In the week ending February 20, 2021, statements made in Assam by two leading public figures of Assam- Justice Ranjan Gogoi, Former Chief Justice of India and now a nominated Member of the Rajya Sabha and Himanta Biswa Sarma, a senior Minister of Assam and the official face of the BJP not only in Assam but also for the NE on these two long-standing contentious issues have changed the entire political discourse and shaken the parties opposed the BJP. Justice (Retd) Gogoi has bluntly told the public that the issue of ” illegal migration” has been politicised and it is being used only as a vote catching slogan for over 3 decades by parties seeking either to protect or to remove the illegal migrants. Implicit in this is a prescient view which cannot be denied by any political party including Assam Gana Parishad which came to power after the signing of the 1985 Assam Accord with the avowed object of removal of all ” illegal Bangladeshi migrants ” but achieved little, that political parties have vested interest in keeping the ” foreign nationals” issue alive.
This is seen in the on going election campaign too, as two regional parties have emerged- Asom Jatio Party and Asom Raijor Dal meaning roughly Assam National and People’s Parties respectively have been formed with the stated object of preserving and advancing the interest of the ” Khilonjia” meaning “indigenous” people. Obviously in their election agenda removal of ” illegal Bangladeshi migrants” and Implementation of the Assam Accord and especially clause 6 of the same form an important part. Quite naturally electoral adjustments are being worked out by these parties to effectively challenge both the BJP and Congress led coalitions as they consider both acting against the interest of the” indigenous “people; and especially on the issues of (a) “detection and deportation” of illegal Bangladeshis, ” deletion” of their names from the voters list ,and( b) Implementation of Clause 6 of the1985 Assam Accord Incorporated with the object of protecting, preserving and promoting ” the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people”. And the responsibility of taking ” legal and administrative measures as may be appropriate” to achieve these objects rests with the Central Govt as per the Accord for which the Ministry of Home Affairs was made the nodal agency.
The implementation of Clause 6 of the Accord ran into rough weather from the very beginning as the Assam Assembly could not work out an agreed definition of who constitutes the “Assamese”: This is not surprising given the fact since its very inception in 1873 when Assam was carved out of the Bengal Presidency as a Chief Commissioner’s Province it was a composite province comprising what the colonial records defined as” Assam Proper” comprising 4 Districts- Kamrup, Nowgong, Darrang and Sibsagar, 3 ” transferred” Districts of Bengal- Sylhet, Cachar and Goalpara and the “Hill and Frontier Areas” which now constitute the states of Meghalaya, Nagaland, Arunachal and Mizoram while two Hill areas – Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao are still with Assam. Even after Partition and its transfer a part of Sylhet – Karimganj and two other Bengal Districts are still in Assam- a fact regrettably is either unknown or ignored by the Delhi based media as if determined to make out a case that Assam is inhabited by the ethnic Assamese and other ” indigenous Tribes’ and the ethnic Bengalis are migrants from Bengal at some point of time. In fact about one third of 33 Districts of Assam today are parts of the 3 Bengal Districts which were “transferred” to make Assam viable as revenues of Assam Proper and the Hill areas were not adequate to meet the cost of administration of the new province. It might come as a surprise to many familiar only with Assam’s troubled post 1947 narrative as presented by ” instant history” that as per 1901 census Bengali was spoken by 48% and Assamese by 22% of Assam’s population of 6841778 and the rest being Hindi (351908 ),Bodo,Dimacha or Mech (237982) and others including those spoken by Hill Tribes, Oriya and Adivasi Tea Labor Community (954378).(Ref Page 49 Gazetteer of Bengal and North East India – B.C. Allen, EA .Gait et al- Reprinted by Mittal Publication New Delhi 1992).
