It was a late lunch for Hiren Gohain on Saturday afternoon, barely two days after he was slapped with sedition charges for a speech that he had delivered at a rally in Guwahati to oppose the religion-based Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016. The 80-year-old Sahitya Akademi awardee and one of Assam’s most influential public intellectuals, Gohain was granted interim bail, along with Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti chief Akhil Gogoi, by the Gauhati High Court on Friday.
“I have been speaking to people the whole day today,” Gohain said, in a tired yet resolute voice.
Outside his quaint house, one can hear angry outbursts over the sedition charges, many calling it an attempt by the government to gag voices. The Assam Police, taking suo motu cognisance, had filed an FIR at the Latasil Police Station in Guwahati on 8 January against Gohain, Gogoi and journalist Manjit Mahanta under Indian Penal Code sections 121 (waging or attempting to wage war, or abetting waging of war, against government), 123 (concealing with intent to facilitate design to wage war) and 124(A) (sedition) after their speech at a ‘Jana Sabha’ (public meeting) in Guwahati.
“I have no idea why the police brought this absurd and baseless charge against us. It is a dangerous example of the widespread and un-resisted abuse of power by the ruling dispensation. The police are making a mountain out of a molehill. These charges just show to what extent the administration can go to abuse freedom of expression and suppress dissent,” Gohain said.
Assam has been restive for several months now over the contentious Bill that seeks to grant citizenship to Hindu Bangladeshis, among others, if they have lived in India for six years. Not only does it violate Article 14 of the Constitution that guarantees right to equality but also contradicts the citizenship cut-off date of 24 March, 1971, as was decided in the Assam Accord. The amendment Bill seeks to grant citizenship to Hindus of Bangladesh and others who had entered and settled in Assam by 31 December, 2014.
“Indigenous groups in Assam, who speak their own language and have different cultures, now lead a precarious existence. There is anxiety and fear that attempts to pass the Bill by force will lead to an overwhelming majority of one group, resulting in their political and cultural domination over the indigenes,” he said.
Gohain also felt the Bill is likely to “disturb” the state’s tradition of tolerance and coexistence among various faith systems. “Neither is fanaticism of one section or chauvinism of the other welcomed by people here,” said the Cambridge scholar.
So what happened at the public rally that got authorities to accuse Gohain of secessionist thinking?
“Some young leaders, in their anguish and frustration, had said how the Centre’s attitude towards Assam may compel them to raise the issue of state’s sovereignty again. I was on the platform when this comment was made. I realised that it could lead to unwelcome divisions among audience and organisers. Personally, too, secessionist approach has never been my outlook. I intervened, saying the question of sovereignty would only arise when all democratic resources are explored and exhausted. My speech is on record,” recalled Gohain.
The BJP had formed a government in the state in 2016 with the promise of implementing the Assam Accord, claiming it would preserve the indigenous people’s jati, mati and bheti (community, land and home).
“The BJP government took a 180-degree turn months after coming to power, saying they would give shelter to Hindu immigrants,” said Gohain.
Always vocal about his opinions, Gohain’s protest against the Citizenship Amendment Bill has been questioned by critics who remind people about his strong indictment of the anti-foreigner movement. But the academic strongly contended that he never shifted positions.
“I was not an opponent of the movement. That is a stupid travesty of my position. In 1982, during the Assam Movement, I had opposed atrocities committed on innocent people. At the same time, however, I had also said that perhaps there is something worth listening to in the complaints of the people. I was condemned for this even by my supporters and called a traitor,” he said.
The contentious Bill was passed in the Lok Sabha on 8 January, even as the whole of North East and Assam, especially, observed a complete shutdown in protest.
“The solution to Assam’s illegal immigrant and citizenship issue lies in easing divisions and listening to democratic opinions from all sides in a tolerant and receptive manner. Let the NRC process go on and let the Bill be dropped. Let genuine dialogues start among all communities. But this will take time,” Gohain said.
What is the Assam Accord?
Illegal infiltration has been a burning issue in Assam since Independence. A six-year-long agitation, starting 1979, was launched by the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) demanding identification and deportation of illegal migrants from the state. The movement later culminated in the signing of the Assam Accord. It is a tripartite agreement, signed on 15 August 1985, between the Centre, the state government and the AASU which had set the cut-off date of 24 March, 1971 to grant citizenship to people who had come from Bangladesh. The agitation leaders later formed the Asom Gana Parishad party that came to power in the state in the Assembly elections of 1985.
What is the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 and why are people protesting against it?
Under the Citizenship Act, 1955 a migrant can become a citizen only if she or he has resided in India during the past 12 months and 11 of the previous 14 years. The Bill relaxes this to six years for people belonging who are Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan who had entered the state by 31 December, 2014. This means it will bypass the cut-off date stated in the Assam Accord as well as the NRC. This also implies that illegal migrants who are Muslims or atheists will not be eligible for a citizenship.
People in the state are against this differential treatment to illegal migrants on the basis of their religion. It is being seen as a threat to the state’s secular ethos. The Assamese also fear the Bill will make them a minority in their own homeland.
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Updated Date: Jan 14, 2019 12:58:58 IST