Masood Zaman, a lawyer in Lower Assam’s Dhubri district, was indignant. “The funny thing is, everyone in Dhubri came out on the streets on their own, without any leadership,” he said. “Is the Asom Sahitya Sabha becoming an RSS office? Is the AIUDF sleeping? Has the Congress joined the BJP? They are all supposed to be anti-CAB.”
The Asom Sahitya Sabha is the socio-cultural body that has historically spearheaded Assamese cultural assertions. The AIUDF or All India United Democratic Front is a political party that started life in 2005, claiming to stand for the rights of Bengali-speaking Muslims in Assam. Both opposed the CAB or the Citizenship Amendment Bill, passed by Parliament this week, even though many people like Zaman think not vociferously enough.
The Bill, which has now become law, makes undocumented non-Muslim migrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh who entered India before December 31, 2014, eligible for Indian citizenship. It also eases citizenship criteria for documented migrants belonging to these groups, specifically excluding Muslims.
As news of its passage in Parliament spread on Wednesday, Zaman said, shops in Dhubri town closed spontaneously. The town is the headquarters of Lower Assam’s Muslim-majority Dhubri district. The district is also home to a large number of Koch-Rajbonghshis, a community defined as indigenous to the region.
On December 12, a day after the bill was passed in the Rajya Sabha, protestors poured into the streets, many of them students from local colleges. “They were all chanting anti-CAB slogans,” said Zaman. “The shouted ‘Jai Ai Axom’ and wore gamosas around their neck.” Both the slogan and the gamosa, or scarf, are markers of Assamese nationalism.
The marches in this Lower Assam district, he explained, were not about “Hindu or Muslim”; they were against “infiltrators”. “They were shouting ‘BJP murdabad’,” Zaman said.
Not just in Dhubri, where many Muslims identify themselves as Assamese speakers, even in Barak Valley, dominated by Bengali-speaking Muslims, a section of the youth have staged protests.
As the Citizenship Amendment Bill was passed this week, Assam erupted in protests, with casualties reported in Guwahati and stations set alight in Upper Assam. Internet has also been shut down by the authorities in most parts of the state.
Assam has seen decades of mobilisation against “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh. The state recently updated its National Register of Citizens, meant to be a list of genuine Indian citizens living in the state. The terms of citizenship were drawn from the Assam Accord, the culmination of an anti-foreigners agitation that began in 1979. It stipulated that anyone who could not prove they or their ancestors entered the country before March 24, 1971, would be deemed a foreigner liable to deportation. Over 19 lakh individuals were left out of the citizenship list.
Ethnic and linguistic faultlines have usually trumped religious divides. Assamese ethno-nationalist groups have long demanded the expulsion of all undocumented migrants, whether Hindu or Muslim. In the popular imagination, the illegal immigrant was usually a Bengali speaker from Bangladesh.
But the Bharatiya Janata Party, through the Citizenship Amendment Bill, has tried to recast this identity politics along communal lines, distinguishing between Hindu “refugees” from Bangladesh and Muslim “infiltrators”.
Himanta Biswa Sarma, Assam finance minister and the BJP’s point man in the North East, claimed the Citizenship Amendment Bill would help accommodate 5.4 lakh Bengali Hindus left out of the NRC. So far, the demographic profile of those left out of the NRC has not been made public.
Sarma also labelled almost the entire Muslim population of Assam as “infiltrators”. In a retort to the Congress’s Rahul Gandhi, he tweeted: “Rahul Ji are you aware that during @INCIndia regime indigenous communities of Assam have become minority. Infilitrated Bangladeshi Muslims in Assam constitutes 36% of population. They speak no Assamese language & influence 45 assembly seats. Is that not ALSO ethnic cleansing?”
The comment was not lost on Muslim communities in Assam. As with most other protestors in the state, it has concentrated anger on the BJP.
