Assam Accord Clause 6: Cut-off year 1971 or 1951, who are the Assamese people?

Abhishek Saha
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The first step towards securing reservations under Clause 6 is defining “Assamese people”, a question marked by multiple identity contentions. (File)

As protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act continue across Assam, a government-appointed high-level committee is giving the final push to reach a consensus and finalise suggestions for implementation of Clause 6 of Assam Accord, which promises various safeguards to “Assamese people”.

The committee was scheduled to submit its report on January 15 but has now got a one-month extension from the Home Ministry.

The first step towards securing reservations under Clause 6 is defining “Assamese people”, a question marked by multiple identity contentions.

Assam Accord arrived at the cut-off of midnight March 24, 1971, to detect “illegal foreigners” — the NRC preparation in Assam uses the same cut-off — but the Accord did not define who all were eligible for the safeguards.

Explained

What special provision declares

Clause 6 of Assam Accord — signed in 1985 after a six-year movement against ‘illegal foreigners’ — says, “Constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards, as may be appropriate, shall be provided to protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of Assamese people.” Political leaders look at this provision to protect rights of land, property, language, culture, reservation of seats in Vidhan Sabha and Panchayats, and reservation of jobs for “indigenous people”.

The committee’s public notice in August 2019, seeking public suggestions, mentions three categories for reservations: “indigenous tribal, indigenous Assamese, and other indigenous people of Assam”.

Constituted in July 2019, the committee has received suggestions and memorandums from various groups and held a series of meetings with representatives of various communities.

Leaders of the All-Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and other groups representing Assamese indigenous communities maintain that NRC of 1951 should be the cut-off to define “Assamese people”, as mentioned in the Accord. They point towards two reports to justify the demand: the conclusion of the 1998 sub-committee, headed by then Joint Secretary (NE) at MHA, G K Pillai; second, a 2015 report by former state Assembly Speaker Pranab Gogoi, which suggested that 1951 NRC be taken as the basis to define “Assamese people”.

The three top leaders of AASU — its chief adviser, president and general secretary — are members of the 14-member committee, headed by retired judge Biplab Kumar Sarma.

Asked for his views as a committee member, AASU adviser Samujjal Bhattacharya told The Indian Express: “Clause 6 implementation cannot be a bargaining point.... It’s our due. We had taken the burden from 1951 to 1971, hence Clause 6 was given. Clause 6 says safeguards for ‘Assamese people’. Clause 6 remains the same but to explain reservations, the committee has interpreted it as ‘indigenous tribal, indigenous Assamese and other indigenous people of Assam’.”

Committee chairman Justice Sarma told The Indian Express that the report is almost complete. Asked whether he can share anything about the cut-off year, he said, “I would not comment on that now. You will come to know when the report is out.”

Speaking to reporters in New Delhi after the delegation’s meeting with MHA on January 13, Sarma had said that 1971 was “only for identification of illegal foreigners”.

But a 1951 cut-off for the definition has its own problems, according to others. “Assam Accord gives a cut-off of March 24, 1971. Anyone before that date is an Indian citizen in Assam,” Azizur Rahman, adviser to All-Assam Minority Students’ Union, told The Indian Express. “Now if you give any other cut-off, will you not create a different category of citizens? If we talk about 1951 as cut-off, we have to remember it is not there in many districts.”

In 2012, the government had said in Assembly that 1951 NRC is not available in six districts —Cachar, Karbi Anglong, Baksa, Chirang, Dima Hasao, and Sivasagar — and 1,374 villages in five other districts do not have it.

Kamal Choudhury, president of All-Assam Bengali Youth Student Federation, said, “If 1951 is made the cut-off, then Bengalis will lose much.” Echoing concerns on “categorisation” of citizens, Choudhury said, “We are observing. There will be protests if anything unjust is done.”

Sadhan Purkayastha, secretary general of Citizen’s Rights Protection Committee based in Assam’s Bengali-majority Barak Valley, said, “We have submitted memorandum to the committee stating that Assam is a multi-lingual, multi-cultural state with different communities and tribes. To make cut-offs and give reservations is not only unconstitutional but will also spread hatred.”

A senior state minister said the government has not given a presentation to the committee. A state BJP leader said the party has not submitted any recommendation on cut-offs but indicated that there could be a consensus on 1951.

A Congress member said the party has submitted a memorandum demanding implementation of Assam Accord in letter and spirit.