ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Citizenship, Nationality, Discord, Accord, and Assam

A Brief History

The appearance of the Assam Accord in the recent citizenship debates in India has a historical significance. Providing a critique of liberal citizenship, Assam’s journey shows how citizenship in a culturally diverse nation state like India evolved distinctively along with different identity questions. Assam, through a popular movement against “illegal” migrants, under the leadership of the educated (middle) class, asserted this identity question and tangled the Assamese nationality in the legal framework of Indian citizenship. The accord, which ended the protest, led to the first amendment of the Citizenship Act, 1955 in 1985, specifically addressing Assam’s case. Drawing from vernacular literature and archival records, this paper offers a fresh perspective on the political history of citizenship in Assam from pre-independence until the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985 and its immediate implementation.

The author sincerelythanks the anonymous reviewer for their valuable remarks which helped improve the quality of this paper.

The years-long protest against “illegal” migrants during 1979–85, which disrupted the everyday life in Assam, has a long history against the backdrop of migration. Assam witnessed waves of anti-immigrant political mobilisations in the earlier decades as well. But what was important about the protests during the 1980s was the scale and impact of the ­mobilisation, the legal context and the political environment of the 1970s. The most crucial aspect of this period was the emergence of the question of citizenship. The signing of the Assam Accord on 15 August 1985 officially ended the protests. Within months, the first amendment of the Citizenship Act, 1955 was introduced in pursuance of the accord, which marked the beginning of a new citizenship regime in Assam.

The seed of the unfolding of this citizenship regime was in Assam’s repeated claims about illegal immigration from East Pakistan. Assam had been constantly bargaining with the ­union for special attention on this issue and urged for the “protection” of the state’s culture and economy. In 1971, at the ­advent of the creation of Bangladesh and with the fresh arrival of refugees, the issue attracted more popular attention. In the early days of 1979, Amalendu Guha (1979) noticed a problem of integration. Offering his conceptualisation of “little nationalism,” Guha placed Assam’s national question on the linguistic–regional plane and tried to find a solution to its integration with mainstream Indian nationalism. Earlier, Guha maintained that the nationality question in Assam was essentially the ideology of the small and unconsolidated middle classes, which could successfully rally the peasants by floating its cause as the “national” cause (Guha 2006: 243). Nonetheless, Guha hoped for a united India organised on the basis of “the recognition of Indian multi-nationality, federal principles of state reorganisation with single citizenship and protection of the democratic rights of all national minorities and their language, including the right of self-determination” (Guha 1979: 458).

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Updated On : 12th Jun, 2023
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