The far reaching implications of the reported statement of Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal exuding huge confidence that the ” CAA is not an election issue” and that “the people will vote logically and not emotionally” cannot be missed by any discerning analyst of Assam’s complex ethnic politics, because for over half a century the ” Foreigners issue” in some way or another dominated the ethnic Assamese political views. It took the form of demand for recognition of Assamese as the official language in 1960 even when it was a composite state with Hill areas and 3 Transferred Districts of Eastern Bengal since its formation in 1873; and in 1973 as the medium of instruction of University education in the state. The movement on these issues was violent and embittered the relationship between different ethnic groups . The reorganisation of the north east Region in 1971 and grant of full statehood to the Hill areas recognized this reality.
The movement against foreign nationals which began in 1978-79 gave a new dimension to the Assamese identity politics with its suspension after signing of the 1986 Assam Accord . The Assam Accord has three redeeming clauses: first deportation of post 25 March 1971 illegal Bangladeshi migrants regardless of the circumstances which forced them to migrate or their faith; detection of such illegal migrants and deletion of their names from the Electoral rolls. The third one- clause 6 was loaded as it committed the Govt of India to what no government in history has possibly attempted, that is ” to take legal and administrative measures ,as may be appropriate to preserve and protect the ethnic, linguistic and cultural identity and heritage of the Assamese people”. Predictably Implementation of all these provisions ran into rough weather and the position is unlikely to improve; and ironically for measures taken by the Centre such as the enactment of the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 which grants citizenship to persecuted Minorities other than Muslims from Bangladesh who sought shelter in India till 31Dec 2014 and have been residing in India since then.
The Implementation of Clause 6 has been equally problematic as the Report with recommendations for its implementation made by a Centre appointed Committee headed by Justice (Retd) B.K. Sarma were not received by the Ministry of Home as per the practice but by the state government and not signed by the member Secretary of the committee – the joint Secretary of the Home Ministry. Further, Assam’s powerful Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma’s recent statement that some of the major recommendations of the committee are not in conformity with the orders of the Supreme Court such as reservation of 80% jobs for the ” Assamese” or the Constitutional scheme meaning the “basic structure” doctrine which lays down the basis of system of governance indicate that clause 6 is unlikely to be implemented.
The other contentious issue- preparation of the NRC- National Register of citizenship is in a bigger mess as the follow up action on publication of the list on 31August2019 of about 19.50 lakhs of residents of Assam in the ” Excluded ” list by the state NRC coordinator Prateek Hazela after verification of all claims to citizenship – a remarkable administrative feat by any standard has not been even initiated by issuance of ” rejection slips” to such persons. Instead, Himanta Biswa Sarma has been talking about moving to the Supreme Court for a 20% verification of all in the ” Excluded list” especially in areas bordering Bangladesh ignoring the fact that the NRC preparation was a” Supreme Court monitored” exercise. This stance only means further delay as everyone of the Excluded list has the right to know the reasons for rejection and the right of appeal before the designated Foreigners tribunal against the order of rejection, and the right to vote in the elections if her name is already in the electoral roll.
This being the reality the statements of both Sarbananda Sonowal and Himanta Biswa Sarma make sense as the Assamese voters have understood the game the political class has been playing by using the ” foreign national issue” in every election since 1980’s. It is thus natural that the average voter will go by the deeds meaning governments performance in development in making their lives better rather than on the promise of removal of” foreigners from Assam”. On this score, the performance of the Sonowal government has been well received by the people.
Thus, as of now the BJP led alliance in which Asom Gana Parishad which led the Assam movement against foreign nationals is a leading partner stands a better chance than the Congress – Left- AIUDF ( Badruddin Ajmal) front in the elections ; because the BJP led front is a platform of diverse ethnic groups who consider development more important than ” identity politics “. And the over emphasis on CAA and the NRC by the Congress will not cut much ice in 2021even among the indegenous people. The decades of stalled growth have made all groups lose faith in identity assertion by blaming ” the other” for their ills. If this happens it will be a game changer for the north east.