Even as Assam and parts of the Northeast remain embroiled in vigorous protests against the Citizenship Amendment Bill 2016, one hopeful sign is that new ideas to arrive at a balanced solution have been put forward. The fact that there has been no major outbreak of ethnic violence among dominant groups in the region also fosters optimism during an obviously tense confrontation between the Centre and the non–BJP opposition parties.
Observers point to certain special features in the present situation that differ markedly from the violent 80s and 90s in matters relating to ethnic relations, especially in Assam. People of the three Bengali-speaking districts in the Barak Valley have welcomed the Centre’s decision to allot citizenship for non-Muslim migrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan and other countries. Once more, in terms of political choice, cultural preferences and language, the clear break that exists between upper Assam districts and the Barak Valley remains as unbridgeable as ever.
On the other hand, in Guwahati and some other parts of Assam, where Assamiyas are dominant, groups of Bengalis have joined angry opposition protests against the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), apparently sacrificing their own long term political interests. Whether these gestures will successfully convince Assamiya organisations of their good faith and loyalty remains open to question.
Sections of both Hindu and Muslim Bengalis settled in Assam have been known to declare falsely Assamiya as their mother tongue during census operations. The motive is to ensure that they were not discriminated against or treated as second class citizens in the state. In the process, the natural domination of Assamiyas in their homeland politically and culturally can be sustained.
Kolkata-based observers feel that in the present situation, an earlier proposal to create a separate state conflating the three Barak Valley districts and adjacent areas could well be revived in the greater interest of preserving peace in the state and the region as a whole. The BJP is not averse by its tradition towards creating small autonomous states, provided certain basic requirements are fulfilled. The fact that some areas within the valley are already contiguous with Bengali-majority Tripura is, if anything, an added bonus.
However, most Assamiya organisations have refused to support or endorse such proposals in the past for emotional and other reasons. The present area of Assam, according to their spokesmen, is already much reduced for Assamiyas, as Meghalaya became a separate state. Arunachal Pradesh, too, is no longer ruled from Guwahati. In the process, the culture of Assamiyas has lost its earlier pre-1947 domination, its natural hinterland, in the region as a whole.
Not surprisingly, the idea of a new autonomous state found ready resonance in Cachar, Hailakandi and Karimganj districts, where most people accuse Guwahati-based authorities of neglecting their genuine demands and economic interests. The bitter legacy of the Bengali language movement of the early fifties, when 11 people were shot dead, has not been forgotten. Hardcore Assamiya organisations remain unforgiven in the region.
The other idea doing the rounds has been put forward in a letter jointly signed by 135 academics, activists and professionals from all over India to President R.N.Kovind. The signatories include Harsh Mander, Johanna Lokhande, Jayati Ghosh, Karen Gabriel, Biswaji Bora, Farah Naqvi, Dhananjay Tripathy, Anuradha Chenoy and Ayesha Kidwai, among others.
They have suggested that the recent upgrading of the citizens’ register in Assam (NRC exercise) has rendered the future of nearly 40 lakh people uncertain for their apparent failure to fulfill the required conditions that ensure Indian citizenship. This, out of a total population of 3.2 crore people. By December 31 2018, the last date for fresh applications for such people, it has been seen that only around 31 lakh people have been able to put up more documents and secure additional evidence of their citizenship.
However, even if the NRC authorities accept the claims of all these people, this would still leave around 900,000 people stateless. What is to be done with them? Bangladesh clearly cannot be expected to accept as its citizen such a large number of people. On the other hand, the Supreme Court, the apex authority supervising the upgrading exercise, insists that illegal Bangladeshis found in Assam should be deported to their land of origin.
Should they be kept in specially administered camps under armed guards in the interim prior to their eventual pushback following Indo-Bangla negotiations — an extremely unlikely possibility, Supreme Court or not! — as a tribe of unwanted people their fate not unlike that of the hapless Rohingyas of the Rakhine province of Myanmar? It could lead to an imbroglio similar to that involving Myanmar, Bangladesh and the international community, drawing India into the vortex of a massive regional ethnic crisis that would be largely of its own creation. Where would so many men, women and children be accommodated in India, who will pay for their upkeep and maintenance, the letter asks.
Unless these questions were actively considered and some concrete plans worked out to the last detail, it would be foolhardy for Indian authorities to proceed with what seems to be an obviously impractical, if not harebrained, scheme involving the fate of lakhs of people. Security and stability in a highly sensitive region would be once more jeopardised with unforeseen long term consequences.
The academics, whose letter has been published in full by a Guwahati-based website, suggest as a way out that everyone enlisted in the NRC exercise be accepted as Indians. That is the best and only way to maintain status quo without unnecessarily rocking the boat and engendering fresh ethnic tensions, distrust and mass hatred in a region where the writ of the Centre runs thin on the ground.
The signatories feel that this would be a simple yet permanent solution to what has come to be called ‘the enduring ethnic problem of Assam ‘over the years. If accepted, their proposal can bring about a decisive conclusion to what continues to be called ‘the unfinished business of an Assam settlement,’ once and for all. Political parties and common people can go about their business in peace thereafter.
Ashis Biswas is a freelance journalist. Views are personal.