.com. He can be contacted at utkarshm@rediff.co.in.

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