The plague of saffronisation has hit India in an attempt to guarantee BJP votes for 2019
The state of Assam in North East India has recently captured international headlines for a citizenship verification process that could see up to 4 million of its current residents lose their citizenship. The process comes at a time when religious minorities and lower caste Dalit Hindus face unprecedented victimisation in India.
“Saffronisation” – a term currently used in Indian politics – has been a key component of the legacy of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government led by Narendra Modi since it came to power in 2014. Lacking much in terms of meaningful application in fields such as development of the economy or creation of jobs, fields where Modi has dismally failed, saffronisation as a method has tended to help in scapegoating and shifting blame away from the failures of the Centre, essentially saffron-washing problems to make them appear to be the work of the relevant “Other”. The inflamed rhetoric surrounding the process of exclusion of up to 4 million of Assam’s residents through the final draft of National Register of Citizens (NRC) is the latest BJP government’s use of saffronisation for its self-serving interests. Allow us to explain.
The story of divisions and tension in Assam is long and complex, but can be understood as starting from as early as the colonial era. The British imperialists gradually took control of the region that is Assam after the First Anglo-Burmese war in 1824, and annexed it completely after 1838. Mahmud Ali, in his book The Fearful Sate, points out that social engineering for the purpose of economic ends throughout British colonial rule led to a replacement of the indigenous Assamese peoples (several ethnic groups such as the Assamese Brahmins, the Ahoms and Bodos among others) by Bengalis from the regions of Bengal (what is now Indian West Bengal and Bangladesh) as the most influential native segment, economically, administratively and politically. This dominance ended with the 1947 Partition, leaving indigenous Assamese (mainly Ahoms) the majority in the newly formed Indian state of Assam. In a reversal of roles, the majority Ahoms came to the fore while influence of the Bengali Hindus and Muslims, especially the latter, receded. In a build up from the 1950s to the 1980s, they gradually established control through vying for political influence and economic benefit amid an isolationist, neo-xenophobic socio-cultural milieu and a competitive environment, charged with fears of loss of privileges. The 1971 war preceding the formation of Bangladesh led to an influx of Bengali refugees fleeing from the war in East Pakistan into Assam, both Hindus and Muslims. Fanning old grievances, this provided politically conscious middle class Ahoms, under the leadership of groups such as the All Assam Students Union (AASU) and All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP), the perfect cause around which to organise and consolidate political power in the state.
After a six-year agitation movement (1979-1985) led by AASU and AAGSP demanding the identification and deportation of mainly Bengali “foreigners” and “infiltrators”, the Assam Accord was signed in 1985 between the erstwhile Congress-led Indian government and the movement leaders, against a backdrop of a politics of brutal violence (see events such as the Nellie Massacre of 1983, where nearly 2,000 Muslim Bengalis were killed). As a basis for citizenship, the Accord drew upon the National Register of Citizens (NRC) of 1951 as a baseline document, which had originally been prepared in response to calls by a growing number of Assamese extremists fearful of demographic changes due to “infiltration”. Moreover, among a host of provisions, a person was to be considered a citizen only if the family resided in Assam before 24th March 1971, the date after which an exodus of Bengali refugees to Assam is said to have occurred in reaction to Pakistani forces launching Operation Searchlight in East Pakistan. The provisions of the Assam Accord created a new citizenship criterion separate from default the Citizenship Act of 1955, and was thus applicable to Assam alone and not the rest of the country. The politics of citizenship and the anti-foreigner discourse by successive governments has only grown stronger since, mainly carried out through deportations and regular disenfranchisement of the Bengali Muslim population in Assam. Since the BJP came into power both at the Centre and in the state of Assam in 2014, this anti-foreigner discourse has evolved into an anti-Muslim one. While the likes of AASU and AAGSP have always opposed Bengali migrants as a whole, both Muslim and Hindu, the BJP has amply made it clear that it opposes only Muslim migrants. Since coming to power, the BJP has been working on amendment of citizenship laws that would allow Hindus, alongside Sikhs, Buddhists, Christians and Parsees from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, to easily acquire Indian citizenship. Not surprisingly, the proposed amendment is heavily opposed by the leaders of the Assam movement, despite the fact that the BJP is allied with pro-Assam movement party (AGP).
Currently as it stands, out of 32.9 million applicants for citizenship, 28.9 million applicants were included, while about 4 million people were excluded in the final draft of the Assam NRC published on 30th July 2018. Although AASU and the BJP would have us believe these are illegal Bangladeshi migrants, credible reports bring to light how Assam’s Supreme Court-mandated NRC project is targeting and detaining Bengali Muslims, and breaking up families through the quasi-judicial foreigner tribunals. There have been numerous cases of the families of civil servants, such the family of a former Indian President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, being left out of the citizen list, among a host of others.
Experts have raised a myriad of legally framed questions into the procedural inconsistencies of the NRC and the probable fate of the 4 million people, along with the diplomatic complexities associated with whether Bangladesh would accept these people as refugees or not. Amidst all these discussions, it is pertinent that we do not lose sight of the points that need to be noted and questions that really need to be asked. The xenophobic discourse employed by the AASU and its allies rests on assumptions that there is a large-scale continuous illegal migration from Bangladesh, an assumption that simply has failed to hold in terms of figures or data. Furthermore, the Hindu minority in Bangladesh, under no circumstance, faces the large scale “Othering” employed against Muslims in India, and particularly Assam. Additionally, Bangladeshi areas neighbouring Assam, such as Sylhet, are much more developed financially, and more stable in security and social terms than Assam, which begs the question as to whether such assumptions of large-scale migration are not delusionary in the first place.
The BJP, with its anti-foreigner rhetoric in Assam, clearly intends to bank on the politics of citizenship to help it attain votes in the upcoming 2019 elections. This is part of a larger anti-Muslim discourse fuelled by saffronisation, and only serves to move attention away from real world problems that India faces, such as a terrible lack of social and financial security, unequal wealth distribution, deteriorating communal relations and large-scale unemployment. We need to question how is it that the BJP continues to function unimpeded with an anti-Muslim discourse, fanning communal hatred that has served to terrorise the Muslim population in India through beef-related lynchings, and disenfranchise Muslims in all manner of socio-political spaces. We need to question why is it that Indian state institutions, such as the Supreme Court, which are supposed to uphold secular principles, and ensure the rights of minorities and empower the citizens of India, have instead become tools in the hands of BJP to disenfranchise, silence and punish with impunity.
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