The union government’s recent notification regularising the entry and stay of minorities from Bangladesh and Pakistan on grounds of humanitarian considerations (meaning religious persecution in these countries), is likely to throw the already disturbed northeastern state of Assam into further turmoil.
This is because the notification has clearly struck at the root of the Assam Accord of 1985 that had provided for detecting and deporting foreigners who had come and settled in Assam after March 25,1971. The All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) has already started agitation and has decided to move the court on the issue.
Now we know that there are demonstrations on the streets of Guwahati and some other towns of Assam. Of course the central government has arguments on its side too. After all, it had to come out with a policy statement on the issue as directed by the Supreme Court. But the decision it has taken is momentous in nature and it will not only affect the political, economic and social life of Assam but will also have repercussions in Bihar, West Bengal and some other northeastern states.
But the Assamese people cannot certainly be faulted if they think that this is only the first step towards granting the immigrants citizenship. In fact, various organizations of these displaced people are clamouring for refugee status as an initial step which, in their estimate, will naturally transform into the status of a bona fide citizen at a later date. However, the centre’s decision is at variance with what Narendra Modi had promised during his election campaign – detection and deportation of foreigners. Why Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party chose to deviate from their earlier promise is a completely different story.
Assam has 14 Lok Sabha seats and in the 2014 parliamentary election the BJP had done extremely well by capturing seven. By all accounts the Congress ship is sinking in the state and if the BJP can fill up the void in the 2016 assembly elections, then it will be a tremendous strategic gain for the party outside the Hindi belt. The easiest way to success is no doubt a Hindu consolidation as the voting pattern in the state is showing signs of polarization and the process may be accentuated further in the wake of the recently published religion-wise census figures.
In the decade 2001-2011, Assam experienced a 16.93 percent population growth – below the national average of 17.6 percent. However, the allegedly illegal immigrants-infested nine districts – Dhubri, Goalpara, Barpeta, Morigaon, Nagao, Dhemaji, Cachhar, Hailakandi and Karimganj – experienced a population growth ranging from 20.17 percent in the case of Cachhar, the lowest among these districts, to as high as 24.40 percent in the case of Dhubri which borders Bangladesh. Interestingly the decadal growth rate of children in the 0-6 age group in Dhubri is 9.82 percent while the state average is 0.29 percent.
There is something strange and inexplicable in Assam’s 2011 census data. The Muslim population grew from 30.9 percent in 2001 to 34.2 percent in 2011. This is an accepted fact. But how can one correlate the 11 percent growth of literacy and a simultaneous burgeoning of population in a district like Dhubri? Literacy rates in other districts which have shown 20 percent population growth have grown at over four percent. The only plausible answer to this population growth is immigration.
Regularization of the entry and stay of post-1971 immigrants may help the BJP indirectly. Muslims constitute around 33 percent of the Assam electorate and they are showing a tendency to move away from the Congress and tilt towards the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) of Badruddin Ajmal while the tea garden voters of Upper Assam are shifting towards the BJP. These two segments were previously solid vote banks of the Congress and their disenchantment made it possible for the BJP to win Dibrugarh, Jorhat and Lakhimpur, all traditional Congress seats, in the 2014 Lok Sabha poll while the saffron party could retain Guwahati, Naogaon and Mangaldoi.
However the BJP’s win in Tezpur constituency, Assam’s cultural capital, trouncing the Asom Gana Prishad (AGP) candidate, provided the maximum food for thought. Not only did the AGP fare miserably in the Lok Sabha poll, the result of Tezpur proved that the AGP, the political face of the AASU, was fast losing its credibility with the Assamese Hindu middle class which influences political developments in north and central Assam. As the AIUDF is now marching ahead among the Muslim voters after having captured the Dhubri, Barpeta and Karimganj seats in the last parliamentary election, the BJP hopes to carve out a niche for itself among some other sections of Assamese society replacing the Congress.
The post-1971 immigrants, even if their stay is regularized, will not have citizenship and will not be able to vote. But the mere gesture of regularization of their stay will make the BJP more credible among a cross section of Assam’s population. However, the government should move cautiously and see to it that opposition to the government notification moves along democratic lines.
(Amitava Mukherjee is a senior journalist and commentator. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)