Many faultlines exist in the political space concerning the state but over the years, there has been a harmonious coexistence among various communities in Assam.
The final draft list for the National Registration Citizenship (NRC) in Assam was published on July 30, 2018, and 40,07,707 names have been excluded from the total number of 3,29,91,384 applicants. Although the entire updation was being implemented under the orders and monitoring of the Supreme Court of India and implemented on the ground by the Assam government employees, the large number of exclusion is already raising concerns across the state. While many have found their names on the list, the exclusions and its numerous patterns in many cases speak of a situation where anomalies still prevail and hopefully will be settled in the rounds of claims and objections beginning soon. However, the exercise was much necessary and hopefully, the final draft at the end of December 2018 should settle the issue of the number of illegal migrants living in the state once and for all and not remain a volley for many to rally their political pedagogy. People from all walks of life have cooperated even under hardships of travelling to far away and unfamiliar locations in the state at their own cost and hopefully, those genuine citizens who are still finding their names missing will be able to settle their claims and objections satisfactorily.
In the current epoch, there are major issues are impacting politics and society in Assam- above mentioned NRC updation, the introduction of the Citizenship Amendment Bill 2016 (CAB) by the Narendra Modi government and the final stages of the peace negotiations of the Union government with the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA). While all three of these activities are technically unrelated to each other, the cumulative impact on the people of the state and its various communities has a bearing on each other. Needless to say, the state has suffered over the years due to the illegal immigration and senseless violence by various militant groups, but a few of the efforts started by the current state government to rebuild the state and harness its economic potential is definitely getting impacted in the last few months.
The CAB was introduced in Parliament in July 2016 and seeks to give Citizenship by naturalisation to immigrants from the neighbouring countries of Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan belonging to the Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, and Christian communities facing religious persecution who have come to India before 31st December 2014 and living illegally in the context of the provisions of the Passport (Entry into India) Act 1920 and the Foreigners Act 1946. The Bill was referred to a joint select committee of Parliament which still is evolving its recommendations and had recently visited the states of Assam and Meghalaya and elicited the views of stakeholders and intend to do more wider consultations. It was clear that there is widespread opposition to the bill in the Brahmaputra valley while ample support in the Barak valley.
The peace talks for a permanent settlement with the ULFA team are at the final stages of negotiations and there would be significant arrangements for political and economic packages for the state that would require a holistic approach across the state and not in the Brahmaputra valley only. Many of the indicators try to point towards some political reservations for the indigenous people and ULFA has mentioned its demand for land rights for the indigenous people. Likewise, wide-ranging economic doles and special economic zones are also under discussions and these are much beyond what was offered under the Assam accord of 1985 which definitely has assuaged many cries of negligence towards the state.
Coming back to the NRC issue, once the final list is ready, the government has to come out with a plan of how to deal with those excluded. Clearly that discussion and political harmonisation has to happen to the extent of the rights and facilities that would be needed to be provided to them. It will be wishful to think they can be pushed out anywhere and so avenues for them under humanitarian angle have to be worked out sooner than later. The only bit of assurances coming from the government is that these left out individuals will not be deported nor sent to detention camps at this stage. But there is no capacity also for the same at this stage.
However, in the current scenario with the above three issues at play, there are concerns among citizens, specially in the two valleys – Brahmaputra and Barak where thinking permeates on linguistic fervours. Many of these concerns have resulted in various newer groupings and their ideological position besides also reviving many individuals and entities that would have been on its way out with the impact of the visible optimal economic activities being pushed under a combined ecosystem of the Union and state government. In no time, shrill voices have emerged with tones of furthering ethnic passions. One of the ULFA individuals, very much part of the peace process, has also issued veiled threats to create mistrust in Barak Valley. Many intellectuals across the two valleys have also undertaken pursuits that are pushing a sense of divide along linguistic lines. To add to all these tendencies, the concomitant social media avenues like Whatsapp, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have become major carriers of such passions and often in propagating falsehood and fake news that would spark flames of unrest if not handled with restraint. Hatred that might seem less on the ground seemed to be propagating with consternation in the social media. Likewise, the vernacular television and print media have taken sinister roles in giving space to vituperative individuals and groups and a serious restraint is required on them even if it means a regulatory push. Clearly, the need for administration and civil society with the positive involvement of political class has to be there to calm down the situation.
Clearly, many faultlines exist in the political space concerning the state but over the years, there has been a harmonious coexistence among various communities in the state. The three parameters as mentioned above will bring in newer issues on the political cauldron that will need mature handling. The issue of the NRC excluded individuals will have to be addressed sooner than later as that would hinge towards the creation of a bunch of stateless citizens. ULFA's solution on political and economic lines will have to be inclusive in nature and not exclude Barak valley or the sixth schedule districts. Even the CAB which faces no opposition from other parts of the country despite being equally impactful needs to be better explained so that the merits and humanitarian angle in the proposition are understood in its entirety. All of these efforts have to be dealt with in a humanitarian manner so that minimal impact is there on the citizens. Clearly, the need for wider participation and support from people across communities is desired who will have to show greater understanding than the forwards and rampant positioning on social media strength. Communities have to talk and engage and more political and social leaders should be the facilitators for such engagements. This could be the last effort to build the state towards the greater good for all and not take belligerent sides on every pretext.
(Subimal Bhattacharjee is Director Jookto which works in grassroots in northeast India and a former country head of General Dynamics. The views expressed are strictly personal)