Citizenship and Related Issues

Defining who is ‘Assamese’: Attempts, Challenges

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Assam Accord

Mains level : Not Much

Last week, the Assam government informed the Assembly that nearly 1.44 lakh illegal foreigners had been identified in the state this year based on the 1985 Assam Accord, and around 30,000 of them had been deported to their country of origin.

Who is a foreigner under the Assam Accord?

  • The Assam Accord was signed in 1985 by the Centre and the Assam government with the All Assam Student Union (AASU) and the All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad.
  • This movement had spearheaded the 1979-85 Assam Movement against migration from Bangladesh.
  • It was against all migrants from Bangladesh, irrespective of religion.
  • The Accord set March 24, 1971 as a cut-off. (The Assam Movement had demanded 1951 as the cut-off.)
  • Anyone who had come to Assam before midnight on that date would be an Indian citizen, while those who had come after would be dealt with as foreigners.
  • The same cut-off was used in updating the National Register of Citizens (NRC).

What are the expressions for which the definitions have not been determined? Why are they important?

  • The definitions of phrases mentioned in the Accord such as ‘Axomiya janagan’ (Assamese people), ‘khilonjia’ (indigenous) and ‘adi basinda’ (original inhabitants) were yet to be determined.
  • The context is Clause 6 of the Assam Accord, which promises “constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards to protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people”.
  • However, it doesn’t  provide clear cut definitions to identify who would be the “Assamese people”.
  • Clause 6 is important because many felt the 1971 cut-off was inadequate.

Issues with the cut-off date

  • The cut-off for the rest of India is 1948, many noted that the Assam Accord would grant citizenship to a section of migrants who would be counted as foreigners elsewhere in the country.
  • Clause 6 was, therefore, seen as a protective provision which would guarantee certain benefits to the Assamese people, while excluding some sections among those granted citizenship on the basis of the 1971 cut-off.

Why is the ‘Assamese’ definition difficult?

  • Because Assam’s demography has been shaped by decades of migration.
  • Many of the migrants had settled here during the colonial era.
  • While they might not be native speakers of an indigenous language, such as Assamese or Bodo or Karbi, the question was whether the definition of “Assamese” could exclude someone, for example, whose family might have lived in Assam for 100 years.

Have any definitions been proposed?

  • A key committee came in 2019, when Assam was rocked by protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) which proposes to grant citizenship to various categories of foreigners including Hindus from Bangladesh.
  • The government set up the committee as a means to quell the protests.

This committee recommended following persons as Assamese:

  1. All citizens who are part of the Assamese community
  2. Any person of indigenous tribal community of Assam
  3. Any other indigenous community of Assam
  4. Any other citizens of India residing in the territory or Assam on or before January 1, 1951 and
  5. Descendants of these categories
  • In essence, this definition includes not only the indigenous people but also all other Indian citizens, irrespective of mother tongue, as long as their ancestors were staying in Assam before 1951.

 

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