This explains why 28.8% and 48% of Assam’s population of 3.09 crores returned their mother tongue as Bengali and Assamese respectively in the last 2011 census. We must note the huge migration of Adivasis of Central and Eastern India to Assam to work in Tea plantations who constitute now ” the Tea Labor Community” or Tea-Tribes’and other migrants from East Bengal and northern India as Assam was opened up and made a part of the ” extractive” colonial economy founded on Tea, jute, mining and such other labor intensive activities. This history is essential to understand how complex is the task of defining the term Assamese meaning not just an ethono lingual group but all the citizens of what has always been a ” composite” state inhabited by many distinct ethnic groups particularly in the context of Clause 6 of the 1985 Accord.
In this background the Centre appointed for the first time a Committee headed by Justice Retd Biplab Sarma in 2019 to suggest measures to implement the clause 6 of the Accord which submitted its report in February 2020 to the state government and not to the centre which is the usual practice. And the fact that the member Secretary of the Committee- the joint Secretary , Ministry of Home did not reportedly sign the report added to the confusion. The recent regional media report suggest that the government of Assam had been advised by the Centre to get the report examined by a committee of legal and constitutional experts as the first step to implement the same.
In this situation the reported statement of Himanta Biswa Sarma made on the 17th Feb at Gauhati that Clause 6 could not be implemented as its provisions were” far from legal reality” must have come as a rude shock to all parties committed to Implementation of Clause 6 and especially Congress because the Accord was signed when Rajiv Gandhi was the Prime Minister. Sarma’s main point is that a number of recommendations made by the Committee ” contradict many judgements and pronouncements of the Supreme Court and constitutional provisions” and the Govt therefore cannot implement the same . He mentioned the Committee’s recommendation for 80% and even 100% reservations in Govt jobs and in the legislature for the ” indegenous” people far in excess of stipulations laid by the Apex Court or under the Constitution. The issue is why did it take almost a year to appreciate when it was all too apparent even to a layman when the contents of the Report were put in the public domain.
Is Hemanta Biswa Sarma now voicing the perception of the Centre on Clause 6 of the Accord contrary to the commitment made earlier by the Centre that once received, the recommendations of the Committee would be implemented in ‘ to to’ is the question before Assam election now.
Himanta Biswa Sarma’s other comments made on the same platform about implementation of the Citizenship Amendment Act was equally significant. He assured as if he was arguing a case for the Centre that” the centre will implement it in such a way as to ” strike a balance between the Hindu immigrants who are seeking citizenship and indigenous Assamese interests”. Clearly in Biswa Sarma’s scheme of things ” Immigrant Muslims” – Miyas in his preferred way of defining the long time East Bengal origin settlers of Assam have little space. This might as well mean that the NRC exercise which put about 19. 20 lakhs of people in the” Excluded ” group on Aug 31 of 2019 and hundreds who are put in the Detention camps- in jails really will remain in the back burner; because the NRC authority of the state has not been able to issue till date any ” rejection slip” to anybody whose name figured in the ” Excluded list”. Such a person is indeed in a state of limbo as he is unable to exercise his right of appeal before the Foreigner’s Tribunal within the stipulated period which is possible only when the grounds for rejection of his/her claim to be a citizen are made known formally. It has thus become a Human rights issue already and attracted international notice.
How will these developments influence the ensuing Assam Assembly election results? It’s not certainly going to enhance BJP’s support base among the hard core Assamese though it might give some solace to Bengali Hindus and even the Muslims of East Bengal origin. The other equally sensitive and long pending issue- grant of Scheduled Tribe status to Six groups of Assam presently in the OBC category will add to the complexity of the situation as it has predictably ran into rough weather and unlikely to be notified before the election.
There is even a further complexity because of the diverse composition of the Hindu population of Assam. It is not very well known that the ethnic Assamese Hindus compromise only about half of Assam’s Hindu population estimated at about only 61% of the population as per 2011 census. This means that to corner Hindu votes BJP will have to support the cause of not only Assamese Hindus but also other Hindus such as Bengalis, Nepali and assorted Hindi speaking people as well.
This is a Hobson’s choice for the BJP meaning ‘ a no choice’ situation really before the election even when it means backtracking of some issues close to hard core Assamese. Congress and the newly formed parties will also be facing the same constraints but in different ways. The issues before the electorate are thus wide open as never before.