The issue of citizenship has been at the center of politics in Assam from the last four decades. Very recently, there have been at least five petitions in the Supreme Court asking to change the deadline of citizenship from 25th march 1971 to 1951. The underlying danger is that the process may not only change the citizenship deadline but also grant citizenship to Hindu Bangladeshis. In a State where questions such as ‘who is a citizen’ and ‘who is not’ are the most important ones, such a change will only fan the fires of linguistic polarization into an inextinguishable inferno.
The divisional bench of the Supreme Court has thrown out three petitions and sent two to a constitutional bench to judge. One of them is by Asom Sanmilito Mahasangha and other one is by the Joint Action Committee for Rights of Bengali Refugees. Only a couple of months ago, another organization that claims to be the protector of rights of Bengali refugees in India attacked the local office of AASU in Silapathar and mishandled pictures of many Assamese national leaders. Later on, a leader of the organization, Subodh Biswas, was arrested in Kolkata. A similarly lesser known organization mainly based in the Barak Valley , the Asom Sanmilito Mahasangha takes the same hard line in their petitions and relates the infiltration issue of Assam to international Islamophobia.
Loopholes and the Law
Both the petitions have two basic arguments in favor of bringing back the citizenship deadline to 1951: the first one is that Article 6 (A) in the Citizenship Act 1955 is unconstitutional as it had been added after the Assam Accord in 1985. They have put forward a ‘conspiracy theory’ wherein Bangladesh is building an Islamic state by sending Muslims to Assam. But the same petitions are silent about the huge number of people from other religions who came to Assam both before 1971 and after. Secondly, the petitions argued that the Immigrants (Expulsion from Assam) Act, 1950 should be implemented again. Since the IMDT itself was struck down by the Supreme Court of India in 2005 in the Sarbananda Sonowal Vs Union of India case, it is suspicious as to why the petitions again argues to reemploy the IMDT. This 1950 act says that the Indian State can take necessary action on anyone who entered Assam after 1st march 1950 and created any cultural, linguistic or any other kind of threat to the indigenous people of Assam. The catch though is that the act also says that if any person comes to India due to ‘civil disturbances’ in East Pakistan, the act will exempt him/her. ‘Provided that nothing in this Section shall apply to any person who on account of civil disturbances or the fear of such disturbances in any area now forming part of Pakistan has been displaced from or has left his place of residence in such an area and who has been subsequently residing in Assam’. The Asom Sanmilito Mahasangha argues about this very provision in page 5 of their petition.
It is significant to note that the proposed amendment in the Citizenship Act by the Central Government also talks about giving citizenship to religious minorities of neighboring countries of India. The only difference is that the drafted amendment in the Citizenship Act in 2016 talks clearly about religious minorities whereas the 1950s The Immigrants (Expulsion From Assam) Act talks about ‘civil disturbances’. Both serve the same purpose. The proposed citizenship amendment has already created a lot of hue and cry in Assam as this may make the Assamese speaking people of Assam a linguistic minority in Assam itself.
Assam Accord, an Accord by Political Consensus
In other terms, when the whole of Assam was celebrating the rollback of IMDT, some forces silently started the legal process to coin political space for Bangladeshi infiltrators who are by religion Hindu. The people of Assam have already expressed huge anguish over the proposed Citizenship Amendment Act. So, politically, it is difficult for the BJP to pass it in Parliament. The mainstream Assamese support base of the ruling party may be jeopardized by this move. Maybe that’s why alternative ways have been made through the legal process to serve the same purpose.
What also needs to be understood is that the special relaxation provision in the 1950s act had been made at a particular turbulent time in history. Now the situation is totally different. In 1971, Bangladesh was born as a sovereign secular nation. Before 1971, there was no country named Bangladesh, it follows that there were no Bangladeshis at that point as well. The above mentioned section of the 1950s act clearly mentions about ‘any area now forming part of Pakistan’. Now, it depends on the honorable court about how this complexity is interpreted. The fact remains that 1971 was accepted as a deadline by all political parties and communities in Assam after the Assam Accord.
Linguistic Wars May Rise Again
It is clear is that if the 1050s Act is implemented again and the deadline of citizenship in Assam is brought back to 1950; there is a very high probability that Bangladeshi infiltrators who are a religious majority in India will acquire citizenship with legal safeguards. It is also clear that such a result will lead to more conflict in Assam, particularly on linguistic lines. The data shows that there is hardly any significant demographic change between 1950 and 1971. The prominent change in terms of religious proportion between two major religious and linguistic groups is after 1971. That’s why taking 1971 as the cut-off year is the most logical solution to the citizenship issue of Assam. On the other hand, the more significant demographic change in Assam is not in terms of religion but is in terms of language.
Population Percentage of two major Linguistic Communities
Source: Various census years
Population by Percentage of Major Religious Communities
Written by- Angshuman Sarma