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Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016

Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016

The other day I passed through Nellie. Nellie is a town in Nagaon district, central Assam, infamous for the ‘1983 Nellie massacre’ in which more than 2000 people were brutally killed. Keeping the Assam’s bloodiest massacre aside , the tragedy ultimately led to the Assam Accord of 15th August, 1985 signed between the All Assam Students' Union (AASU) and the central government . One of the most important clauses of the accord states that illegal immigrants, irrespective of religion, who came to Assam after 1971 would be deported. The Accord ended the six year anti-illegal immigrant movement that started in 1979.

On 8th of this month the Lok Sabha passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016. The Bill proposes that Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists, Parsis and Christians who fled Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan due to ‘religious persecutions’ will be eligible for Indian citizenship after residing in the country for six years instead of 11 years. The Bill also says that the beneficiaries who came to India as recently as 2014 are eligible for India Citizenship. Clearly if the Bill becomes a law Assam Accord will be null and void.

Another effect of the Bill is that it will nullify the National Register of Citizens (NRC), an exercise to detect Bangladeshi nationals who illegally entered the state after March 24, 1971, the date decided in the Assam Accord. The BJP led by the Prime Minister won the 2016 state election on tall promises that Assam Accord would be strictly implemented and all detected illegal immigrants would be deported to Bangladesh. NRC published the list of genuine citizens last July and left out 40 lakh applicants. Though the Supreme Court extended the dateline to December 15 last year for the rejected applicants to claim their citizenship, it is believed that close to 40 lakh are illegal immigrants. Now, instead of deporting these foreigners the central governing plans to grant them Indian citizenship. This is the betrayal of the worst sort. No wonder Assam was shocked at the passage of the Bill in Lok Sabha.

Not just Assam but the entire North East erupted in unison protests. Shut downs, rallies, public meetings are some of the protests to vehemently oppose the bill. People also vented their anger through the social media. Violence was reported, notably the firing by security forces in Tripura injuring five youths, two seriously. The police were also not very kind in Assam. Sahitya Akademi awardee, Hiren Gohain, Rights activist, Akhil Gogoi and journalist, Manjit Mahanta were slapped with sedition charges after suomoto FIR for allegedly secessionist speeches.

The BJP government which is adamant in pushing the Bill, blind and deaf to the genuine concerns of people of North East and insensitive to the sentiments of the region, is bound to have fall outs. Assam BJP spokesperson, Mehdi Alam resigned from his post and from the party. The Assam Gana Parishad (AGP) pulled out of BJP-led Assam government. All Chief Ministers in the region, including BJP CM of Manipur, have opposed the bill. The Nationalist People’s Party (NPP) in Meghalaya and other alliance partners of the BJP in other states of the North East are seriously considering parting ways with the NDA. Many BJP MLAs in the region have either written or spoken to the Prime Minister/Home Minister to withdraw or modify the bill to avoid strong actions by them.   

The passage of the Bill in the Lower House of Parliament and the subsequent massive protests in the Seven Sister states have brought North East into limelight. The national media tried to focus on the fragile and complex region, a home to more than two hundred major and sub-tribes. Discussions on national televisions were held on prime time; besides the big-mouthed politicians, lawyers and constitutional experts were part of the panels. Though by default, it is hoped that the Bill helps the rest of India to understand this neglected and alienated region better.

These prominent personalities referred to clearly state that the CAB is both highly communal and unconstitutional. It seeks to grant citizenship on the basis of religion and the countries they come from, whereas the Indian Constitution is secular.  Part II of the Constitution of India, 1950 and the Citizenship Act, 1955 have only birth, descent, registration, naturalization and incorporation of the territory as means for gaining Indian citizenship. Religions and domicile of the persons do not come into picture at all. The Bill will overturn the constitution by granting citizenship to persons of certain religions from certain countries.

The controversial and contentious Bill is anti-Assam, anti-North East, anti-tribal and anti-minority, as some have termed it. It is so because it is Assam and the North Eastern states that will be adversely impacted by the proposed law for the simple reason that N orth East has a 1,596 kilometre long porous border with the erstwhile East Pakistan. The region connected to the mainland by t he 21 to 40 kilometres wide Siliguri Corridor will bear the brunt. T hese states are inhabited by various indigenous tribals who are a micro group compared with the population of India. Hence the makers of the Indian Constitution made special provisions for protection of their survival, identity, language, culture, customs, land, forests under the Sixth Schedule. If CAB becomes a law, the Sixth Schedule will be undone very quickly and the wisdom and genius of the fathers of the constitution will be replaced by idiocy and stupidity of the right wing BJP and its mentors like the RSS and others. This is a constitutional betrayal.

The fear of the people of the North East is genuine. Tripura is a glaring example. The tribal state has become a non-tribal state. The tribals are now only 31 per cent of the total population. Tribals have become a minority in their own land. They have lost their political and economic power to the ‘immigrants’ from across the border. Chief Ministers and majority of the ministers are non-tribals. Tribals have little voice. They are even looked down and frowned upon.

According to rough calculation Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh and Christians population in Bangladesh is around 15 million (Hindus alone are 14 million). Now, just think about the following foreseeable situation. Leaving out Assam, the average population in the other states in North East is just about 2 million. If one million or even half a million from the neighbouring country come and settle in each of the six states as Indian citizens in the next 5 years, the demography will change greatly. The political, economic and even social equations too will be significantly altered! 

The BJP has for a long time been vehemently accusing the Congress of playing vote bank politics and indulging in minority appeasement. Today the 39 year old ultranationalist party that grew from two members in Lok Sabha in 1984 to 282 in 2014 on Hindutva ideology is doing the worst kind of vote bank politics and majority appeasement. The Bill was hurriedly brought from nowhere with an eye to this year’s general election. After the blunder of demonetisation that resulted in impoverishing ordinary citizens and loss of at least 1.5 million jobs, the haphazard implementation of GST, the broken promises of bringing black money from abroad to be distributed to all poor households and the recent loss in Hindi heartland states, the fast diminishing popularity of PM Modi forced the BJP to pass in Lok Sabha the Bill that favours foreigners over citizens. 

Prima facie, the Bill is a conspiracy by the RSS and the BJP to turn North East into a Hindu majority region to ultimately fulfil their plan of converting India into a Hindu state. It might be a long term strategy of the right wing groups to enable the BJP to get a clear majority in the Legislative Assemblies of these states and thus realising their dreams of seeing the BJP rule all the states in the North East.

Regional political parties need to take a stronger stand against the bill. BJP governments or those in alliance with the BJP in all states need to firmly protest including resignation and pulling out NDA to convey a clear message. So far this not has happened. Even BJP MLAs and MPs from the region need to protest stronger.

The argument that the central government will ensure that the whole country will share the burden of accommodating the immigrants is eyewash. It is obvious Bangladeshis won’t travel to Gujarat, Maharashtra, UP, etc. Due to proximity to the country of their origin, it is convenient for them to settle in one of the North Eastern states. The North East will have to be a dumping ground for the legal or illegal immigrants and sooner than later they will outnumber the local populations ultimately rendering the provisions under the Six Schedule meaningless and the powers of the district councils worthless. Even state governments will be dominated by the population from the adjoining country, just like Tripura. The uniqueness of North East India will be gravely endangered. Hope the bill is withdrawn, or else North East will be handed over to foreigners.

(Published on 21st January 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 04)