Over the last week, several leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, have tried to convince the people of Assam that the Citizenship Amendment Act would not undermine the rights of the state’s local communities.

In Assam, the concerns over the bill primarily revolve around fears of being swamped demographically and culturally by undocumented migrants from Bangladesh. The amended law makes undocumented non-Muslim migrants from India’s eastern neighbour eligible for Indian citizenship along with those from Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Despite the assurances from the prime minister and the chief minister, thepeople of Assam remain largely unconvinced and protests continue to rage against the Act.

On December 18, it was the turn of Assam’s parliamentary affairs minister, Chandra Mohan Patowary, to address a hostile press. In a news conference in Guwahati, he insisted that the government would take adequate steps to protect local languages, cultures and land rights of the “indigenous people”.

On the subject of land, he said: “As you know we have already adopted a new land policy that protects the land rights of the indigenous people.”

This is a false claim.

The latest policy has nothing new

Scroll.in has seen a copy of the new land policy adopted by Assam government in October. It has nothing novel in terms of securing the land rights of the so-called indigenous people of the state. In fact, for all practical purposes, it is a rehash of the previous land policy adopted in 1989.

Post-Independence, Assam has adopted a total of six land policies starting 1950. The first four of these policies, adopted in 1950, 1958, 1968 and 1972, dealt with land reform and allotment of land to landless “people who belong to the state of Assam”.

In the 1989 policy, for the first time, a reference was made to “indigenous people”. Government land, the policy stated, may be made available to landless indigenous people. In other words, the phrase “people who belong to the state of Assam” was replaced by the “indigenous people”. Notably, however, the 1989 policy did not define “indigenous”.

A tumultuous decade

The change in phraseology was largely seen as a cosmetic attempt to douse ethnic fires.

The decade leading to the 1989 land policy was marked by some of the most significant events in Assam’s contemporary political history: the anti-foreigner agitation that began in 1979 and culminated with the signing of the landmark Assam Accord in 1985. The Accord set a new definition of an Indian citizen in Assam: anyone who came to the state before March 24, 1971 and their descendants. Two decades later, the contentious National Register of Citizens would be updated in the state following the terms of the Accord.

The Accord also dwelt on matters of land. It called for the “strict” enforcement of laws that restricted “acquisition of immovable property by foreigners in Assam” and eviction of “unauthorised encroachers”.

But land continued to be a lightning rod for ethnic clashes in Assam, as local communities continued to allege that migrants were taking over their lands.

In February 2017, the Assam government set up a committee under former chief election commissioner HS Brahma for “ensuring the protection of land rights of indigenous people”. In its report, the committee recommended that farmland be reserved for “indigenous people”.

The 2019 land policy was to be formulated on the basis of the committee’s recommendations But a fundamental issue remained unaddressed: the definition of who is an “indigenous person”.

Who is indigenous?

While the 1989 land policy did not define it at all, the Brahma committee report left it open to interpretation. An indigenous Assamese person, it insisted, is someone who has lived in the state for “several generations” and belongs to an “ancient tribe/ethnic clan”, which has “originated” in Assam.

The 2019 land policy that Patowary cited as proof of the BJP government’s commitment to protect “indigenous” land rights shied away from defining it yet again. A senior official from the Assam Land and Revenue department involved in drafting the policy said it lay beyond their mandate. “The Clause 6 committee will decide it,” he said.

The official was referring to a committee that was set up by the Union home ministry in July to devise a mechanism to implement Clause 6 of the Assam Accord. However, the Assam Accord does not mention the word indigenous at all.

Assamese or indigenous?

Clause 6 of the Assam Accord, instead, promised “constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards” to “the Assamese people”. Curiously, the Accord did not define “Assamese people” either. According to members of the Clause 6 committee, an Assamese person is likely to defined as anyone who featured in the 1951 NRC.

Significantly, the Brahma committee report had rejected using 1951 as a base year to define indigenous. That definition, the committee said, was incomplete as it left room for misuse.

Old wine in new bottle

To sum up: Contrary to the BJP government’s claim, its new land policy is as vague as the one adopted in 1989 by the Congress government.

In fact, barring a few cosmetic changes here and there, the two resemble each other almost word for word. In anything, the new policy actually cuts back on the extent of land that can be allotted to landless “indigenous people” – by more than half in some cases.