BJP’s Citizenship Fiasco and Identity Politics of Assam

Can a secular nation grant citizenship base on religion? The government of India’s move to pass the recent Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2016 raises some questions over its transparency and foresightedness in its citizenship policy.

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BJP’s Citizenship Fiasco and Identity Politics of Assam
Peoples standing in Row on Polling Booth.
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Assam has always been a suitable ground for identity politics since the show up of an unprecedented rise of voters in Mangaldoi constituency, detected during a by-election owing to the death of Lok Sabha Member, Hiralal Patowary in 1979. This unprecedented rise of voters, particularly Bengali Muslims as was perceived popularly at that point in time gave birth to a fear psychosis among people of the state in terms of perceived threat to indigenous peoples’ culture, language, literature, custom, and tradition. Moreover, there was a fear of demographic transformation in terms of a number of indigenous people. Needless to say that this demographic permutation and combination gave rise to a fear of political dominance of the Bangladeshi infiltrators in impending future if it would continue to grow at the same rate. These combined had led to agitation in the form of Assam Movement. In fact, the 1991 census reveals that there was a growth of 77.33% of Muslim population in the state.

The Assam movement was so powerful that it brought into the helm of the regime a new set of politicians, mostly young agitators who led the five-year-long agitation . However, the larger implication of the movement is not only confined to a mere change in political regime but also a reawakening of the identity of the Assamese community .

This question of identity has awakened and reawakened us as a community time and again and has been a dominant pattern of our collective life; shaping and reshaping our collective conscience. Nonetheless, post 1979, the question of indigenous Assamese identity has almost invariably been a part of election gimmick. In fact, this catchy slogan of the identity of indigenous people so resonates among the inhabitants that the party effectively communicating its agenda of protecting the ethnic identity would eventually find itself on the winning side. It is visible from the gradual downfall of the Assam Gana Parishad (AGP) Party post 2001; because of losing of its earlier fervour of identity question for which it was voted with sheer majority immediately after Assam Movement leading to formation of Government from 1985-1990 and then once again from 1996-2001, post which Indian National congress, filling the vacuum left by a receding AGP, became a new champion of protector of indigenous identity. Similarly, this 2016 Election in Assam was no less fervent vis a vis the question of identity; in fact, refashioned in a catchy slogan of “jati ,mati ,veti,” the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept the polls for the first time in the political history of the state. This makes it incumbent upon the party to protect the identity of indigenous people at any cost and respect the mandate for which it was voted to power.

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But recent trends in the party and the Central Government activities show a scanty regard to the verdict of the people of the state. The recent Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2016, which was proposed by the Central Government seeks to confer citizenship rights to the Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, who have fled their own country, migrated to India and have resided in India for a minimum period of six years. This means, a Bangladeshi Hindu can illegally migrate to India, stay in a nearby state, stay for a minimum period of six years and claim citizenship of India. Is this not a farce? While we are struggling hard to transform our own demographic burden into a demographic dividend, such a move would just add to our own problem.

While there are larger implications of the bill if it is passed by the Parliament, Assam would be its worst victim. Because, the Bangladeshi Hindu immigrants who have infiltrated alongside the Bangladeshi Bengali speaking Muslims, would never like to move back to their own country. In fact, they would stay back, usurp our jobs legally and claim citizenship rightfully. This would virtually render our life-long struggle for the protection of identity futile. While Hindus or Muslims, Christians or Parsis, Sikhs or Jains, Bangladeshis are Bangladeshis. They are different from us in every aspect of life-pattern. They cannot jigsaw fit in the larger strand of Assamese culture just because of religious affinity. They are an equal bearer of the same culture as the Bangladeshi Muslims are, which we seek to deport. This necessarily means that they pose an equal threat to our culture, language, literature, custom and tradition, for protection of which we are fighting for long.

This has engendered a renewed fear in the minds of the indigenous people of the state in the sense that while we have been fighting to deport the illegal immigrants, the Central Government is making a move to legalise them. The BJP in the state should realise sooner than later that the people of the state can no more bear the burden of Bangladeshi immigrants – be it Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian. The Sarbananda Sonowal government should show solidarity with the people of the state and communicate the concern with the centre. After all, the party has come to power promising protection of rights of indigenous people. Sonowal should make a tooth and nail effort to circumvent the passage of the bill. If the state BJP fails to do so, it would lose its political capital in the state.

It is not only a political but also a moral duty of the state BJP that it keeps its poll promises and ensure that the utmost concern of the state is not tinkered with. More so because Sarbananda Sonowal himself has been a crusade against illegal infiltration, a person who fought against the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) (IMDT) Act, 1983 eventually leading to its annulment by the Supreme Court in 2005. Under such circumstances, the indigenous people has a great expectation from the state government. If the state BJP cannot prove its mettle, its fate is bound to be like AGP and Congress.