New Delhi: Over the past one year, the country’s northeastern region has witnessed the emergence of a peculiar consensus: one that supports an anti-immigration law, while opposing a pro-citizenship one.
The politics of this consensus is set to make a comeback with the Citizenship Amendment Bill 2016, which Parliament has listed in its items of business for this session starting Monday.
On Friday, the streets of Guwahati — the epicentre of the citizenship narrative — witnessed the resurgence of demonstrations led by youth and civil society groups months after tension on the issue cooled off.
These people who supported the National Register of Citizens exercise till the end are raising alarm bells against the Bill’s aim to provide citizenship to Hindus from Bangladesh.
The race to table and pass the Bill, allegedly to make a demographic change, has the potential to spark unrest similar to the Assam Agitation, experts have said.
The Bill, which proposes to amend the original Citizenship Act of 1956, was passed in the Lok Sabha in January, but lapsed as the government did not table it in the Rajya Sabha. To become a law, a Bill must be passed by both the Houses of Parliament.
The Bill seeks to grant Indian citizenship to non-muslim refugees - Hindus, Jains, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Parsis - from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan if they have fled their respective country due to religious persecution. It also proposes to reduce the mandated 11 years of residence in India for citizenship eligibility to six years.
If the Bill is passed, persons belonging to these communities would not be jailed or deported under the Passport (Entry into India) Act of 1920 and the Foreigners Act of 1946. It sets December 31, 2014, as the cut-off date after which any person moving to India from these neighbouring countries will be considered for citizenship.
This legislation has received considerable flak due to its threat to minorities. The NRC does not distinguish illegal immigrants on the basis of religion, whereas the Bill is designed to exclude Muslims and include Hindus.
In the northeast, it threatens to 'minoritise' its indigenous population by absorbing a Hindu population. Civil society groups in Assam, where the recently published final NRC excluded 19 lakh people, have opposed the BJP-led Centre’s intention to absorb Bangladeshis based on their religion.
Reactions to the Bill
Assam, Manipur, Nagaland and Meghalaya have repeatedly witnessed unrest ever since the Bill was introduced in 2016. Most recently, home minister Amit Shah’s visit to Mizoram in October was met with protest marches and demonstrations by the Manipur People Against Citizenship Amendment Bill (MANPAC), All Manipur Matam Ishei Kanglup (AMMIK) and Nagaland Joint Committee on Prevention of Illegal Immigrants (JCPI).
In Assam, the All Assam Students Union (AASU)’s chief advisor, Samujjal Bhattacharya, told reporters on Friday that his outfit “would not tolerate the Bill at any cost and continue to protest against it”.
“We cannot let the BJP do whatever it wants just because it has the numbers in Parliament. With the Act, the definition of immigrants will change directly and affect the demography of Assam and the entire region,” Bhattacharya said. AASU leaders were at the forefront of the massive protests that were witnessed in the state earlier this year.
The main opposition to the Bill in Assam comes due to its nature vis-à-vis Clause 6 of the Assam Accord.
According to the Accord, those who came to the state “after January 1, 1966 (inclusive) and up to March 24, 1971” shall be considered as foreigners. They will be deleted from the electoral rolls and will have to register themselves as foreigners.
In addition, the Bill principally also goes against the NRC, which detected 19 lakh people entering the country after March 24, 1971, as it allows any Hindu individual, who illegally moved to India, to prove six years of residency for citizenship.
What this means is that all Hindus who migrated from Bangladesh would have another chance at Indian citizenship via the Bill, said RTI activist Akhil Gogoi of the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti in Assam.
However, the same isn’t true for Muslims who entered Assam the same time and are excluded from the final NRC.
BJP and its Allies
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the Centre pioneered this Bill as one of its priorities upon assuming power in 2014. It had promised to welcome Hindu refugees in its election manifesto that year.
Ever since its conception, the Bill is soaked in communal controversy and is opposed by parties like the Congress, Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), Trinamool Congress and Samajwadi Party.
These parties had reportedly moved dissent notes to the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) on the Bill after it was tabled in the Lok Sabha in July 2016.
In September, Shah had stated at a North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) meeting in Guwahati that the government’s “intention is to expel illegal immigrants from the entire country and not just Assam.”
At the meeting, the home minister had also said that existing laws of the northeastern states would remain untouched even with the introduction of the CAB.
The shaky part for the BJP, however, lies in managing its electorate as it endorses both a pro-citizenship law and one against it. The Bill has found support in Assam’s Barak valley which has a high concentration of Bengali-speaking Hindus.
How different is CAB from NRC?
The BJP leadership says that while the latter intends to detect persons living illegally in Assam, the former is the right of persecuted minorities in the neighbouring countries to avail Indian citizenship.
Indeed, both the NRC (a provision in the Assam Accord) and the citizenship Bill serve different purposes. But the communal undertone of the Bill and the geographic criteria of migration from Bangladesh, a Muslim-majority country, in the NRC has created confusion.
However, the saffron party’s politics on the Bill has built uncertainty among its allies in the northeast, with many terming it as sectarian. The BJP's main man in the region and a senior minister in the Assam government, Himanta Biswa Sarma, has maintained that the Bill will help his state against “demographic invasion.”
“Today, if we do not have the citizenship Bill, 17 seats that elect Assamese people will go the Jinnah way,” he had said.
The Assam Gana Parishad (AGP) had left the alliance with the BJP after the Bill was passed in the Lok Sabha. In Manipur, where the BJP is in power, Chief Minister N Biren Singh, too, has expressed the state’s concerns.
In Meghalaya, the United Democratic Party (UDP) and the National People’s Party (NPP), the BJP’s partners in the state, have opposed the Bill. The Nagaland government too has expressed its reservations over the Bill.