19, May 2018 | Sushmita
A seven member committee appointed by the Assam government in 2017 for “ensuring the protection of land rights of indigenous people” recommended that the transfer of agricultural land should be restricted to people indigenous to the state. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in power in the state said that it would implement the recommendations of the committee. The committee was headed by former chief election commissioner HS Brahma.
As per a Scroll.in report, the committee suggested that non-indigenous people could be allotted non-agricultural land in towns and cities but not at the expense of an indigenous person.One of the conditions specified in the report is that it should be ensured that the “allottee’s antecedents are not such as to make him an undesirable person”.
Assam has a diverse population owing to migration from several groups over a period of many years. Parts of Assam were formerly parts of other provinces with distinct cultural identities.
Questions of Citizenship and indigenous population
A 1951 Census report defines an ‘indigenous person’ as anyone, “belonging to the state of Assam” and speaking any of the languages and dialects spoken in the state. The recent, Brahma committee has rejected this definition calling it “incomplete” and liable for “misuse”.
Citizenship in Assam was defined though the Assam Accord of 1985 which came into being after movements against alleged migration. It defined citizenship as “anybody who entered the state before March 24, 1971- just before the Bangladesh war-is considered a non-foreigner.” The same criterion is being used to include people in the National Register of Citizens (NRC), which is being updated for the first time since 1951 in a bid to seemingly “identify illegal migrants.” However, human rights groups believe otherwise.
3.29 crore people from 68.27 lakh families in Assam have submitted over 6.5 crore documents with the NRC to prove their Indian citizenship. But the NRC recently published a list of only 1.9 crores as legal citizens.
Lakhs of Assamese, most of them from poor and marginalised communities, are under threat of having their legitimate citizenship revoked. CJP believes this is discriminatory. Join us and raise your voice against this injustice. Become a member to know more.
As per reports, an original inhabitant category was used as an internal marker while including people in the list. Though officials claim that this was to ease bureaucratic processes, the category is vague and depends on bureaucratic discretion, a condition that has made minority groups wary. When these groups approached the Supreme Court with their apprehensions, it ruled that such concerns were “wholly unfounded” and “citizens who are originally inhabitants/residents of the state of Assam and those who are not are at par for inclusion in the NRC”. The process is being executed under the aegis of Supreme Court.
Some people more indigenous than others?
While asserting that the matter has been “unduly hyped and politicised”, the Brahma committee said that the concept of indigenous person, is in fact, “plain, simple and well demarcated”
The Brahma committee, instead has laid down its own definition of an indigenous person. It says that an indigenous Assamese person, has to have lived in the state for “ several generations” and should belong to an “ancient tribe/ethnic clan”, which has “originated” in Assam. Such a person should be “determined to save his ethnic, linguistic and cultural identity” and “believe that his culture, language and identity is different from others inhabiting his land” among others
It adds that any person from any other state of India who speaks the language of the “state of his origin” and has “retained his original culture can’t be called an indigenous person of Assam”
Any cut-off date for entry into Assam or the inclusion of an individual’s name in electoral roll hasn’t been specified in the committee’s report. However, referring to SanmilitaMahasangha, an organisation claiming to represent 49 indigenous tribes of Assam, the committee marks the cut-off date as February 14, 1826. This date corresponds with the signing of treaty of Yandabo, when the Burmese ceded present day Assam, Manipur and other territories to the British. This organisation believes that people living in Assam continuously since the said date should be considered indigenous to the state.
Yandabo Treaty and Waves of Migration
After the Yandabo treaty, Assam has seen several waves of migration. In the latter part of 19th century, the British promoted the migration of Bengali Muslims and Adivasis as cheap labour for work on tea plantations etc. As per a recent fact finding by Sadbhav Mission, Delhi and Delhi School of Social Work, “the Bangla speaking Muslims in Assam are overwhelmingly working class. Their forefathers have been living in India for millennia. During the colonial period, as village industries perished, many people were forced to migrate to other parts of the country for survival. Some travelled to the barren areas of Assam. According to the 1941 census, the Muslim population in Assam was 26%. The partition of India in 1947 was a calamity forced on the people. The working classes had no role, what so ever, in it. It only made them vulnerable to sectarian killers. Partition was a division of political power, some provinces were to come under Muslim League rule and remaining others under the Congress rule. People could stay where ever they liked, in India or Pakistan. Another calamity fell on the working classes of our common origin in 1970-71 when military crackdown in East Pakistan forced millions to seek refuge in India and India fought a war with Pakistan, creating a sovereign Bangladesh. Many refugees returned to Bangladesh, but some overstayed. In India Accord of 1985, signed between the central government, state government and AASU, accords citizenship to those who arrived in India prior to March 24, 1971, the day Bangladesh was created.”
Further, more than three million people, mainly Hindus, migrated from East Pakistan from 1948 to 1961
Perpetuating paranoia in the name of ‘unabated mass infiltration’
Strangely, the report insists that the most serious threats to the land rights of the indigenous people of Assam comes from “unabated mass infiltration” from Bangladesh and that if the largely porous border is not sealed, “indigenous people are bound to be reduced into a landless class of people and to become foreigners at their own home”
The report especially seems to target the Chars-the Bengali Muslim dominated shifting sand bars of the Brahmaputra river, as per the Scroll.in report. It reported that the the report stated that they are in the “total clutch of the land-grabbing illegal Bangaldeshis”. Worryingly, the committee recommends that such people “be shifted to the detention camp for their necessary deportation in due course”. The cleared land, it added, should be allotted to “indigenous people” or kept vacant for “environmental purposes”.
The chars are home to around 25 lakh people or about 10% of Assam’s population, and cover around 10% of the state’s total land area.
With such grave and biased conclusions, the report adds to the threats of the minorities in the region who stand to lose citizenship by way of updation of the NRC.