At the mercy of the tribunals
Parvin Sultana, who teaches in a college affiliated to the Guwahati University, said the bill had to be seen in conjunction with the Assam BJP’s repeated attempts to discredit the current NRC list, pushing for the exercise to be repeated. “From their rhetoric, it is clear that they don’t like this NRC because it has too many Muslims,” she said. “So now the idea seems to be make the Muslims go through the hardship all over again and protect the Hindus.”
Abdul Jubba, who could not make it to list, seemed resigned. “What can we do if the government wants to make Hindus citizens and us illegal migrants?” he said. Jubba said he would not endorse the bill even if it included Muslims. “I have papers to establish my ancestors were here before 1930,” he said. “I will go to the foreigner tribunal and prove that.”
The foreigners tribunals are quasi-judicial bodies tasked with ruling on matters of disputed nationality. Those left out of the NRC will have to prove their citizenship in these opaque tribunals, notorious for arbitrary orders. Many in Assam are convinced that the passage of the bill will mean an easy pass for Bengali Hindus, while Muslims will find it harder to clear their names.
According to the Intelligence Bureau, those who benefit from the bill would have to prove that they had fled religious persecution in their home countries and were therefore eligible for citizenship. But Zaman believes there will be few documentary requirements of Bengali Hindus whose cases were pending at the tribunals.
“You don’t need anything, you can just produce a petition saying you were persecuted, with a two-rupee stamp and the government will accept that,” he said.
Shajahan Ali Ahmed, an activist from Lower Assam who works on citizenship rights and who was left out of the NRC himself, is also losing hope in the tribunals. “It’s going to get tough,” he reflected. “Earlier, the machinery distinguished between Indian and foreigner, now it will only be cases against Muslims. The tribunals needed reform.”
Fighting the communal twist
Till now, there have been no serious communal conflagrations. But Muslim residents of Assam worry the BJP will queer the pitch. “Politically, there will be an attempt to take things in a different direction,” said Ahmed.
Residents of both Lower Assam and the Barak Valley spoke of inflammatory videos doing the rounds the last few days. Most appear to show Muslims being harangued or beaten up and asked to prove their allegiance to Assam. One video, in particular, is described by residents of both Lower Assam and the Barak Valley. It reportedly shows a Bihari youth being kicked after he gave a Muslim name. When he said he was from Bihar, his interlocutors reply only Biharis are from Bihar, not Muslims.
While many have taken these videos at face value, Zaman is suspicious. “The BJP’s IT cell is trying to incite violence,” he said. “We are telling people on WhatsApp groups not to forward or circulate them.”
To cut through the communal rhetoric, Muslims in Lower Assam have made common cause with the spontaneous protests that broke out in Guwahati and Upper Assam. Their demand, they say, is the same as that of the “mainstream Assamese”: all those who had arrived after 1971 should be considered illegal immigrants not eligible for citizenship, whether they be Hindu or Muslim.
But Muslims in Assam are a diverse group, and responses to the current crisis have varied from district to district and even different regions of a district.
According to popular perception, many so-called illegal immigrants had trickled into the districts of Lower Assam, close to the Bangladesh border. The region has seen waves of migration, first from eastern districts of the colonial province of Bengal, then from East Bengal and finally from Bangladesh. But ethnic and linguistic faultlines are not set in stone in this fluid border region.
“Most of the people on the streets in Dhubri town identify as ‘desi Muslims’,” explained Zaman. “Many speak in the Rajbongshi tongue, or a dialect or Assamese which has similarities to Bengali.” Others were Muslims who were part of early migrations from Mymensingh, in present-day Bangladesh, but no longer identified as Bengali. “Our basic identity is Assamese,” said Zaman.
Dhubri district lies on the Brahmaputra, where the tides have formed chars or sand bars, some of them inhabited for close to a century. Char dwellers have frequently been branded as illegal immigrants even though most say they have the papers to prove Indian citizenship according to the terms of the Assam Accord.
“For 50 years, they have tried to become part of the Assamese mainstream,” said Zaman. “Assamese became the major language because char Muslims returned their mother tongue as Assamese [in the Census].”
