Citizenship Amendment Bill — What is it the Assamese fear the most

Ankush Saikia
Ankush SaikiaMay 22, 2018 | 13:35

Citizenship Amendment Bill — What is it the Assamese fear the most

The opposition to the proposed Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, in Assam and the rest of the Northeast stems from the fear of being reduced to a minority in one’s own homeland.

The recent visit by a parliamentary committee to the Northeast to hear the views of people on the proposed Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, has heightened tensions in multi-ethnic Assam. The hearings in Guwahati and Silchar showed clearly that while most people in the Brahmaputra valley were against the bill, it was the opposite in the Bengali-dominated Barak valley (Assam is composed of these two valleys and the hill districts of Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao in between).


In the rest of the Northeast too, there has been strong opposition to the proposed bill from political parties, student's groups, and civil society organisations. The Meghalaya government under CM Conrad Sangma decided to oppose the bill before the arrival of the parliamentary committee in Shillong.

AGP activists, led by former Assam CM Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, at a rally in Guwahati on May 11, against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016. [Credit: PTI photo]

The Assam state BJP unit is in a spot — even its CM has failed to oppose the bill in unequivocal terms — as the Bill was introduced by the party in the Lok Sabha. The state Congress, sensing an electoral opportunity, has criticised the bill, but even here the divide shows: their Barak valley unit, while not supporting the bill officially, has said they will not oppose it either. And local TV channels are having a field day reminding people of Modi’s promise before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections to drive back all illegal immigrants to Bangladesh.

Assam is already on the edge because of the NRC or National Register of Citizens update process, which seeks to update the 1951 NRC by including the names of those people (and their descendants) who came to Assam till midnight of March 24 1971 — the start of the Bangladesh Liberation war. Even this date is viewed as highly discriminatory by several groups in Assam as the cut-off date for citizenship in the rest of India is July 19, 1948.


The updating process has been supported by the indigenous people of the state, who see it as the basis of a solution to the vexed foreigners’ issue. However, a section of people have politicised this Supreme Court mandated exercise and attempted to portray it as one carried out by regional chauvinists, whereas the truth is the 1971 cut-off makes generous allowance for Partition and post-Partition migration from erstwhile East Pakistan.

There are stories in the national media highlighting how people from a particular religion or community are being harassed — but nothing about how other communities might have faced similar problems (it is after all a massive exercise, carried out by state government employees deputed to the task), or the fact that a large number of applications have been found to include fake identity documents and/or fake legacy data (a form of family tree) from other, unrelated families.

March 24, 1971 is the cut-off date as per the Assam Accord of 1985 for detection and deportation of foreign nationals — regardless of their religion — from Assam. The proposed bill will advance this cut-off date for detecting foreigners to December 31, 2014.


The Citizenship Act, 1955, already has provisions for citizenship by naturalisation, provided the applicant has entered legally, and resided in India for 11 of the past 14 years — the proposed amendment bill seeks to reduce the period from 11 to 6 years for Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, and Christians from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan, even if they have entered illegally.

The people of Assam — which has historically had the highest migration from what is now Bangladesh — see the bill as an unconstitutional attempt to undermine the current NRC process, and grant Indian citizenship to a large number of people who would otherwise be ineligible. Behind this lies the fear of being swallowed up by a much-larger community. There are concerns that the BJP is trying to create a vote bank among Bengali Hindus just as the Congress had done with the Bengali Muslims.

At a state BJP meet in Assam’s Nalbari district last week, senior minister Himanta Biswa Sarma spoke in support of the bill, and said the people of Assam should decide whom they want as their CM: the incumbent Sarbananda Sonowal, or Badruddin Ajmal (of the AIUDF). A recent report by the former chief election commissioner HS Brahma says that “threats to security of land rights and the very identity of the indigenous people of Assam has come from the sustained immigration of Bengali Muslim peasants into mainland Assam from the neighbouring districts of pre-independent Assam/erstwhile East Pakistan and now Bangladesh”.

