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The Assam Accord was a Memorandum of Settlement that was signed on August 15, 1985. It was signed by the Central Government, the Government of Assam, and the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and the All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP) and was the result of a six-year-long agitation that was launched by AASU. The agitation was due to the apprehensions of the natives of the state regarding the continuing influx of foreign nationals into Assam and the fear about adverse effects upon the political, social, cultural and economic life of the State.
The Union Cabinet has set up a high-level committee on 16th July 2019 to look into measures for the implementation of clause 6 of the Assam Accord of 1985. The committee was headed by retired Justice Biplab Sharma and consisted of state government ministers, top officials of the state government and members of the AASU.
The committee gave recommendations and measures to implement Clause 6 of the Accord. The high-level committee submitted its report to the Assam Chief Minister, Sarbananda Sonawali, on 25th February 2020. The Assam government will subsequently send the report to the Ministry of Home Affairs for further action. The three communities wary of implementation of Clause 6 of the Assam Accord are the Bengal-origin or Bengali speaking Muslims referred to as Miyas, Bengali Hindus and Gurkhas.
What is the said clause?
Clause 6 of the Assam Accord talks about the safeguards that would be provided in the form of constitutional, legislative and administrative measures for the protection, preservation, and promotion of the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the native Assamese people. This clause provides safeguards specifically for people who were recognized as “Assamese people”. People who entered the state before 1st January 1966 were to be regularised. People who entered after 1st January 1966 but before 24th January 1971 were to be detected according to the Foreigners Act, 1946 and the Foreigners (Tribunals) Order, 1964. The Accord had set 24th March 1971 as the date for the recognition of citizens. People who entered the state after the said date were liable to be detected, deleted and expelled following the law.
Why/how was it introduced?
The Assam Accord was signed between the representatives of the Government of India, the Government of Assam and the leaders of the Assam Movement in New Delhi on 15th August 1985. The Memorandum of Settlement was a result of a six-year-long agitation, initiated by AASU in 1979, demanding identification and deportation of illegal immigrants. The accord prescribes the deportation of anyone who entered the state illegally after midnight of March 24, 1971. The Assam Accord brought about the culmination of a phase of great unrest and anxiety in the modern history of Assam. The agitation was mostly spearheaded by the student youth of Assam who saw a direct threat to their future caused due to the heavy and unchecked influx of foreigners from the neighboring countries into the state.
Why is it a cause of concern for the communities?
The three communities namely, the Miyas, Bengali Hindus and Gurkhas are concerned with the recommendations said to be given by the committee. The committee recommended setting the cut off date as 1951 for extending constitutional benefits to the indigenous people of Assam, introducing the Inner Line Permit system in the entire state and reservation of seats for the indigenous people in different elected bodies.
These communities feel that they should not be excluded from the list of indigenous communities of Assam. The Miyas have claimed that the Assamese population would become a minority if they Miyas are not regarded as indigenous. The Gurkhas have said that they should be regarded as an indigenous community to protect their constitutional and land rights. The Bengali Hindus have also said that many of them have been residing in Assam since before the March 1971 cut-off date and deserve to be included as indigenous. It has been said by these communities that if the base year is set as 1951 instead of 1971 then many of the Bengalis in Assam will have to suffer gross injustice as they migrated to Assam only after 1951 due to which they will not have any safeguards under clause 6 of the Assam Accord.
The lack of consensus in the definition of “Assamese people” or “indigenous people” as mentioned in clause 6 of the Assam Accord, threatens to exclude a majority of the Assamese population from the safeguards that are to be provided under the said provision. If the proposed date of 1951 is accepted as the cut-off date, it would mean that the people who migrated to Assam between 1951 and 1971 will be accepted as Indian citizens but they will not be eligible for the constitutional, administrative and legislative safeguards under clause 6 of the Accord.
It is also important to look at clause 6 of the Assam Accord in the context of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) for Assam and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019. A National Register of Citizens was to be prepared in the year 1951 which was finally introduced in 2019. But the basis for giving citizenship under the amended act is religious persecution to all non-Muslim immigrants.
The Act of 2019 has also shifted the cut-off date for granting citizenship from 24th March 1971 to 31st December 2014. This will be a hindrance to the effective implementation of clause 6 of the Assam Accord as it is violative of the same. By pushing the date from 1971 to 2014, it will only result in more immigrants being included for naturalization which will be a huge setback to the objective sought in the Assam Accord and specifically in clause 6.
How can the issue be resolved?
This problem can be resolved by regarding the original cut-off date of 1971 as the base year. There needs to be a proper definition to determine who falls under the ambit of “Assamese people” or” indigenous people”. The Centre should also take positive steps in making separate provisions for the state of Assam so that the objective of the Assam Accord does not get diluted in the backdrop of the NRC and the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019.
It is imperative to recognize the urgency of the situation and to come up with suitable measures to provide safeguard measures to the indigenous people of Assam. This will prevent a repeat of the widespread agitation that took place in the state in the 70s. The Central, as well as state government, should come together to find an equitable solution by including all the stakeholders who will be significantly affected by the implementation of the Assam Accord.
Author: Sahana Priya Satish from Tamil Nadu National Law University.
Editor: Tamanna Gupta from RGNUL, Patiala