From the frying pan to the fire

The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2019 does little to address the concerns of the people of Assam and Northeast India. Instead, it has stirred up a hornet’s nest.

The Lok Sabha cleared the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2019 on January 8. The Bill seeks to amend the Citizenship Act of 1955, and if approved, will allow the government to grant citizenship to Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan if they have lived in India for six years, who have faced religious persecution or fear religious persecution in their home countries, even if they do not possess the necessary documents.

The current law lays down that “citizenship of India by naturalisation can be acquired by a foreigner (not illegal migrant) who is ordinarily resident in India for twelve years”.

Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge requested that the draft law be sent to a select committee as it was linked to a Constitutional issue. Trinamool Congress MP Saugata Roy countered that the Bill is ‘divisive and ‘insidious’ and will lead to ‘fires’ across Assam and the North East, especially considering that Muslims are not included in the Bill.

With Assam bearing the brunt of illegal immigration since independence, the BJP as a party feels that it needs to balance the population of Hindus and Muslims in the state according to media reports. Home Minister Mr Rajnath Singh sought to clarify that the burden of illegal migration will be borne by the entire country and not just by Assam. He said that the Bill is important for minorities in countries like Pakistan, as India is their only hope.

However, the Bill has led to widespread protests in Assam as well as other Northeast states. The protesters in Assam feel that migrants of any religion are a threat to the state’s indigenous cultural and linguistic identities.

The amendment also extends the cutoff date for granting citizenship from March 25, 1971 to December 31, 2014. This means that foreigners who have entered the country without papers till 2014 will be eligible for citizenship, which actually goes against the Assam Accord. This would make thousands of Bengalis who entered Assam in that period eligible to become citizens, which is not acceptable to the ‘indigenous’ Assamese.

Moreover, Bengali Muslims, who are in majority in eight districts of central and western Assam are protesting against the proposal to exclude Muslims. Among other states, Mizoram is fearful of the influx of Buddhist Chakmas from Bangladesh. Meghalaya and Nagaland are concerned about Bengali speaking people and Arunachal Pradesh is circumspect about both Chakmas and Tibetans. Manipur doesn’t want any outsiders at all and Bengali speaking Tripura is also protesting the decision.

BJP’s ally Asom Gana Parishad in Assam has withdrawn support due to passage of the Bill. Furthermore, BJP member and Assam Assembly Speaker Hitendra Nath Goswami feels that “hasty passage” of the Amendment Bill in Lok Sabha has hurt the sentiments of people in the state. He also said that his conscience “cannot support any act, which is unacceptable to and detrimental to the unity and fraternity of the people of Assam”.

Activists of Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti, the Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuva Chatra Parishad and 68 organisations shouted anti-government slogans at the Assam Secretariat in Guwahati on Wednesday. Students Federation of India workers resorted to semi-nude protests along with a mock funeral procession of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Union Minister of State for Railways Rajen Gohain, Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal and BJP leaders Bijoya Chakravarty, Pradan Baruah, Rameshwar Teli, and Ramen Deka. Cotton University students also started an indefinite hunger strike in Guwahati after an indefinite class boycott.

Former Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi alleges that the BJP has insulted the Preamble of the Constitution which does not differentiate foreigners on the basis of religion. He questioned, “What is the difference between them and Jinnah who partitioned India on the basis of religion?”  BJP state finance minister Himanta Biswa Sarma further courted controversy by stating that without this bill, Assam will become part of Pakistan’ due to the secessionist movement there.

In a move to apparently calm tempers, the Modi government appointed a committee to look into implementation of clause 6 of the Assam Accord that addresses the demand “to protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people.” However, even that road is a tough one to take if you take historical precedents. An instance is the protests by Bengalis in the Barak Valley against making Assamese the only official language in the state in 1960.

Far from winning support in Assam, the Citizenship Amendment Bill 2019 has further stoked the embers of discord that have been simmering for long in the state as well as the entire Northeast even as the Bill has little chance of being cleared by the Rajya Sabha. Has the NDA government bitten off much more than it can chew on this issue?




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