10/12/2018 1:48 PM IST | Updated 10/12/2018 1:48 PM IST

NRC: BJP Is On A Collision Course With Assamese ‘Nationalists’ Over Citizenship Bill

A graphic novelist sketches reactions to the bill, widely seen as a way for the BJP to protect its Hindu supporters who have been left out of NRC.

Parismita Singh

It is a diatribe against foreigners who will have a right to settle in Assam as a result of the proposed Citizenship Amendment Bill of 2016. It is also a call to arms, an invocation of violence and war against outsiders, so-called illegal immigrants, and "Bangladeshis".

In the song, the 'hengdang', or sword, of the Ahoms symbolises Assam's indigenous past while the outsider, the foreigner, refers to those who have crossed the border from Bangladesh into Assam.

The Citizenship Amendment Bill of 2016, which provides the context for the song (even though the lyrics don't explicitly mention it) was first introduced in Parliament in July 2016. It attracted so much controversy that it was referred to a joint committee in August that year.

The bill makes non-Muslim illegal immigrants—Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians—from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, eligible for citizenship.

It is widely perceived as a way for the Bharatiya Janata Party to protect its Hindu supporters who have been left out of Assam's National Register of Citizens (NRC) in which millions of Assamese were asked to prove they had evidence that they or their predecessors were in Assam before 1971. Four million, or forty lakh, people were left off the citizenship register because they could not muster up the right paperwork.

In December, the committee deliberating the citizenship amendment bill is expected to submit its report on the first day of the last week of the winter session of Parliament.

If the bill is passed, those among the 40 lakh people professing Hindu, Buddhist or Sikh faith will be allowed entry into the NRC as legal migrants, while only the Muslims will remain illegal migrants and hence disqualified from citizenship.

READ: The Citizenship Test That May Render Millions In Assam Stateless

Parismita Singh

In late September, two months after the first draft of the NRC rendered 40 lakh people stateless, Amit Shah gave a speech at the Purvanchal Mahakumbh in Delhi. Shah's speeches often conflate those left off the NRC's rolls with ghuspetiyas, or illegal infiltrators. These speeches sometimes cause discomfort to sections of the BJP in Assam, who have to now account for their own supporters being left out of the draft NRC.

These days, it is hard to tell apart an angry hip-hop song from a speech by the president of the country's ruling party

Season of hate

These days, it is hard to tell apart an angry hip-hop song from a speech by the president of the country's ruling party. Perhaps both are a measure of the seasons of hate and political uncertainty that have settled upon us. But Amit Shah and Minimi's song, united in their discomfort for the Bangladeshi, the illegal immigrant or the ghuspetiya, are on a collision course in Assam with regard to the Citizenship Amendment Bill 2016.

The bill has polarized Assam along the lines of region (Barak/Brahmaputra valley), language (Bengali/Assamese) , religion ( Hindu/Muslim) and what it means for the identity of the Asomiya jati.

It has become a site for the revisiting of old divides under new conditions, particularly the long-running tensions between the Assamese and Bengali (Hindu) communities. The Bill is routinely described as the 'jatidhongshi' bill, the destroyer of jati or identity, in Assamese newspapers.

However, it has a different connotation for people of Hindu Bengali ethnicity who have often had to flee Bangladesh and settle in Assam. This polarization has caused commentators and citizens to fear a return to the divisive hate and violence of the past decades.

On November 1 this year, a village in Tinsukia district became the site of a grisly killing that shook the state.

Parismita Singh
Parismita Singh

It is unlikely that anyone will take responsibility for the Tinsukia killings, or reveal a motive. Was it the deep state? One of many insurgent groups still operating in the region? The ULFA (I) that remains active, and has emerged into prominence with its opposition to the Citizenship Amendment bill?

The caste allegiance (Namasudra) of the targeted victims is also connected to historical legacies of dispossession. The Namasudra are a Dalit/SC Hindu community whose roots go back to East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. They are also a prominent force in the coming elections in West Bengal. If the Bill were to pass, people from this community will find it easier to access relief as refugees who may have crossed over after independence or not had the documents to prove that they came in before 1971. They support the Bill.

READ: A Season of Appeals And Objections In Assam

Real dangers

Those who oppose the Citizenship Amendment Bill in Assam do so for various reasons.

