The Assam Accord was a Memorandum of Settlement signed between representatives of the Government of India and the leaders of the Assam Movement signed in the presence of the then-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in New Delhi on 15 August 1985. The signing of the tripartite accord in 1985 marked the culmination of a six-year-long agitation demanding expulsion and deportation of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants.
Over the years, numerous committees and sub-committees were formed on this issue; however, the full implementation of this historic agreement is still a far cry. If that were not enough, one more panel will be constituted to prepare a roadmap for implementation of the Accord.
Earlier this week, the Himanta Biswa Sarma government and the influential All Assam Students' Union (AASU), one of the signatories of the Accord, agreed on forming an eight-member sub-committee comprising three cabinet ministers and five representatives from the student outfit.
Welcoming the move, AASU chief advisor Samujjal Bhattacharya said the student body wants a solution to the long-pending issue. He also highlighted one of AASU's demands that the matter of deportation of people detected as Bangladeshi nationals be taken up with Dhaka.
In May 2005, the student body was invited to a tripartite meeting with then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and then-CM Tarun Gogoi in New Delhi, during which issues pertaining to the implementation of the Assam Accord, curbing illegal migration from Bangaldesh and the economic development of Assam were discussed, according to PMO records.
In Monday's meeting, it was decided that the proposed sub-committee would look into all aspects of the Accord, Bhattacharya said. However, the opposition has alleged Clause 5 was skipped. Clause 5 talks about detection and expulsion of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants irrespective of their religion – the core demand of the six-year Assam Agitation for which "860 people sacrificed their lives".
Debabrata Saikia, Congress legislator and leader of the opposition in state assembly, said, "It is surprising that both the state government and AASU remained silent on Clause 5 while they formed another committee to seek ways to implement other clauses in the accord. The heart of the Assam Accord has been taken away."
Dismissing this allegation, Bhattacharya said the AASU presented a detailed memorandum demanding full implementation of key clauses 5, 6 (providing constitutional safeguards to Assamese people), 7 (ensuring economic development), 9 (sealing India-Bangladesh border to check infiltration), and 10 (prevention of encroachment of government lands). "The opposition is spreading misinformation. They don't want a solution to the issue. Let me clarify, there's nothing to hide, it was a very high-level meeting attended by the CM, several cabinet ministers, the chief secretary, the DGP (director general of police) and senior BSF officials. A large delegation of AASU was there. All issues, including Clause 5 were discussed," Bhattacharya, who is also an adviser of the North East Students' Organisation (NSEO) said.
NESO is an umbrella body of the student outfits in the region. Bhattacharya insisted that AASU demanded the implementation of not just Clause 5, but also other sub-clauses related to deportation of illegal migration. We have requested the government to take up the deportation issue with Bangladesh. Let's not forget there is a Supreme Court ruling on this," he added.
The apex court had in its judgement in the case of All Assam Ahom Association & Others vs. Union of India, said: "The matter of deportation of foreigners who have illegally entered into India needs to be taken up by the Government of India with the Government of Bangladesh so that a proper policy could be evolved and the process of deportation of such declared foreigners become easier and hassle free.
The Clause 6 tangle
If detection and expulsion of illegal immigrants are vital, so is the definition of the Assamese identity.
The BJP's 'Assam Vision Document 2016-2025' said the Assam Accord would be implemented "in its letter and spirit". And in July 2019, the Union Home Ministry had constituted a high-powered committed headed by retired Gauhati High Court judge Biplab Sarma for implementation of Clause 6, which has remained contentious for decades.
Clause 6 of the Accord, which was signed by the Centre, the Assam government, the AASU and the now-defunct All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP) in 1985, states, "Constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards…shall be provided to protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people".
The panel, which included AASU representative, submitted a confidential report to then CM Sarbananda Sonowal in February last year. Irked by what was seen as the government's dilly-dallying over the matter, the AASU had made it public five months later, insisting that the people of Assam had the right to know the content of the report.
Among the key recommendations of the committee was the definition of the Assamese identity in this multi-ethnic state. The panel came up with a definition, saying the Indian citizens who were "part of Assamese community of Assam on or before January 1, 1951, any indigenous tribal community of Assam residing in the territory of Assam on or before January 1, 1951, any other indigenous community of Assam residing in the territory of Assam on or before January 1, 1951, all other Indian citizens residing in the territory of Assam on or before the same date and their descendants" should be treated as Assamese people.
This recommendation with 1951 as cut-off year is likely to pose a fresh challenge for the government, which has not been able to fix the NRC logjam even two years after final citizenship list was published. The NRC, which sets March 24, 1971, as the cut-off date -- anyone entering India post this date would be considered an illegal immigrant – would hinder the MHA panel's recommendation.
In addition, the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), 2019 says that migrants who entered India by December 31, 2014, fleeing "religious persecution" in neighboring countries, including Bangladesh, would be eligible for Indian citizenship.
Akhil Ranjan Dutta, who teaches political science at Gauhati University, is of the view that the decision to form one more committee on Assam Accord is a political move by the ruling BJP ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.
"However, this is not taking us anywhere precisely because the incumbent government has dismantled the very consensus on Assam Accord by enacting CAA. By enacting CAA, they have fragmented the forces of resistance. The Bodos and other indigenous communities who had been demanding implementation of Clause 6 were taken away from the purview of CAA," Dutta told this writer. The new citizenship law, which had sparked a violent agitation in the state in 2019, does not apply to tribal areas Assam, Tripura, Mizoram, and Meghalaya as mandated by the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution.
Experts remain sceptical
According to Dutta, Clause 6 or for that matter, the whole Assam Accord has now been "reduced to the consent of a very miniscule community, or the mainstream Assamese linguistic community" because of the exclusion of indigenous groups from the purview of CAA. "I am not all optimistic about government addressing Clause 6 with sincerity and commitment. When asked about the contradiction between CAA and the Assam Accord, Bhattacharya said the AASU continues to demand that CAA be repealed. "CAA is an injustice to the people of Assam. We are much very clear about it; we don't accept CAA and continue to pursue it until a solution is arrived at," Bhattacharya concluded.