Centre's move to provide constitutional safeguards in Assam sets electoral narrative by reviving old debate

In a bid to set the electoral narrative in Assam before the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the Centre on Wednesday took a Cabinet decision to provide constitutional safeguards to the indigenous people in Assam by reserving constituencies for them.

The decision that comes after widespread protests against the Citizenship Amendment Bill, has sparked political discourse on the rights of the indigenous people once again after the 2016 Assembly polls, in which the saffron party had a historic win. The move is seen as an attempt to consolidate the saffron party's grandstanding as the saviour of the indigenous people in the North East.

As per the decision of the Cabinet meeting held on Wednesday, a high-level committee will be set up to recommend ways as to how to provide constitutional, administrative and legislative safeguards to the people of Assam. A report published by the NDTV quoted Home Minister Rajnath Singh as saying that the decision has been taken according to the Assam Accord signed between Government of India and the leaders of the historic Assam Agitation in 1985.

The accord envisages that appropriate constitutional legislative and and administrative safeguards shall be provided to protect, preserve and promote the cultural social and linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people. "The committee will hold discussions with all the stake holders and assess the required quantum of reservations of seats in the Assam Legislative Assembly and local bodies for Assamese people," he said.

 Centres move to provide constitutional safeguards in Assam sets electoral narrative by reviving old debate

File image of people queuing up at an NRC Seva Kendra. Reuters

Significantly, the demand to provide constitutional safeguards to indigenous tribes and other ethnic people in Assam is a demand that has dominated Assamese identity politics for more than three decades. The Centre's move in that direction is seen as the BJP's attempt to own the narrative at a time when no other party is in a position to do that. The Asom Gana Parishad that was formed after the Assam agitation by the leaders of the movement itself initially occupied the Assamese sub-nationalism space. The party fell from grace after massive scandals during its two terms in power.

Since then, gloom and melancholy has seeped into Assamese identity politics, taking advantage of which the Congress ruled the state for three consecutive terms. The BJP under the leadership of its leader Sarbananda Sonowal successfully revitalised the Assamese fervour in its favour in the 2016 Assembly elections and registered a massive victory. Sonowal has since been seen ceaselessly trying to occupy the void in Assamese identity politics by making the right noises, after he was sworn in as the chief minister of the frontier state.

His efforts reaped results soon after the successful publication of the draft NRC, which was also another demand mentioned in the Assam Accord as a measure to detect illegal migrants from Bangladesh. Even as nationwide protests erupted against the NRC for leaving a whopping 40 lakh people out of the citizenship rolls, a number of civil society organisations rallied behind Sonowal. Further, despite the massive fear that riots would break out amidst the uproar, literally no unrest surfaced marking the people's solidarity with the government.

Soon, this popularity saw a drastic slump after the Centre moved ahead with its decision to enact the controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill of 2016. The bill that proposes to provide Hindu illegal migrants from Bangladesh Indian citizenship, not only resulted in statewide violent protests but also took away all the sheen from the state government as the saviour of the indigenous people in Assam.

"Assam has suffered painfully due to illegal migrants from Bangladesh. Allowing a section of them to gain citizenship would only aggravate the problems created by the influx," said Samujjal Bhattacharya, advisor to the All-Assam Students Union (AASU).

The recent move to provide constitutional safeguards is seen as an attempt to make good the losses the party incurred due to the proposal of the bill. Soon after the Cabinet decision, the Assam BJP unveiled its campaign portraying Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the true well-wisher of the indigenous people. Lauding the Centre's move, Sonowal said in a press release, "The Cabinet's move will safeguard the future of all the tribes and ethnic groups of Assam, whether small or large by resolving a matter that hadd remained unresolved for the last 35 years due to lack of political will."

A post by the Assam BJP on its Facebook page also said that no earlier government made the attempt to provide constitutional safeguard to the indigenous people of Assam.

But it seems that much of the sheen of the BJP has already been lost after the controversy over the amendment bill, as the AASU, one of the signatories of the Assam Accord does not seem to be impressed with the move. "Anyone can understand that the move is nothing more than an election gimmick. Where was the Central government for the past four years?" asked Lurinjyoti Gogoi, general secretary, AASU.

He also said that the BJP has been harping on the assurance of providing constitutional safeguards to Assam since the 2014 Lok Sabha election, but added that nothing fruitful has ever taken place. "What can we expect the government to do before three months of Lok Sabha election? Nothing. It is just a carrot before the election," he fumed.

He also said that constitutional safeguards to the indigenous people of Assam aren't a favour, but a matter of their right.

"We were assured of it because we agreed to accept the burden of illegal migrants from Bangladesh who settled in Assam during the period starting from the year 1951 to 1971," he added. The Assam Accord allowed Bangladeshi immigrants settled in the state during the stated 20 years to avail Indian citizenship as a bargain for constitutional safeguards to the indigenous citizens. Although the BJP has been claiming that this is the first time any government at the Centre is talking of providing constitutional safeguards to indegenous people, the AASU said that it is nothing more than a lie.

"During the UPA regime, a sub-committee was formed to serve the same purpose. Many of the issues were about to be finalised after due consultation with the AASU. We have been demanding the revival of the committee by the present regime, but nothing was done," Gogoi added.

Although the Centre's move has not received a warm response from the AASU, it has kicked off a debate as to who is Assamese. Palash Sangmai, general secretary of the Jatiyotabadi Juba Chatra Parishad pointed out the legal hurdle in the path of providing constitutional safeguards to Assamese people and the government's reluctance to do so. "The legal definition of the term 'Assamese' is not decided yet. Who exactly are the people eligible for receiving constitutional safeguards needs to be clarified, as over the decades Assam has been subject to widespread migration from Bangladesh and other parts of India," he said.

During the Congress regime in Assam, Pranab Gogoi, the then Speaker of the Assam Legislative Assembly initiated a wide-ranging consultation to decide upon the vexed matter. But the process lacked continuity after the BJP took over. "If the government is truly willing to grant the indigenous people constitutional rights, why has no move in the direction of continuing the consultation been initiated by the state government in the past three years?" the AASU general secretary asked.

Aditya Khakhlari, a leader in the All-Assam Tribal Sangha, a common body of all the tribal civil society organisations demanded that only people whose ancestry can be traced back to the first-ever National Register of Citizens should be deemed as indigenous. "We will certainly raise a demand with the committee proposed by the Centre to accept only the people whose forefathers lived in Assam on or before 1951 as indigenous. They are the original inhabitants of Assam," he said.

Updated Date: Jan 04, 2019 19:22:10 IST