The Citizenship Amendment Bill, he explained, had created a “fear psychosis” among them. “They think Hindu Bengalis will be brought from Bangladesh and settled there,” said Zaman.
‘Miyas will be harassed’
Further up the Brahmaputra, Barpeta, another Muslim-majority districts of Lower Assam, is also on edge. “Assam’s finance minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma, has directly said Muslims who came from East Bengal – that is our community, the Miyas – will be harassed,” said Ahmed.
Once a pejorative word for Muslims of Bengali origin, “Miya” has been reclaimed by the community, even giving rise to a genre of poetry describing the experiences of Bengali origin Muslims and written in their native dialects. Earlier this year, it had drawn a backlash from ethnic Assamese and prompted FIRs claiming the poems promoted social enmity. But the Citizenship Amendment Bill seems to have redrawn the faultlines again.
“We are all for the Assam Accord,” said Ahmed. “We all feel that March 24, 1971, should be the basis for citizenship.”
Despite closing ranks behind the Assam Accord, Ahmed is worried. “There is a lot of fear,” he said. “Bengali Muslims have been targeted for decades. Bengali Hindus less so, but they will be targeted more now. The 1979 movement was based on suspicion of Bengalis. This bill has made them even more suspect.”
When the bill was passed, crackers had gone off in Bengali-dominated villages. It had created tensions, Ahmed said, since it suggested the village was home to undocumented Bengali Hindu migrants who would gain from the bill.
On the evening of December 12, the Barpeta Road Nagarik Samaj, a local citizens’ body consisting of people from all communities, was deep in deliberations. Finally, Ahmed said, they decided to hold a three-hour hunger strike on December 14 and a protest meeting against the Citizenship Amendment Bill on December 15.
A ‘polarised’ Barak Valley
Crackers had also gone off in the Bengali-dominated Barak Valley after the bill was passed. Some had been celebratory, others aggressive. For instance, some had targeted the house of Siddique Ahmed, a former Congress legislator who had issued a statement against the bill, said a teacher at a government college in the border district of Karimganj.
After the bill was passed, the majority of Barak’s Bengali Muslims had remained silent, stunned and saddened by the new bill. But a section of the Muslim youth had launched protests.
“Our society has become very polarised,” the teacher explained. “The Bengali Muslims who are protesting think that the refugees who came after 1947, and especially after 1971, they have changed our society. And after this bill, more will come. Most of the landed class here is Muslim, and it could lead to struggles over land.”
Muslims of Barak Valley trace their histories back to ancient and medieval kingdoms that once spread across the Cachar plains, giving rise to a version of indigeneity that competes with that of the ethnic Assamese. At Partition, most of the region’s Muslims fled across the border. Most of the Bengali migrants who crossed over after Partition were Hindus driven out by bouts of communal violence.
Linguistic identity is strong here, and both Hindus and Muslims speak Sylheti, a dialect of Bengali. Which means Muslims here are unwilling to align themselves with the protests of the Brahmaputra Valley. “We don’t accept the rabid identity politics of the Assamese,” said the teacher. “We won’t give up our language like the people of Lower Assam.”
But the linguistic ties that bound both communities together have worn thin with the polarising politics of the last few years. Given its large population of Bengali Hindu migrants, the Barak Valley was one of the BJP’s early testing grounds.
“Everyone thinks that all the Bengali Hindus left out of the NRC will now get their names in [now that the Citizenship Amendment Bill has been passed],” said the teacher. Personally, he is sceptical of these claims. “I was also involved in NRC work. Himanta Biswa Sarma said 5.4 lakh will get citizenship. I know that all of them were not refugees. Bengali Hindus were harassed, but everyone’s become a Modi bhakt, no matter how much they suffer.”
But the Citizenship Bill, he said, had driven a bitter wedge between Hindus and Muslims in the Barak Valley. “There is hurt,” he said. “We are all Bengalis but we have to follow two different laws.”
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