Who is Assamese? A high-level committee appointed by the government to answer the question has decided “Assamese people” should mean anyone living in the state before 1951 and their descendants. The committee’s recommendations have been greet with a mixed response in the state. Some said they were pragmatic, others said it was “unconstitutional”.

The definition is significant because, should the Centre accept it, people who do not qualify as “Assamese” may not be eligible for certain rights in Assam in future.

Among other things, the committee recommends that land rights in Assam be restricted to those restricted to those defined as “Assamese”. It also suggests that 80%-100% of Assam’s seats in Parliament as well as in the state Assembly and other local bodies should be earmarked for “Assamese people”.

A committee to ensure the safe passage of a Bill?

The committee, set up in July 2019 by the Union home ministry, was tasked with implementing Clause 6 of the Assam Accord of 1985. The accord had been signed by the Centre, the government of Assam and Assamese nationalist groups including the All Assam Students’ Union. It brought to an end a six-year-long anti-immigrant movement, sparked by anxieties over fresh migration into Assam in the aftermath of the Bangladesh War of 1971.

Using the war as the cut-off, the Accord defined anyone who entered the country before the midnight of March 24, 1971 as an Indian citizen in Assam. Clause 6 of the agreement promised “constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards to protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people”. But it did not define “Assamese people”.

Previous attempts to define the term had been futile. So, one of the first responsibilities of the committee was to arrive at a definition, for which it consulted civil society groups representing a range of communities in the state.

A protest against the government's citizenship initiatives in Guwahati in December. Credit: Sajjad Hussain/AFP

The All Assam Students’ Union had three of its top leaders in the committee, which was formed at a time when the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Centre was still finalising amendments to its citizenship laws. The government wanted to grant citizenship to undocumented non-Muslim migrants – something that many in Assam saw as contrary to the provisions of the Assam Accord since it could regularise the status of thousands who entered the state after 1971. When the panel was formed, many had said it was aimed at foiling resentments and potential protests in the state.

The bill to change the law was introduced in the Parliament and passed on December 11 – the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. Assam erupted in violent protests.

The release of a ‘confidential report’

The committee had submitted its report to the state government in February as the Union home ministry, which had constituted the committee in the first place, was reportedly “hesitant” to accept it.

On August 11, the All Assam Students’ Union members of the committee released the confidential report to the media in Guwahati. The student union’s adviser, Samujjal Bhattacharya, said he was upset that the Centre had not acted on it since February, despite promising to implement whatever the committee recommended, “without altering even punctuation marks”, when it was constituted in July 2019.

The pro-talks faction of the United Liberation Front of Assam, the militant group forged by the anti-foreigners movement, also said the 1951 cut-off was acceptable. “As far as defining Assamese for the purpose of Clause 6 of the Assam Accord, 1951 is reasonable,” Anup Chetia, one of the group’s top leaders, told Scroll.in.

The Bharatiya Janata Party, however, criticised the All Assam Students’ Union for releasing what they insisted was meant to be a “confidential” report. “It is unfortunate that they made the report public,” said Vijay Kumar Gupta, vice president of the BJP’s state unit. “This is the kind of thing that destroys the social fabric of a place.”

Gupta refused to comment on the contents of the report. “It is only a report – the government will decide whether to accept it or not,” he said.

‘No need for reservations’

The Congress seemed to be a divided house. Debabrata Saikia, the party’s leader in the Assembly, said the 1951 cut-off was “quite acceptable”. “But I feel there should be some scope for revision in the future,” he said. “People should be given a chance to become Assamese if they have lived in Assam for a long period of time, but 1951 as of now seems fair.”

Sushmita Dev, Saikia’s party colleague from the Bengali-dominated Barak Valley, said it was not fair to deprive bonafide Indian citizens from contesting elections or buying land or getting jobs. “Clause 6 is about protecting the culture and heritage of Assam – I don’t think that needs reservation of seats,” said Dev. “Also, reservation is generally meant for linguistic and other minorities.”

‘Sons of the soil’

The All India United Democratic Front, a party which rose to prominence in Assam claiming to represent the interests of Bengali-speaking Muslims, also denounced the recommendations. “We are strict adherents of the Assam Accord – and the Accord clearly sets 1971 as the deadline for being a citizen of Assam,” said Champak Kalita, the party’s general secretary. “So, there is no room for any other cut-off for any other purpose. As it is, the ’51 cut-off will not stand legal scrutiny.”

The All Assam Minority Students’ Union, which is also perceived as a group that represents Bengali-speaking Muslims of the state, declined to comment on the recommendations immediately. In its deposition to the committee, the outfit had, however, advocated a 1971 cut-off as the All India United Democratic Front.

Other minority groups also did not take kindly to the panel’s recommendations. The All Assam Bengali Youth Students’ Federation, an outfit that seeks to advocate the rights of the state’s Bengali Hindus, said no “bhumiputros” (son of the sol) should be denied any rights in Assam. “As bhumiputros of Assam, all Bengali Hindus should have rights over bhumi [land] in Assam,” said Mahananda Datta Sarkar, who heads the outfit.