Immigrant Muslims were a majority in nine of Assam’s 27 districts in 2011, and slightly more than a third of the state’s total population: a figure that looks set to increase. A group of Bengali organisations from the Barak valley has now decided to oppose the bill — while keeping an eye out for the final draft of the NRC, which is due to be published on June 30, 2018.

When the Brahmaputra valley was taken over by the British in 1826, its population was about 10 lakh; this rose to 12 lakh-plus in 1853 and 15 lakh in 1872. The process of colonisation was not straightforward. The first troops under Captain Welsh reached upper Assam towards the end of the 18th century. They did not stay on though, as the province was considered too remote and insalubrious to merit occupation, wracked by internal rebellion, raids by hill tribes, and incursions by the Burmese.

The British returned a second time about two decades later, after the invading Burmese army had subdued Manipur and Assam (and carried off numerous people as slaves). What brought them back was the proximity of the Burmese army to Bengal (and the-then capital Calcutta) as well as reports that the French — with whom the British then had a running rivalry — after being expelled from India were plotting with the Burmese. The Yandaboo Treaty of 1826 followed, while the discovery of tea was largely due to the efforts of Scottish adventurers such as the Bruce brothers, and the discovery of oil came later.

People show their acknowledgment receipts after checking in their names in a draft for NRC. [Credit: PTI file photo]

The British brought in a large number of "babus" or clerks from Bengal to help them run their new province. The newcomers succeeded in making Bengali the official language in Assam, and it took about four decades for the people of the valley to get this decision overturned: something which the Assamese people remember to this day.

In the run-up to Independence, during which Assam contributed equally to the freedom struggle, it was only due to the efforts of people like Gopinath Bordoloi, the first chief minister of Assam post-1947, and Bhimbor Deuri of the Tribal League, that Assam was saved from being tagged along with East Pakistan (earlier, for a short-lived period, Assam province had been made part of Bengal Presidency).

One of the most far-reaching events in the Northeast was the arrival of a group of Shan people through the Patkai range somewhere around the 13th century. Though estimates of their number vary, it is accepted that they, through a process of intermarriage and consolidation with local communities and tribes, laid the basis for a larger Assamese society in the Brahmaputra valley, including a community of Assamese Muslims.

The Ahoms, as they came to be known, cobbled together a kingdom in the following centuries, which then came into conflict with the Mughals who by then had Bengal in their control. Several battles were fought between both sides with territory in the Brahmaputra valley being lost and regained. The decisive battles were at Saraighat and Itakhuli on the Brahmaputra towards the end of the 17th century, where the Mughal army was defeated.

The process of assimilation continued after the arrival of the British, as newcomers were integrated into the local society. But by the early 20th century, as the British sought to utilise the province’s vast open lands by encouraging the movement of Bengali Muslim settlers (who due to historical reasons practiced intensive cultivation to generate a surplus —compared to the local people who farmed only for sustenance), the influx of people went beyond any reasonable capacity for integration.

This movement of people increased with the Syed Saadullah government’s “Grow More Food” campaign during the Second World War. Later, during Partition (and especially after the 1947 Sylhet referendum) and the 1965 India–Pakistan war, and in the lead-up to the Bangladesh Liberation war, Hindu Bengalis poured into the Northeast, mainly from Sylhet province: into Assam and Meghalaya and Tripura (in this last state the local tribal populace was reduced to a minority by the newcomers). As with the earlier Muslims, there was no way of integration into the larger, pluralistic Assamese society: they stayed on as a separate community.

Hence, there has been a historical fear among the people of Assam of being swamped by outsiders in their own land. Assamese-language publications have highlighted the call from certain quarters in Bangladesh for lebensraum or living space for their teeming millions — and Assam and the rest of the Northeast is seen as the natural outlet for this. The population density of Bangladesh is estimated to be about 1,100 persons per sq km, one of the highest in the world. Population density in India went up from 325 persons per sq km to 382 in 2011, while in the same period in Assam it went up from 340 to touch almost 400.

