On 7 September 2015, the union home ministry issued two orders that made changes to provisions in the Foreigners Order 1948 and the Passport (Entry into India) Rules 1950. These changes allowed non-Muslim migrants from Bangladesh and from Pakistan who had entered India before 31 December 2014 to stay back in the country. While this was being officially carried out, in the political domain, the ruling party gave the assurance that Hindu Bengali settlers would eventually be eligible for citizenship, and that a bill to the effect would soon be brought before the parliament. Until the emergence of the BJP in the state’s politics, the question about what constitutes a foreigner in Assam had only a linguistic distinction. Assamese nationalism had always rallied around linguistic identity with no room for religion to sneak in. But the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government introduced a religious angle to the issue.
Today, Western Assam, where a sizeable Bengali-speaking population of the state lives, will vote in the second and final phase to elect Assam’s sixteenth assembly. Even as the Congress party refused any pre-election alliance, the BJP successfully tied up with the local Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and others in its first serious bid to win the state. But this electoral alliance between an optimistic BJP and an off-colour AGP has raised many eyebrows in the political sphere in Assam. At the grass roots level, there is simmering dissention in both the parties against the collusion arrived at by the top leadership of each. The reason given centres on the question of citizenship status for the Bengali Hindu migrants from Bangladesh after the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War. By shifting the focus from the Assamese middle class and onto the that of national identity, the parties hope to change the debate that has gripped the state for years.
On 15 August 1985, the six-year-long violent Assam Agitation, or anti-foreigners movement, spearheaded by the All Assam Students’ Union calling for the government to identify and expel illegal immigrants ended in the inking of the Assam Accord. According to the accord any immigrant who had come to Assam after 25 March 1971 would be considered a foreigner, and would be deported. Born out of the AASU and the Gana Sangram Parishad, who had led the agitation as an assertion of the “Assamese little nationalism” (a term first coined by the scholar Amalendu Guha in a debate on the nationality question in Assam in the pages of EPW in 1980), the AGP was in power for two terms during 1986-1991 and 1996-2001. But much to the chagrin of the Assamese chauvinists, it “failed to expel the Bengali foreigners” to a satisfactory extent.
The real rancour lies in the actual number of such “foreigners.” Neither the state nor the central government has any credible data for how many “infiltrators” from Bangladesh live in Assam. The easiest way of detection was language. As a result, all Bengali settlers in Assam—Hindu and Muslim—have become “suspected Bangladeshi” even in the eyes of law, not to speak of popular perception.
The induction of religion into the already volatile topic of illegal immigrants by the BJP was vehemently opposed by the Assamese nationalistic formations. To nationalistic Assamese, all Bengali migrants in the post-1971 stream, regardless of religious affiliation, are foreigners. But the BJP, backed by the RSS tactical line that India is the natural refuge for the persecuted Hindus from all over the world, had to toe the communal binary even if inconsistent with the secular constitution and citizenship provisions. With the process of preparation of the National Register of Citizens under the direct supervision of the Supreme Court still a long way from completion, the home ministry has no way of determining just how many Bengali Hindu migrants would be covered under the proposed communal citizenship award. But, interestingly enough, the 7 September notifications have significantly lessened the dimension of statelessness as only the Muslim immigrants in the post-1971 phase would now be required to be deported.