By Dr Sabyasachi Mahanta
The issue of Constitutiol safeguards for the indigenous people of Assam has been one of the most crucial issues in the current political discourse of the state. It is a fact that illegal presence as well as illegal influx of Bangladeshi immigrants has been posing a serious threat to the socio-economic and political interests of the indigenous Assamese people. Although illegal immigration from Bangladesh had started as a purely economic phenomenon, over the years it has acquired larger political and most significantly commul connotations. Moreover, the question of ‘identity’ and ‘existence’ of indigenous Assamese people is also closely associated with the issue of illegal influx of Bangladeshi immigrants to the state.
An intensive debate has been going on in Assam till date on the question – who are the indigenous people of Assam? The question arose as the definition of ‘Assamese People’ is required under Clause 6 of the Assam Accord to provide constitutiol, legislative and administrative safeguards to the ‘Assamese’ people to protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social and linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people. Though the historic Assam Accord was signed way back in 1985, the issue of identity of the Assamese people has not been resolved till date. A huge controversy was triggered off in the month of March 2015, when the Assam government admitted in the Legislative Assembly that it has not yet found an acceptable definition of who is an ‘Assamese’. As the question deals with a sensitive and emotive issue, different political parties, social and indigenous groups stake out their own positions. However, the then Speaker of the Assam Assembly, after consultation with 53 different organizations, placed before the Assembly that the year 1951 be taken as the cut off period and the tiol Register of Citizens (NRC), 1951, be taken as the basis for the definition of the ‘Assamese People’ for the purpose of reservation of seats and constitutiol safeguards as required by the Assam Accord. This proposal was supported by the Bharatiya Jata Party (BJP), Asom Ga Parishad (AGP) and Bodoland Peoples’ Front (BPF) but was vehemently opposed by the Congress and All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), due to which it could not be adopted in the Assembly. The Census Report of 1951 defined indigenous people of Assam as thus, “Indigenous person of Assam means a person belonging to the State of Assam and speaking the Assamese language or any tribal dialect of Assam, or in the case of Cachar the language of the region.”
The history of indigenous people has been the history of their constant struggle for existence as a different socio-cultural entity against the cultural and other influences of the colonizers. In India too, the struggles of the indigenous and tribal peoples centre around the issues of land, forests, water, resources, culture, transport and communication, health and hygiene, nutrition, education, identity etc., directed towards their self-determition and finding a rightful place in the social, cultural, economic and political spheres of life. The thrust is also for the due recognition of the indigenous people by the Government of India which would establish their fundamental human rights and will prevent their cultural subjugation, economic exploitation and politico-social margilization. The problems of the indigenous people of Assam are also almost the same as that of other indigenous people in the rest of India. In addition, the indigenous people of Assam have been facing the serious threat of losing their socio-political hegemony (existence) because of large number of illegal presence as well as continuous illegal influx of Bangladeshi immigrants to the state. Thus, it has become the need of the hour to protect, preserve and promote the interests and rights of the indigenous people of Assam which has clearly been mentioned in Clause 6 of the Assam Accord.
The issue of illegal Bangladeshi migration to Assam has been one of the most critical issues in the contemporary socio-political discourse of the state. Although, there is a paucity of official data, it has been estimated that there could be as many as one crore Bangladeshis living in the state. However, the Union Minister of State for Home Affairs, Kiren Rijiju, recently informed the Rajya Sabha while replying a written question that “as per available inputs, there are around 20 million illegal Bangladeshi migrants staying in India.” The illegal presence of such a large number of Bangladeshi immigrants has immense socio-political as well as security implications for the region. The influx of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh has resulted in the creation of massive socio-political turmoil in the state of Assam.
The state of Assam has been witnessing an extensive increase in its population as well as a massive change in the demography. As per the Census Report, the rate of growth of the population in Assam during 1951-1961 and 1961-1971 was 34.98% and 34.95% respectively, while this rate increased significantly to 53.26% during the period 1981-1991. There is no denying the fact that the continuous illegal influx of the Bangladeshi immigrants is the primary reason for this untural rise in the growth of population in Assam. Although the rate of growth of the population of Assam between 2001 and 2011 is 16.93%, yet the Muslim population of the state has increased to 34.22% during the period, a jump of over 4%, while the Hindu population has been pegged at 61.46%. In 2001, six districts of Assam were Muslim-domited, but this number increased to nine in the year 2011. The Muslim majority districts are Barpeta, Dhubri, Karimganj, Goalpara, Darrang, Bongaigaon, Hailakandi, gaon and Morigaon. It is also significant that many of the districts in the state have shown a sharp rise in Muslim population, while the Hindu population has declined.
Thus, it is imperative to approach the issue of illegal influx of Bangladeshi immigrants to Assam in the larger context of socio-political, economic, cultural and security implications in the state as well as in the entire northeastern region. There is no denying the fact that the Assam Accord was signed to find a satisfactory solution to the problem of illegal Bangladeshi influx to Assam. Again, the Clause 6 has been incorporated in the Accord especially to provide constitutiol, legislative and administrative safeguards to protect the ‘Assamese People’ from illegal immigrants. So, the ‘Assamese People’ in Clause 6 of the Assam Accord incontrovertibly denotes the indigenous Assamese people.
In this regard, it is to be noted that the 1951 NRC should be the basis for defining the indigenous population of the state. Although the NRC should be updated to include all those who have been residing in Assam prior to March 24, 1971 as per the Assam Accord, the foreigners who came to Assam between 1951 and 1971 should not be regarded as the indigenous people of Assam.
Some of the suggestions are also enumerated below for the protection of the indigenous Assamese people —-
1. Updating of NRC and putting a stop to infiltration from Bangladesh by fencing the land boundaries and installing sensors and sophisticated gadgets in the riverine areas along the Indo-Bangladesh border. Erecting a second line of defense manned by personnel of Assam Police.
2. Award of special status to the state of Assam so that the influx of non-Assamese people cannot change the political, social, economic and cultural life of the indigenous people of the state.
3. Like Jammu and Kashmir, Parliament should not make any law without the consent of the state legislature where the state is to be affected by such legislation.
4. 100 per cent seats of the Assam Legislative Assembly, Parliament and Local Bodies should be reserved for the indigenous people of the state.
5. Prevailing Land laws to be amended so that the outsiders are barred from purchasing any land in the state.
6. Introduction of Inner Line Permit so that the flow of the outsiders to the state can be restricted.
7. Reservation of jobs in state and central government offices and undertakings for indigenous people, especially in the unskilled and semi-skilled categories.
8. Like galand, Assam also should be given the special status for exclusive control over its tural resources under Article 371A.
9. Implementation of the Assam Accord in its letter and spirit.
10. Putting in place a strong and transparent mechanism for issuing any identification (ration cards, driving licenses, EPICs, Aadhar cards, passports etc) to applicants.
11. Enforcing the uniform civil code that will prohibit polygamy.
12. Framing laws that will disincentivize people from having more than two children.
(The writer is Associate Professor & HOD, Department of Political Science, Sibsagar college, Joysagar, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, Mobile: 94350-57322)