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Don’t Play With Fire

Don’t Play With Fire

Almost 40 years ago, a voters’ list for a Lok Sabha by-election was used by a group of young people in Assam who believed in the ‘sons of soil’ theory to begin an agitation that primarily wanted to drive out non-Assamese from their state. It had all the essentials for India’s balkanisation. The Bharatiya Janata Party was not even born then but members of its previous avatar were ministers in the Union Government that was headed by Morarji Desai.

The demand of the All Assam Students Union had merit as the voters’ list showed an unusual surge in new voters. However, only a part of them were illegal migrants from Bangladesh who came in search of better living conditions. The hope of a greener pasture remains the fundamental reason for human migration during peaceful times. Even during war, people flee their land in the hope of finding a peaceful existence somewhere else.

The AASU ire was directed at everyone who did not speak Assamese or more towards those who spoke Bengali, irrespective of whether they were from any other part of India or Bangladesh. This was the beginning of an agitation that lasted around seven years which saw the whole of northeast being cut off from the rest of India every time a general strike was called by the AASU and the All Asom Gana Sanghram Parishad.

Assam’s Brahmaputra Valley which had majority Assamese speaking people was not as tense as the Barak Valley, where the majority spoke Bengali. Instability and vacillation at the Centre saw the agitation picking up steam. By the time two changes in government had taken place at the Centre, Assam had turned into a volcano.

Indira Gandhi who was the PM during the creation of Bangladesh thought it was only fair to grant citizenship to refugees from the war-torn nation who had fled to India and had lived there for more than a decade. This added fuel to the anti-Bengali fire in Assam.

The members of the RSS tried to tell agitators that their ‘enemy’ was not Bengalis, but Muslim migrants from Bangladesh. (A bill is currently on the anvil to grant citizenship to non-Muslim migrants and refugees from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, which has re-induced new ‘sons of soil’ emotions in several north-eastern states).

Indira Gandhi’s policy misfired and the ensuing Assam assembly elections with the new voters saw the agitation intensifying and genocide of Muslims who had settled in Nelli and 14 other hamlets several hundred years ago. By the time Indira Gandhi was assassinated, India was facing existential threats on its eastern and western sides, with terrorism in Punjab at its peak.

Her son Rajiv Gandhi, who inherited a beleaguered nation, came up with the Assam Accord in less than a year after he assumed power. The Centre’s Accord with AASU and AAGSP promised to identify and deport foreigners who had infiltrated into India after 1971. The accord saw the Congress Government of Hiteshwar Saikia resign and pave the way for fresh elections that saw the Asom Gana Parishad assume power.

When the Congress-led Centre and the AGP-led Assam government started the process of updating the 1951 National Registry Of Citizens (NRC) in Assam and 1971 was made the cut-off date for grant of citizenship — with a rider that those who migrated between the two decades would have no voting rights for 10 years but those who migrated after 1971 would be identified and expelled — the two governments realised that this was no easy task. All non-Assamese Indian settlers and Assamese Muslims who settled centuries ago turned hostile on fear that the survey to identify infiltrators was an attempt at expelling anyone who was not an Assamese Hindu or tribal.

Unlike the 2016 demonetisation carried out without proper planning — led to national chaos for months, crashing of the economy and prompted prominent ruling party leaders to tell unemployed youth to go sell pakoras — then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi asked the process of identifying foreigners to be carried out as a fool-proof exercise. AGP, which by now caught in power struggle between Brigu Phukkan and Prafulla Mohanta and numerous challenges associated with governance, realised that the agitation was the easiest thing they did in life. The creation of the new NRC all but was stopped until the Supreme Court set the ball rolling in the new millennium.

The exercise has been far from perfect. That was only expected. In the digital era, it will not, however, be difficult to make it almost perfect. The publication of the final draft NRC is not the end of the process. There are several foreigners who have got into the NRC list, while several lakhs of genuine Indians may have been left out. Everyone would and should get a chance to rectify things and the process needs to be done diligently and without bias or politicisation.

Unfortunately, political parties across the divide have started playing with fire. The BJP has in Parliament and outside tried to make this into an issue of problems of ‘Bangladeshi Muslims who have tried to change India’s demography to threaten Hindus’.

BJP President Amit Shah blamed the Congress and Rajiv Gandhi for not having the gumption to adhere to promises made in the Assam Accord, on the same day the Attorney General representing the Modi Government pleaded with the Supreme Court to make a statement to reassure the whole of Assam and ensure there is no strife.

Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress, whose sole ambition at the moment is to become the next Prime Minister, has positioned herself at the other end. For some strange reason, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India provided her the platform to unleash her political rhetoric in New Delhi against the Modi Government.

As a Catholic layperson, it is not clear to me why a politician from West Bengal was a speaker at a CBCI meeting held in New Delhi. Is the Bishops’ body planning to float a political party? There were previous pronouncements or letters of Archbishops of Gandhinagar, Delhi, Goa and Bombay, in less than a year, panned by the national media as political statements made by leaders of the Catholic Church against the BJP and its Governments. I was ready to believe that the bishops were misunderstood or their statements misinterpreted.

Days before Banerjee’s ‘Love thy Neighbour’ message from the CBCI pulpit, the Archbishop of Calcutta paid her glowing tributes. After a volatile politician was given a venue to make a politically-loaded statement, I am convinced that these are not innocent coincidences. If clergymen want to dabble in politics, they should first leave priesthood.


(Published on 06th August 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 32)