DATELINE Guwahati /Wasbir Hussain
Floods, under-development and the politics of citizenship are among the three things that have remained constant in Assam. That’s what I have been witnessing since I forayed into jourlism more than three decades ago. If the people in power have the imagition and political will, they can control the floods and usher in development and progress. But, I can bet, considering Assam’s demography and geography, no one can end the politics of citizenship because that is what brings in votes to some or keep away voters from others during elections.
The migration issue or the citizenship discourse in Assam got a new twist in recent weeks when the BJP Government at the Centre declared that it would grant stay rights in India to Hindu Bengali migrants who had fled Bangladesh due to ‘religious persecution.’ No one has an estimate as to the possible number of such migrants in Assam. But there are two types of responses to the Modi Government’s decision—the first is that there is no place for a policy on granting citizenship in secular India on the basis of religion and that the fate of an illegal migrant cannot be decided on religious lines. Secondly, there is a section which is simply saying that even if this decision is implemented, Assam should not take the entire burden of these migrants and that they should be distributed across the country.
Protests on this decision of the Modi Government have been feeble as the Assamese tiolist organizations appears to have been hit by fatigue over this brand of citizenship politics. I am also not surprised to find the ruling Congress in Assam on the same page as the BJP. This is because the Congress, too, wants the votes of these Bengali Hindus to make up for the loss of the votes of Muslim settlers to the AIUDF in vast tracts of western, northern and central Assam. If the Congress is with the BJP on this issue in Assam, Prime Minister Modi has nothing to worry. The AGP is trying to make some noise saying the decision goes against the spirit of the Assam Accord and so on, but the regiol party has failed to make its noise heard. I can only anticipate this—both the Congress and the BJP in Assam are going to fight to secure the votes of this category of people!
Things are slowly beginning to get clearer. I get a feeling that all variety of migrants are going to stay put in Assam. The Centre’s decision to make a distinction on religious lines in dealing with illegal migrants has forced alysts like me to talk of migrants as Muslim migrants or Hindu migrants. So, while it is going to be difficult to make Bangladesh accept or take back Muslim migrants declared as illegal infiltrators by the due Indian legal system, it could be easy for Bangladesh perhaps to push in Bengali Hindus to India. Prime Minister Modi has taken India-Bangladesh relations to new heights and he has developed an extremely good rapport with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasi. If this leads to an agreement between New Delhi and Dhaka on the issue of Bangladesh taking back Muslims who may have illegally migrated to India, it would be wonderful. I would like to wait and watch.
The problem is not cross-border human traffic or migration because this is a tural phenomenon, and not an unusual human experience. South Asia has been witness to this huge movement of humans. Since the partition of the Indian sub-continent in 1947, an estimated 40 million people have crossed borders in search for food, to escape religious persecution, in search of security to lives, or just to unite with ethnically, racially or ideologically identical people on the other side of the border. The problem is that instead of getting assimilated with the host tions or cultures, the migrants have often come to alter their (the host tions’) demographic profile, leading to security and ethnic tensions.
The case in Assam could actually be different and that increases the challenge for the government or the civil society to deal with the migrants. On one hand, the migrants may have been altering the State’s demography (if census data in certain districts are considered), but on the other majority of them have accepted Assamese as their language of choice or second language. I am amazed at the views of the Asom Sahitya Sabha on the subject. Sabha president Dr Dhrubajyoti Borah has been quoted as saying it is within the rights of a sovereign state to decide whom to grant citizenship. That is stating the obvious, but what is extraordiry is the murky politics over the citizenship issue.
Granting citizenship to Bengali Hindu refugees from Bangladesh has always been on the BJP’s agenda. Is there any reason other than the approaching Assam Assembly polls next year for the Centre to hasten the process? There seems to be another reason. The verification for updating the tiol Register of Citizens is currently underway where documents are being verified. It is said that many Bengali Hindu migrants are affected by it because they may not have the required documents. According to one view, this is one of the reasons for the urgency. The need of the hour is to look at the issue dispassiotely and treat it on the basis of laid down rules. Unless the issue of illegal migration is de-politicized, Assam can never find a solution to this burning problem.