Passions in Assam, running high over the controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB), appear to have boiled over after the Rajya Sabha passed it on Wednesday, making persecuted minorities from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan eligible for Indian citizenship. While unease has prevailed in our northeastern border states, violent protests and arson have rocked Assam, where demographic sensitivities have always been high. Curfew has been imposed, internet connections snapped, and the Army called in. On Thursday, the police opened fire to disperse protesters who had allegedly pelted security personnel with stones.
After 1947, an inward stream of migrants from East Pakistan first and Bangladesh after 1971 (in larger numbers) has long been a touchy issue among residents of Assam, who complain of their culture being swamped over by the influx. The recently conducted effort to identify illegal immigrants, with every resident asked to prove his or her bona fides as a citizen, has added to the state’s social tensions. Millions of people, mostly poor, had no proof. While the CAB would grant non-Muslims a pathway to Indian citizenship, Assamese protesters contend that it would still allow large enough numbers—who came before 2015—to stay, and that their local culture would be at risk of being subsumed.
Protesters contend that the CAB violates the Assam Accord of 1985, by which only immigrants who entered India before 25 March 1971, regardless of religious identity, would be allowed to stay. This is an issue that isn’t likely to quieten down soon, and a crackdown on the protests might worsen the unrest. The government needs to engage protest leaders and initiate talks that involve all stakeholders.