Millennium Post

Diktat of democracy

While the nation stands opinionated on the contentious issue of the Citizenship Amendment Bill, Assam, in particular, is struck by a specific concern that if illegal Bengali Hindu migrants from Bangladesh are regularised, it will threaten cultural and linguistic identities within the northeastern state. A closer look brings forth the aspect that an issue that is nationalised cannot be diluted in terms of its most basic regional elements. In what should have ideally been worked upon at the state levels in a coordinated manner to address a regional concern, if it may be one, painting with a broad brush with colours of communal ideologies has only swept in disarray the prevailing order. In a situation devoid of a leader and an organisation and roads literally seized, Guwahati is comparable to Honk Kong where the common people are pouring out in protest of the Citizenship Amendment bill, 2019 as it was being discussed in the Rajya Sabha. The situation is similar across most of Brahmaputra Valley which has erupted in spontaneous protest against the Bill as people from all walks of life thronged the streets to voice their angst against the bill. This bill is believed to pose a serious threat to their livelihood and political destiny as it will tamper with their cultural and linguistic identity. The amendment to Citizenship Act of 1955 comes with the aim to provide Indian citizenship to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, and Christian from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan who sought refuge in India on account of religious persecution. A person belonging to any of these faiths who entered India on or before December 31, 2014 and has lived in the country for six years is eligible for Indian citizenship. With this clearly communal agenda that seeks to regularise refugees peculiarly from just these three nations, the people in the Northeast are struck with the concern that this is a move to primarily benefit the illegal Bengali Hindu migrants from Bangladesh who have settled in "large numbers" across the region. Heeding the protests, the revised version of the amendment exempts certain areas in the region, namely Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur, almost the whole of Meghalaya, and parts of Assam and Tripura. This appeasement move has had some effect in parts of the northeastern region, Brahmaputra valley in Assam and Tripura take attention to how the devil lies in the details. Projected fiercely as a strategy to protect the Hindu identity of Assam in the light of the influx of Muslims from Bangladesh, the decision-makers have failed to consider the fear among the Assamese people of cultural hegemony of Hindu Bengalis. It remains fresh on the collective Assamese psyche how the British administration had imposed Bangla as the state language between 1826 and 1872 at the insistence of Bangla-speaking government workers from West Bengal. The linguistic data of the Census 2011 has also widened the already existing fault lines between the Assamese and Bengalis. Apart from ideological disagreements, a major fault in this move of the government is that it has failed to take into account the sensitive issue of cultural identity that was already prevailing in a delicate manner. The linguistic data of the Census 2011 informs that the percentage of people speaking Assamese decreased from 58 per cent in 1991 to 48 per cent in 2011, while Bengali speakers in the state went up from 22 per cent to 30 per cent in the same period. A national agenda must not be one to override and disregard matters that concern a state.

The situation is different in Assam's Barak Valley which is dominated by Bengali Hindus and where Assamese is still not accepted as the state language. A section of educated Muslims of immigrant origin who are fluent in Assamese but speak a Bangla dialect locally called Miyah have taken to writing poetry in that dialect. This is engendering a body of work that depicts the pain of living as a suspect in the place where they were born. With people's protest registering also in suave and educated manners such as creating literature that will be witness to historical decisions that will serve as injustice to most, the unrest among people is only but a reflection of the gargantuan mistake the government has set upon making. The cultural dominance that is threatening to be propagated by means of language is in stark opposition to the national ethos of integration, assimilation, and peaceful coexistence and celebration of India's diversity and plurality. The fear in the northeastern state is that if Bengali Hindus and Bengali Muslims come together, Bangla speakers will easily outnumber Assamese-speaking people in the state, as in the case of Tripura where Bengali-Hindu immigrants from East Bengal now dominate political power, pushing the original tribals to the margins—the reason why even BJP's ally, Indigenous Peoples Front of Tripura, has been protesting against this amendment. Citing figures to allay fears of a 'Bengali uprising', Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal claims that less than 2,00,000 Hindu immigrants in Assam are eligible to apply for citizenship and nearly 1,50,000 of them are in the three districts of Barak Valley. The Chief Minister's claim is hardly an assurance for the people in unrest.

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