Days before the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016 was tabled in Parliament, the Centre offered a salve to groups in Assam that are up in arms against it. A meeting chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on January 2 cleared the formation of a high-level committee to look into the implementation of Clause 6 of the Assam Accord of 1985. That clause aims to protect Assamese identity. The Centre also approved measures envisaged in the Memorandum of Settlement signed with the Bodos in 2003.

The committee will be headed by MP Bezbaruah, the retired Indian Administrative Service officer who chaired a panel back in 2014 to look into the discrimination suffered by people from the North East in other states. Others on the committee include a former advocate general of Assam, former members of the Assam Sahitya Sabha, an educationist and the editor of the Sentinel, an English daily published from Assam. A representative of the All Assam Students’ Union was also supposed to be part of the committee but the organisation has since said it was “meaningless” to be part of the exercise.

Clearly, if the move was meant to calm tempers and deflect attention from the contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, it does not seem to have worked. Less than a week after the committee was announced, the Asom Gana Parishad, an ally of the Bharatiya Janata Party government in Assam, walked out of the coalition on Monday, declaring it stood with the “sentiments of the people of Assam”.

An editorial in the Sentinel itself is pithily headlined “Mock concern for Clause 6”. “No other State of India seems to have felt the need to have a special accord in order to remind an elected government of its normal duties,” it remarks. Assamese identity and culture were under siege, it goes on to observe, partly because of “a diabolical determination of the Centre to settle as many Hindus from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan as may want to come to India and to seek Indian citizenship” through the citizenship bill.

Far from cooling tempers, the BJP’s tactics could sharpen old resentments as it tries to appease conflicting demands of identity. In Assam, where blood has been shed over these demands, it is a dangerous game.

Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuva Chatra Parishad and others protesting Modi’’s decision to grant citizenship to non-Muslim immigrants in Tinsukia in 2017. Photo credit: PTI

The accord

As it pushes forward with the citizenship bill while offering to fulfil the promises of the Assam Accord, the Centre prises open a divide that has been the driving force of Assam’s politics for decades – between Assamese nationalists who define themselves as indigenous to the state and Bengalis who are seen as settlers or, in many cases, “illegal immigrants”.

To begin with, the provisions of the bill and the accord clash with each other. The bill proposes to grant citizenship to Hindus, Christians, Jains, Buddhists, Parsis and Sikhs from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan after just six years of residence in the country, even if they cannot show the required papers. But existing provisions allow for citizenship by naturalisation to “foreigners (not illegal migrants)” only after 12 years of residence. The new bill implies that foreigners who entered the country without papers up till 2014 are eligible for citizenship.

This is a much later cut-off date than that of the Assam Accord, which states that foreigners who entered the country on or after March 25, 1971, or the beginning of the Bangladesh War, would be expelled from the country. This included people from all communities, whether Hindu or Muslim. The National Register of Citizens, currently being updated in the state for the first time since 1951, defines citizenship according to the terms of the accord. If the bill were to be enacted, it would make citizens out of thousand of Hindu Bengalis who entered the state after the 1971 cut off date.

The accord is the touchstone of the Assamese sub-nationalism, the culmination of the Assam Movement that raged from 1979 to 1985. Assamese sub-nationalism drew life from two sources. It defined itself against the “bahiragat” or “outsider”, who was to be expelled from what was defined as indigenous land meant for the “bhumiputra” or the “sons of the soil”. But it was also the assertion of a cultural, linguistic and political identity, which started with the formation of the Assam Sahitya Sabha in 1917 and eventually became a fully formed subnationalism seeking the right to self-determination for an ethnic homeland.

Clause 6

While clause five of the accord took care of what was called the “foreigners issue”, clause six addressed these other aspirations. It promises to provide “Constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards, as may be appropriate, shall be provided to protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people.”

According to the Assam government website, action taken to implement the clause so far includes allocating funds for cultural institutions and societies, the maintenance of historical monuments, and pushing for an Assamese chair at the Centre of Indian Language, Literature and Culture Studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Demands made by the All Assam Students’ Union, one of the main drivers of the Assam Movement, have been much more ambitious in the past: 100% reservation for Assamese people in the state legislative assembly, barring the seats reserved for Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe candidates, rights over land for the Assamese, and even, by some accounts, special status and autonomies of the kind given to the state of Jammu and Kashmir under Article 370.

It is not clear how ambitious the present committee is prepared to be as it tries to implement Clause 6. Let alone reserving seats in the assembly, even the state government’s efforts to create a homogenous linguistic identity have come to grief in the past. In 1960, the Assam government passed a bill making Assamese the only official language in the state. It gave rise to a violent reaction in the Barak Valley, which had seen growing Bengali linguistic assertions the decade before. Eleven people would be killed before the Assam government issued an order in 1961 saying that Bengali would remain the official language of the districts of the Barak Valley.

Already, over the past year, the faultline between the Bengali-dominated Barak Valley and the predominantly Assamese Brahmaputra Valley has surfaced again. As the joint parliamentary committee on the citizenship bill toured Assam in May 2018, it was met with protests in the Brahmaputra Valley. In the Barak Valley, there were marches in support of the bill.

In a village in Assam's Barak Valley, Sudhir Das, a migrant who arrived from Bangladesh’s Habiganj district in 2009. Photo credit: Arunabh Saikia

Who is Assamese?

Last in the Assam government’s “action taken” list for Clause 6 is a plaintive plea to various political parties, sahitya sabhas and student organisations to attend meetings to prepare a working definition of “Assamese people”. To whom should the rights and safeguards ensured by Clause 6 accrue?

According to former chief minister Prafulla Mahanta, they are meant to protect the “indigenous people of Assam”. Several organisations reportedly agree that the 1951 should be the cut-off date for defining people as indigenous to the state. Those who entered the state between 1951 and 1971 would get only get the rights of citizenship but not of indigeneity, this line of argument goes.

But indigeneity is not the preserve of those defined as ethnic Assamese in Assam. Since the 1980s, the state has seen violent contestations against Assamese sub-nationalism, especially by the Bodos, who demanded a separate state called Bodoland carved out of Assam. If the Assam Movement was wanted Assam for the Assamese, the Bodos started an agitation under the war cry of “Divide Assam 50-50”.

Just as Assamese nationalism eventually mutated into militancy, Bodo demands spawned various armed groups. While some, such as the National Democratic Front of Bodoland, fought for complete sovereignty, the Bodo Liberation Tiger Force demanded a separate state. In 2003, the latter signed an accord with the government which created the Bodoland Territorial Council, with powers over the Bodoland Territorial Area Districts. The former militants of the Bodo Liberation Tigers then formed a party called the Bodoland People’s Front and established a fiefdom in the council areas.

But not all strands of the Bodo militancy have been resolved, demands for a separate state persist and the All Bodo Students’ Union claims the tribe is still marginalised. So it is no surprise that the Centre was careful to promise that certain Bodo demands assured by the accord of 2003 would be met – a museum, a Doordarshan Kendra, a superfast railway running through council areas. The more substantive Bodo demands are ignored.

As the state prepares for fresh agitations against the citizenship bill, supported by various ethnic organisations across the North East, the old battle lines of identity are thrown into sharp relief. Can the BJP government handle the repercussions of what it could stir up once again? has been extensively reporting on the fallouts of the Citizenship Bill and the National Register of Citizens in Assam. Read our coverage here: Assam’s Citizenship tangle