The significance and timing of PM’s start of the campaign journey from Silchar is a clear message that Barak Valley of Assam is a priority area in his scheme of things
On January 4, 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed a mammoth political rally in Silchar in Assam drawing crowds from Barak Valley of Assam and adjoining Dima Hasao district. He endeared himself to the gathering by wishing them in Bengali for the New Year and the Poush Sankranti that would be celebrated in a couple of weeks’ time. The people of the Valley were looking to this visit of Narendra Modi as they were awaiting some announcements from him on the National Registration Citizenship (NRC) issue, the Citizenship Amendment Bill 2016 (CAB) and also the roadmap for revival of the only heavy industry of the central government the Hindustan Paper Mills in Panchgram. People fondly remembered the PM for expediting the completion of the Lumding—Silchar broad gauge conversion project that was finally completed after 20 years of delay and cost overruns by previous governments. The significance and timing of PM’s start of the campaign journey from Silchar is important- it was the Barak Valley that gave the first BJP MPs way back in 1991 with both Silchar and Karimganj the two seats from the Valley going to the party. Now that the party was in power in all the north-eastern states, choosing Silchar as the first rally venue for the PM for the 2019 onslaught is a clear message that Barak Valley is a priority area in the party’s and the PM’s his scheme of things.
PM Modi addressing a public gathering in Silchar, Assam
The PM addressed the issues of NRC and CAB in his speech very candidly. The updation exercise of the (NRC) being implemented in Assam under the orders and monitoring of the Supreme Court, the introduction of the CAB by the Narendra Modi Government in Lok Sabha in July 2016 and the issue of detention camps where many individuals are lodged often based on ex parte orders are the major political issues that impact the whole state of Assam and also the relations between the Brahmaputra Valley and Barak Valley. The process of NRC updation in Assam has been happening for the past three years in full swing with almost the whole administrative machinery of the State Government involved in the process. A total of 3.29 crore people had applied for inclusion in the NRC, and in the first published list on December 31, 2017, a total of 1.9 crore names had been included. The process of claims and objections continued till December 31, 2018 and now the corrections process is on to existing names in the draft list.
“Citizenship Bill is not just for Assam or the north-east, but is valid for all states and Union Territories as well. Neither is this for people of one particular country” — Rajnath Singh, Home Minister
The CAB was introduced in the parliament in July 2016 that 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 in August 2016 which has just finished its work in December 2018 after meeting many stakeholders including visiting Assam and Meghalaya and has recommended the passage of the Bill in early January 2019.
PM Modi in his address at Silchar reiterated that no genuine Indians would be left out of the final NRC list and this promise bound both the Central Government and the State government. He announced that the government would work towards passing the CAB in parliament as that would be a penance for many of the anomalies and mistakes of partition. He laid the context for granting citizenship to these persecuted minorities and the effort and homework that was done in the endeavour. The Government finally passed the bill in the Lok Sabha on 7th January 2019.
It is pertinent to state that the premise for granting citizenship under CAB was very well thought out and would be a once and for all solution to the issues around partition on the eastern front. As the land boundary agreement has sorted out the issues around land and territory with Bangladesh, this CAB will also settle this issue of illegal migration and also make a correct understanding between migration of refugees and illegal immigration in the right quarters. With the notifications of September 2015, the earlier mentioned communities from the three countries were not considered as illegal migrants, and the bill would allow them the possibility of becoming citizens of India in the defined period, i.e. seven years instead of the 12 years in the existing act.
The PM also mentioned about the Cabinet decision to implement more closely the provisions of clause 6 of the Assam Accord of 1985 which seeks to provide protection to indigenous communities of the state and a high level committee under the chairmanship of MP Bezbaruah a well-respected bureaucrat has already been notified and this committee which with a wide mandate will look into safeguards for protection of the Assamese identity including reservation of seats in state assembly and will submit its report within six months. That way the fears that have come from many quarters in the Brahmaputra Valley is also being genuinely addressed.
The Central Government has also approved to move a bill in the Parliament granting ST status to six communities of Assam namely Tai Ahom, Koch Rajbongshi, Chutia, Tea Tribes, Moran and Matak. The government has waived the requirement of Cabinet approval, and the proposed bill has been introduced in the current session of Parliament. Pertinently the interests, rights & privileges of existing Scheduled Tribes of Assam would be safeguarded. A separate bill for the grant of ST status to Bodo Kacharis in hill districts of Assam and the Karbis in the rest of Assam has been initiated, and Sixth Schedule of the Constitution is also proposed to be amended to strengthen the Autonomous District Councils.
Assam is a multi-ethnic State with many indigenous tribes living and illegal migration over the years has changed the demographic patterns in many areas and impacting voting results in almost 30 constituencies. This has been increasing with every elections, and fear has been there among many of the communities. So some steps had to be taken to implement the Assam accord in its proper spirit and at the same time also assure that the introduction and passage of the CAB which had an all India coverage and was bond to a cut of date in the past would not become a burden for the state of Assam. Ever since the BJP-led governments have assumed offices in the Centre and State, an approach of building a better relationship with various communities has strived. Even engagements between the Brahmaputra and Barak Valleys have seen genuine efforts and as an indicator of that is the fact that the current Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal has visited Barak Valley 16 times in the 30 months that he has been in the seat compared to his predecessor who came only 5 times in 15 years of his rule. The economic progress of both the regions and the hill districts has been a focus area, and this has resulted in better understanding of each other’s issues at various levels although vested interests nurtured over the years often raise their heads to derail the efforts. The focus to project Assam as an investor-friendly state and a significant player in Act East policy of the union government is being supported with actions on the ground. The Advantage Assam summit in February 2018 and the supportive events leading to that event with the holding of Namami Brahmaputra and Namami Barak in 2017 have shown the clear intent of the governments.
(The writer is Director JOOKTO and works in grassroots in Barak Valley. He was former country head of General Dynamics)