Santanu Borthakur, a lawyer with the Guwahati High Court, is one of the members of the Forum Against Citizenship Act Amendment Bill ( FACAAB). Borthakur explains his position by patiently taking me through a history of migration into Assam, the particular circumstances of Assamese nationalism and the fears and apprehensions of a people who have already absorbed waves and waves of migration from the colonial period to the creation of Bangladesh in 1971, and the period after.

The provisions of this bill have always been contentious: one, it discriminates between a legal migrant and an illegal migrant on the basis of religion, giving this right to people from Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh and Jain religions while excluding Muslims. This constitutional amendment , many feel, will pave the way for a Hindu Rashtra or homeland for the Hindus, inserting Hindutva into the Constitution itself.

What citizens ask for is to be heard, to be counted and their claims be taken into account. But many of these voices of reason will get drowned if the bill is pushed through in haste with the elections of 2019 in mind, or to push Hindutva.

Two, it will nullify the NRC and provisions of the Assam Accord which spelt out a roadmap for detection and deportation of illegal immigrants using 1971 as a cut-off line. This is seen as a contract between the Government of India and Assam, and the Citizenship Amendment Bill threatens to undo this. This Bill is widely perceived in the Brahmaputra Valley as a danger to Assamese identity, as a border state with a history of migration. The Barak Valley, however, has been as vocal in their support of the bill.

In the face of problems such as climate change, erosion by the Brahmaputra, years of counter-insurgency, lack of employment, perceived corruption and economic stagnation, the Citizenship Amendment Bill in Assam is becoming a focal point for people to express their disenchantment with the system. As is evident from Minimi's song Bangladeshi, it is as much a protest against the times when 'the leaders are fat, and the people naked' as a hate song against the illegal migrant.

What citizens ask for is to be heard, to be counted and their claims be taken into account. But many of these voices of reason will get drowned if the bill is pushed through in haste with the elections of 2019 in mind, or to push Hindutva.

We will then be left to deal with the more impressionable, as well as extremist, forces taking control of the narrative. The bholuka baanh controversy is a small instance of this.

Bholuka baanh

Parismita Singh

The bholuka baanh (bholuka bamboo) phenomenon began with a video of clashes in the aftermath of the November killings in Tinsukia. A bamboo variety , the bholuka baanh ( or bamboosa balcooa) whose shoots are otherwise used for the preparation of poka khorisa (fermented bamboos shoot) and the mature bamboo for building houses, overnight became a symbol of Assamese resistance.

Already, bandhs called by various parties for or against the Citizenship Amendment Bill had been deemed illegal by the BJP government citing a 2013 Guwahati high court order that declared bandhs "unconstitutional". But in this case, a clash ensued when a group of youth trying to enforce the bandh in Tinsukia were chased away by others wielding bamboos and hitting them. Since the bandh was called by predominantly Bengali groups, local TV channels played this footage on loop, sensationalising it with close-ups and biased commentators claiming the footage showed "Bengali bullying'' and Assamese "resistance". The videos with voice-overs egging on the bamboo-wielders spread over WhatsApp and social media.

This was followed by memes with messages along the lines of:

Asse Hengdang, lua nai

Bholuka Baanhe loi ei rakhya korim...

(We have the hengdang, we aren't using it.

The Bholuka bamboo is enough to protect Assam...)

READ: Govt Clueless About How Many Illegal Immigrants Actually Live in India, RTI Shows

Against the 'invader'

The other development, intriguing in its timing, is of the growing popularity of the insurgent group ULFA in the wake of the controversies surrounding the Citizenship Amendment Bill. Both factions of the group—pro-peace talks and underground—oppose the Bill.

Parismita Singh

Pankaj Dutta, the young man in the video, references the Ahom resistance against the Mughal invasions in the medieval period, a metaphor much celebrated in the recent past. In the election campaign in 2016, for instance, Himanta Biswa Sarma of the BJP had mocked the Congress for their inability to end illegal immigration and billed the elections as the last battle of Saraighat fought between the BJP coalition safeguarding Assamese interests and the Congress and Badruddin Ajmal's AIUDF representing the Mughal invaders.

But now, those like Dutta shift it back to Bharat/India as the invader.

While there is no evidence of large-scale support for the rebels, it has been a while since a young man from the jungle has called out and people in Assam have stopped to listen when he says 'Freedom is not free...'