Protests have been held in the east Indian state of Assam against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016, which will give citizenship to non-Muslim minorities from neighboring countries Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In the first week of this year, the Union cabinet cleared a proposal to set up a high-level committee to look into the implementation of Clause 6 of the Assam Accord, a move that drew a lot of flak.

Local political parties have questioned the intent of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Assam has been rocked by protests against the Citizenship Amendment Bill since it was passed in the Lower House on Tuesday despite protests by the opposition.

If enacted, the Citizenship Amendment Bill will give citizenship to non-Muslim immigrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan who entered India before December 31, 2014. Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on January 4 that the government was keen on pushing the bill in the Parliament.

Home Minister Rajnath Singh told the House that the government would take the necessary steps to preserve the hopes and sentiments of the people of Assam.

Protests started in the northeastern states in May last year when a Joint Parliamentary Committee visited Assam to assess the concerns of various groups.

Distracting from Citizenship Bill

Political groups and 70 organizations oppose the bill and see it as a BJP distraction.

Dharjya Kunwor, the general secretary of Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS), a peasant organization based in Assam, said: “(The) BJP has been in power in Centre for four and a half years and in the state for last two and half years. However, the timing of this announcement makes it clear that it is nothing but a mere election gimmick. This is merely aimed at distracting people from the backlash that they have been facing over the Citizenship Amendment Bill.”

The Assam Accord was signed in August 1985 between the Union government and the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), which for six years protested against foreigners entering Assam.

AASU general secretary Lurinjyoti Gogoi called the move a violation of the accord as he said he saw no point in the implementation of Clause 6 if Clause 5 was not implemented.

“Soul of Assam Accord lies in Clause 5, which talks about detection and deportation of foreigners. Now, BJP is trying to bypass it and (is) talking about implementation of Clause 6. If they pass Citizenship Amendment Bill, the Clause 5 will be null and void. We don’t accept it,” said Gogoi.

Although the accord brought an end to the Assam protests, many of its clauses were yet to be implemented. Clause 5 of the accord states that the base year for identification and deportation of foreigners would be March 25, 1971.

After that, Section A of the Citizenship Act 1955 was introduced through an amendment in 1985, which fixes March 25, 1971, as the cut-off date for granting citizenship in Assam.

Clause 6 of the Assam Accord reads: “Constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards, as may be appropriate, shall be provided to protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people.”

A similar sub-committee to look into the implementation of Clause 6 was formed in 1998, which included then president of the AASU Sarbananda Sonowal, who is now the Chief Minister of the state. It yielded no results.

“Though there were deliberations regarding quantum of reservation and other issues, it (the sub-committee) had not reached any conclusion,” AASU general secretary Gogoi added.

Regarding the new committee set up under the chairmanship of retired IAS officer of Assam cadre M P Bezbaruah, Gogoi said: “The ruling BJP government is very undemocratic and fascist in its approach. AASU is not going to be a part of any new committee.”

Upamanyu Hazarika, a Supreme Court advocate and convener of Prabajan Virodhi Manch, said: “By the time the committee assembles, deliberates and submits its recommendations, the tenure of this government would be over.”

Adding that the BJP’s main objective behind the move was to get past the general election in 2019, Hazarika added: “Whenever an issue has to be consigned to the dustbin ‘a committee’ is constituted … but on the other hand, to grant citizenship to Hindu Bangladeshis and thrust them on Assam, no committee was constituted, a bill introduced straightaway in Parliament.”

Cabinet minister Himanta Biswa Sarma last week claimed the new high-level committee was different from the previous one since its constitution had been approved by the Union cabinet and the Prime Minister agreed in principle to include its recommendations under Article 371 of the Constitution.

Article 371 stipulates special provisions in different states. Once a special provision for any state is incorporated under Article 371, such a provision cannot be challenged in a court of law.

‘Who defines indigenous people?’

Criticizing the chief minister and the ruling BJP government, Congress spokesperson Kamal Kumar Medhi said: “Sarbananda Sonowal’s whole political carrier had been associated with implementation of Assam Accord. Ironically, now he is standing with immigrants instead of the indigenous people of Assam. He has surrendered to Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and betrayed the Assamese people.”

Emphasizing the fact that the accord was signed during Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure, Medhi added that Congress always stood by a total implementation of the Assam Accord and not any particular clause.

“In Clause 5 of the accord, it is clearly mentioned that base year for detection and deportation of foreigners would be March 25, 1971. Anyone coming after this cut-off date, either Hindu or Muslim, would be considered a foreigner.”

Tularam Gogoi, a spokesperson for the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), which retracted its support of the BJP after its resistance to the Citizenship Amendment Bill was ignored, questioned the intent of the BJP. He said: “If they really wanted to implement Clause 6, they would have done it in a systematic manner, instead of hastily setting up a committee without even holding discussions with the stakeholders.”

“Clause 6 talks about reservation of seats and constitutional safeguards. We are demanding 100% reservation in local bodies, state assembly and Lok Sabha (Lower House). But now they are only talking about reservation of only 80 seats out of 126 (in the Assembly). For whom the rest 46 seats?”

The All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), which has 13 seats in the Assam Assembly, also wants total implementation of the Assam Accord.

Party spokesperson Jeherul Islam said while Clause 6 talked about protection and safeguarding thr constitutional rights of “indigenous people,” the debate on who was ‘indigenous’ had been going on in the Assam Assembly.

“Many gave different definitions of the term. BJP’s definition is problematic. They define it from a religious lens. Shouldn’t Muslims who have their origins in East Bengal, but have been living here for hundreds of years, be considered indigenous people?” he argued.