CAB done, over to Clause 6 of Assam Accord now |India Today Insight

On December 11, when Brahmaputra Valley in Assam erupted in protest against the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB), 2019, in Parliament, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted in Assamese: ‘The Central Government and I are totally committed to constitutionally safeguard the political, linguistic, cultural and land rights of the Assamese people as per the spirit of Clause 6.’ This was a direct attempt by the prime minister to allay the fears of the Assamese people regarding the CAB which aims to provide Indian citizenship to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian refugees from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. A person belonging to any of these faiths, who entered India on or before December 31, 2014, and has lived in India for six years, can apply for Indian citizenship.

Though this provision covers refugees from three Islamic countries, the people in the Northeast fear that it will primarily benefit the illegal Bengali Hindu migrants from Bangladesh who have settled in “large numbers” across the region. The bill was first introduced in the Lok Sabha in 2016, but the previous Modi government could not get it passed in the Rajya Sabha, forcing it to lapse. Taking note of the protests, the revised version of the amendment has exempted certain areas in the region-Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur, almost all of Meghalaya, and parts of Assam and Tripura.

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While these exemptions have quietened other areas of the Northeast, protests continue in Assam, particularly the Brahmaputra Valley, and Tripura, where the locals fear the legislation will legalise Bangla-speaking Hindu Bengalis whose rising numbers will threaten the local language and culture. In fact, the number of Bengali speakers has been growing steadily in the state while the population of Assamese speakers is shrinking. Many indigenous Assamese people have also lost land, resources and even Vaishnavite monasteries-known as Satras-to encroachment by illegal immigrants. Legal protection for their land, language, culture and political rights has been a long-standing demand of the Assamese people in the face of continuous infiltration from Bangladesh.

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That’s the reason the prime minister has invoked Clause 6 of the Assam Accord, assuring that the land, language, culture and political rights of the Assamese people will be protected, and that nobody-read those Hindu Bengali immigrants who will get citizenship under the CAB-can take these away from them. The same day, home minister Amit Shah too said in Parliament that Clause 6 will act as a safeguard and protect the interests of the people of Assam.

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But what is Clause 6 of the Assam Accord and how will it help the Assamese protect their identity?

Signed between the Union government and leaders of the All Assam Students Union (AASU) in 1985, the Assam Accord came at the end of a six-year-long agitation demanding the expulsion of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Clause 6 of the accord talks about providing constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards to protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people. It 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.’

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However, no government has passed any legislation since 1985 to provide constitutional protection to the Assamese people as envisaged under Clause 6. In January this year, the Modi-led government constituted a committee-for the first time since 1985-to suggest a roadmap for the implementation of Clause 6. However, the then chairman and former Union tourism secretary, M.P. Bezbaruah, and five other members refused to be part of the panel in protest against the CAB, 2016. It was only in July that the home ministry reconstituted the committee with a new chairman-former Gauhati High Court judge Justice Biplab Kumar Sarma and increased the number of members from nine to 12. The panel has not submitted its report yet.

It will not be an easy job either. The biggest challenge before the committee will be to determine who can be called Assamese, as there is no uniformly accepted definition of the identity. There could also be legal challenges to the provisions under Clause 6 such as reserving parliamentary and assembly seats, jobs and land rights only for the Assamese-if at all one can arrive at a conclusion of what constitutes an Assamese. The BJP will also find it hard to justify the introduction of such special provisions for a state when it has recently revoked the special status that Kashmir enjoyed under Article 370.

People in Assam are also suspicious of the central government‘s intent as they expected the government to implement Clause 6 first and then implement the CAB. But since the Modi government pushed the CAB first, it should not waste any more time in implementing Clause 6.

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