Local organizations in India’s northeastern state of Assam have petitioned the Supreme Court for a change in the cut-off year for determining the citizenship of residents in the state, which is different from the rest of India.
While it is 1950 for the entire country, for Assam the cut-off year for determining citizenship has been 1971, since the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985 between the All-Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and the Indian government. This agreement ended a historic six-year movement, which demanded the identification and deportation of foreign nationals from the border state.
It was in 2012 that a confederation of Assamese organizations called the Assam Sanmilita Mahasangha submitted a writ petition to the apex court asking for the repeal of Section 6-A of the Citizenship Act 1955 as it is “discriminatory” and applies only to Assam and not to any another Indian state or union territory. This section, which fixed 1971 as the cut-off year for citizenship, was inserted into the citizenship law of the country after the Assam Accord was signed.
The preliminary hearing on the case has begun and is being heard by a five-member constitutional bench of the apex court. The next hearing is scheduled for December 13 after which the dates for the final hearing are expected to be finalized.
The argument of the 300-page petition is focused upon three aspects – how a separate law in Assam for determining citizenship is discriminatory in nature, the consequences of the law and how it has violated several articles of India’s constitution.
The petition stated that a different cut-off year was enacted for Assam only to give effect to the Indira-Mujib Agreement of 1972 (after the 1971 Bangladesh War of Liberation), without taking into consideration the consequences for the people of the state. The result has been a “demographic invasion” by foreign nationals and especially by citizens from erstwhile East Pakistan and Bangladesh.
The changes in the demographic pattern in Assam have emerged as a “serious threat to the very identity of the Assamese people,” the petition says, pointing out that “indigenous communities are losing control of their land while illegal Bangladeshi immigrants have embarked on a large-scale land grab policy. This has also given rise to ethnic problems as was recently faced by the Bodos.”
While pinning the blame on the government for encouraging illegal immigration, the petition cited population data to bolster its argument. “It is stated that the demographic invasion continues unabated even today, encouraged by governments, for various reasons. It is recorded that between 1905 and 1921, the immigrant population from East Bengal increased four times over. Assam has had the highest rate of population growth in India since the beginning of this century. Between 1961 and 1971, the proportion of Assamese declined for the first time and that of illegal migrants increased; between 1971 and 1981, 1.2 million migrants were added to a population of 14.6 million in 1971, and the number of registered voters increased inexplicably from 6.5 million in 1972 to 8.7 million in 1979,” the petition says.
Over the past two hundred years, people belonging to different communities and hailing from far-off regions had immigrated and settled in Assam. The initial trigger for immigration came from the demands of the colonial government and economy, which could not be fulfilled by the native population. A large chunk of Assam’s population was annihilated before the onset of the colonial regime following the Burmese invasion of the state in the 1820s.
In the 19th century, the immigrants were primarily literate Hindus from east Bengal and laborers for the burgeoning tea gardens from central India. The demand for workers intensified with the ensuing economic boom in Assam resulting from the construction of railways and the extraction of natural resources. Muslim peasants from east Bengal were encouraged to occupy fallow land and grazing reserves for cultivation from the early decades of the last century.
Immigration to Assam did not cease after India’s independence from colonial rule in 1947. Partition of the country triggered riots in Pakistan compelling hundreds of thousands of Hindus to settle in the state. Immigration of Hindus continued after the unrest in the early 1960s in East Pakistan and the War of Liberation in 1971 that resulted in the creation of Bangladesh. It continued after the war, fueled more by economic than political reasons, leading to immigrants occupying remote tracts in Assam.
Three years ago, India’s Bharatiya Janata Party-led government enacted the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019. This law, which amended the Citizenship Act 1955, granted Indian citizenship to non-Muslims from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan who had fled their countries due to “religious persecution or fear of religious persecution” and had entered India before December 2014. The new law nullified the Assam Accord by altering the cut-off year of 1971 for citizenship and by exempting a section of non-Muslims whereas the agreement had made no distinction based on religion. Not surprisingly, the state erupted in huge protests against the law as did some other regions of the country.
Assam has witnessed numerous riots between immigrant and indigenous sections of the population over the past decades, with the worst having occurred in 1983 when thousands of people cutting across all communities were killed.
The continuing and rising numbers of immigrants, especially of Bengal-origin Muslims, have prompted local communities to look for safeguards against being turned into a minority in their homeland.
The National Register of Citizens (NRC) was updated with this objective, although the outcome has disappointed local organizations, and it has not yet been accepted by the government. The increasing demand for Scheduled Tribe status to six indigenous groups is also perceived to be a shield against the immigrant communities as it would entail safeguards on land and reservation of seats in the elected bodies.
Successive governments have not only ignored the lethal long-term implications of the foreigners’ issue in Assam but conveniently exploited it for decades to win elections. As a result, an efficient regime to identify foreign nationals and prevent them from entering Assam or other parts of the country could not be erected. In 2005, the Supreme Court said that Assam was facing an “external aggression” while repealing the controversial Illegal Migrants (Determination By Tribunals) Act, which was also applicable only in Assam.
In the recent petition submitted to the Supreme Court, the local organizations have stated that Assam’s is “not a communal or Hindu-Muslim issue, but an issue of foreign infiltrators who are inundating the land that for centuries has belonged to the Assamese and tribals. It is basically an issue between Indians and non-Indians/ foreigners.” It argued that Section 6-A of the citizenship law ought to be repealed as it also violated four articles of the constitution (Articles 5,6,14 and 253) relating to citizenship, equality before the law and provisions for giving effect to international agreements.
All eyes are on the Supreme Court. Will it bring the cut-off year for determining citizenship in Assam in conformity with the rest of the country? We will know soon.