Proposed change in Citizenship Bill unlikely to trigger widespread unrest in North-East

December 10 | Updated on December 10, 2019 Published on December 10, 2019

The unrest is unlikely to spread into the entire region of Guwahati as the Centre granted additional safeguards under the S ixth Schedule of the Constitution   -  RituRajKonwar

Normally, Guwahati remains relatively unaffected by Bandhs these days, including those called by the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) - the guiding force of Assamese nationalism since 1960’s. But Tuesday had been different.

As soon as the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2019 (CAB), was placed in the Parliament on December 9, protestors took to the streets and traffic got thinner. AASU and the North East Students’ Organisation (NESO) called 11-hour strike on December 10.

The Bill is yet to clear the crucial floor test in Rajya Sabha. But the number game suggests a high probability that it will sail through. Will it invite another spell of unrest in Assam and the North-East?

Debajit Sharma, the 27-year Guwahati marketing executive of a engineering products company, feels it will not. Sharma is no political novice. He has active interests in Assamese nationalist politics and doesn’t support CAB. He is resigning to fate, and for reason.

To start with, the unrest is unlikely to spread into entire region as the Centre granted additional safeguards under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution and Inner Line Permit (ILP) which is in vogue in Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland.

The permit makes it mandatory for Indian citizens to take permission to move to these States. Manipur brought a Bill to introduce ILP in 2018, but failed to get the President’s ascent. Union Home Minister, Amit Shah, now promises to extend the system to Manipur. Barring some pockets, outsiders are barred from purchasing land in Meghalaya under Sixth Schedule.

Almost all major regional parties in these States supported the Bill, including the ruling National People’s Party of Meghalaya and the National People’s Front (NPF) of Manipur. NPF allies with ruling BJP in Manipur but is in Opposition in Nagaland. The ruling party in Nagaland supported the CAB and so did the Mizo National Front of Mizoram.

This brings down the conflict zone to Tripura and Assam. Tribals became minorities in Tripura and they are apprehensive that CAB will increase Bengali (Hindu) vote share. Tripura shares border with the Bengali-dominated Cachar or Barak Valley of Assam where Hindus are rooting for the CAB. The hilly Northern part of Cachar is under Sixth Shedule. It means discontent in Tripura is unlikely to spread.

With Karbi Anglong and Bodoland also getting Sixth Schedule protection, the conflict zone is further narrowed down to the Brahmaputra valley of Assam.

Lower Assam has a substantial Bengali-speaking Muslim population. For long, they were held by the Assamese nationalist forces as ‘illegal immigrants’. The tag was finally removed in the recently-concluded National Registrar of Citizenship (NRC) updation but the rift remains.

The dominant view is that the discontent against CAB is will largely be limited to Upper Assam – the area on either side of Brahmaputra between Golaghat and Tinsukia. The prime reason for the discontent is the Hindus, mostly Bengalis, who failed to qualify in the NRC (with cut-off set on March 24, 1971) may get citizenship post therefore be eligible to vote after implementation of CAB.

Discontent limited

There is no official figure, however unconfirmed reports put the number at about five lakh. Of this, roughly one lakh was excluded from the list due to minor discrepancies and likely to qualify during trial. The net exclusion of Bengali Hindus is four lakh.

For those who believe in Assamese nationalism, their inclusion is in violation of the Assam Accord. However, BJP was quick to launch a counter narrative that held the ASSU led accord is leading to further distortion of the demography. The apprehension is exclusion of Hindu votes will tilt balance in favour of All India United Democratic Front, the dominant Muslim political force in lower Assam, in 17 Assembly constituencies.

According to heavyweight State Minister and BJP’s spin-doctor in the region, Himanta Biswa Sarma, it is time for Assam to be part of the national NRC, which is in discussion, with cut-off at 1951. In other words, BJP is steering Assam to be a pat of the pan-India nationalism. The narrative has cut ice among many Assamese.

Considering Assam’s successful history in resisting Islamic invasion, the CAB has put AASU in a sticky wicket. Accepting CAB is as good as admitting flaws in the Assam Accord (which in any case failed to bring peace in Assam). Rejecting it is as good as opposing Hindu nationalism.

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Published on December 10, 2019
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