However, this is not to say that Bengalis were only viewed with hostility. In the latter part of the 19th century, as the British set up tea plantations and oil and coal industries, a new middle class emerged in Assam, one which saw Calcutta as a seat of learning and culture, where families would send their sons to study. Rabindra sangeet and Bengali novels were popular in educated Assamese households — my paternal grandmother’s favourite novel was Shankar’s Chowringhee in the original Bengali.

I still have school friends from Shillong, and family friends in Tezpur, who are from Bengali families that had come over at some point. Both Shillong and Tezpur are just two places in the Northeast with a sizeable Bengali population. Growing up, we saw them as part of the place we lived in. Similarly, Bengali Muslims are accepted by most as part of a larger Assamese society. During the disturbances following the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992, Assam reported no communal incidents. It is this accommodation of other communities in the Northeast that is rarely highlighted nowadays. 

I met a Bengali Muslim man in his 70s some months ago in his village by the Brahmaputra river near Tezpur. He had 14 children by two wives, of whom nine survived. His father’s father, his "dada", had come from Mymensingh during the time of the British, “before Hindustan–Pakistan were created”. Bangali baishi ahise, miya kaum, he said about the days of his grandfather: more Bengali Hindus had come, less Muslims. Their higher birth rate — a result of poverty and illiteracy among the community — might explain how in absolute numbers they now rank ahead of Bengali Hindus. One of the man's sons told me neither they nor their neighbours were worried about the NRC update as they all had the requisite documents.

There are reports of how families in the border areas of Dhubri and the Barak valley, especially poor families, prefer matches from the other side of the border; as new arrivals in another country, they can be counted on to be more obedient and hard-working. Smuggling, especially of cattle, into Bangladesh from India is big business along the border, and this is linked to human trafficking as well.

In 2005, the Supreme Court while striking down the controversial IMDT Act (largely due to the efforts of present CM Sarbananda Sonowal), which was seen as actually beneficial to illegal migrants, observed that the state of Assam was facing “an act of external aggression” through unabated influx from Bangladesh.

It is increasingly being felt in Assam that the only measure that would save the land and its people are Constitutional safeguards in terms of land ownership, jobs and businesses, political representation, and an Inner Line Permit system (something which the rest of the Northeast states already have).

In fact, something along these lines are said to be under consideration in the low-key discussions between the Centre and the pro-talks group of the Ulfa. The 1985 Assam Accord had mentioned “Constitutional safeguards” to be put in place, but these never materialised. 

Assam, with its ethnic diversity, is an India in miniature: its state textbook corporation publishes school textbooks in 15 languages (including Bengali), the highest number of any state in India, and its people (like its food) are a mix of south-east Asian, tribal, and mainland Indian strains. India needs to protect this diversity from being swallowed up.

The indigenous people of the state (Assamese, tribals, Assamese Muslims, other communities), including some 50 lakh tea garden tribals or Adivasis, are estimated to number around 170 lakh, migrant Bengali Muslims around 110 lakh and Bengali Hindus around 70 lakh. Thus, the demography of the state has already been altered by migration from Bangladesh.

For all the high hopes of the deportation of foreigners mentioned in the 1985 Assam Accord, most people now realise this is not going to happen. The issue has never even been discussed formally between India and Bangladesh. Opening the gates to more people would ultimately spell doom for the people of Assam, not the least because the state already has a high population density, as well as high levels of rural and urban unemployment.

The people of India must heed the opposition in the Northeast, and specifically in Assam, to the proposed Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016: it is an opposition arising not from hatred of other communities, but out of a fear of being reduced to a powerless minority in one’s own homeland.

It is a cry for help. Will the rest of India listen though?


Last updated: July 30, 2018 | 11:56
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