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The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill

The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill

Northeast India is currently witnessing fierce protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, introduced in the Lok Sabha by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on July 19, 2016 to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955. Protests against the bill have come from state governments, political parties and civil society groups in the region. As per the provisions of the new bill, illegal migrants who are Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, will become eligible for citizenship. When the bill was first introduced there were protests in Delhi and elsewhere .

But the impact of the bill is felt most in Assam and other Northeastern states now as a 16-member Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC)  led by Lok Sabha MP, Rajendra Agrawal visited Northeast India in the first week of May to solicit views from the state governments and stakeholders on the bill. The new bill while seeking to provide citizenship to people from six minority communities, who entered India illegally, covers only non-Muslim minorities. The bill makes illegal migrants eligible for citizenship on the basis of religion.

Those who oppose the bill say seeking to grant citizenship on the basis of religious denomination is blatantly violative of the Constitution. Granting citizenship to non-Muslim minorities from Muslim majority countries would make the large number of Hindu migrants from Bangladesh living in Assam eligible for Indian citizenship while Muslims who migrated long ago would continue to be illegal migrants. Many suspect the motives of the BJP in Assam and elsewhere to consolidate the Hindu vote. Delhi-based social activist Kavita Krishnan said, “India is not like Israel, which is a Jewish state, offering the “right to return” to Jews anywhere in the world. Since India is constitutionally secular, this amendment tries to bring Hindu Rashtra into the legal framework through the backdoor. By inviting Hindus specifically to come back to Indian citizenship, it is a ghar wapsi bill of sorts.”

As per the 1955 Citizenship Act, those who entered India with valid papers can pursue citizenship if they have lived in India  for 11 of the last 14 years . Under the Act, one of the requirements for citizenship by naturalisation is that the applicant must have resided in India during the last 12 months, and for 11 of the previous 14 years. The bill relaxes this 11 year requirement to six years for persons belonging to the six religions and three countries.

Those who suspect the hidden agenda of the RSS and its political offspring, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), feel the bill is to pave the way for granting citizenship to members of the Hindu community from Bangladesh. The other two countries and five other minority communities are added more as a cover up. The bill will favour illegal migrant Hindus from Bangladesh to settle in Assam and other north-eastern states.

Emboldened by a series of electoral victories including in Northeast, the BJP is not shy to bare its Hindu communal card. The party that accused Congress of minority appeasement is now pandering to the majority community with a view to consolidate the Hindu vote bank. Several recent communal statements and actions of the BJP leaders would make this amply clear. Prime Minister Modi’s high decibel election campaign in Karnataka saw him stooping low to placate the Hindu community and play the Hindutva card. In his recent Nepal visit Modi launched a bus service between Nepal’s temple town of Janakpur and Ayodhya. He spoke of larger designs to build the Ramayan circuit to promote religious tourism. In the name of bilateral relationship, tourism and trade, what is being promoted is the Hindutva agenda. It is obvious that the party is keen to consolidate the Hindu vote bank in view of next year’s general elections

The Citizenship Amendment Bill has serious ramifications for the Northeast as it would provide citizenship to the six communities who have already entered the country, especially Assam, Tripura and other states in the region. The government is keen to rehabilitate and provide citizenship rights to Bengali Hindus from Bangladesh. The other countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and five other minority communities are added to show the bill serves a bigger cause. The bill is sectarian and discriminatory in nature and has serious consequences on the fragile demographic structure of the ethnic minorities in the Northeast.

Various state governments and citizen groups have met the Joint Parliamentary Committee and registered their opposition to the b ill. In Assam’s Brahmaputra valley alone more than 130 groups have voiced their protests against the bill to the Committee. They said the move will make Assam a "dumping ground for Hindu Bangladeshis". Protesters carried placards with the words, “F oreigners are foreigners irrespective of religion”.

Other organisations opposing the Bill include the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS), the All Assam Minority Students’ Union, and the North East Indigenous People’s Forum and several other citizen groups. KMSS leader Akhil Gogoi  questioned: "Will Assamese people become minorities in their own state? Will Assamese language be replaced with Bengali as the official language? Such fears among the indigenous people in Assam will become a reality if we all do not stand strongly against the bill. The BJP and RSS are sponsoring several organisations in Assam so that they don't oppose the bill. All foreigners, irrespective of religion and caste, who came to Assam after 1971 must be detected and deported," KMSS demanded. According to a report by former Assam Governor S.K. Sinha, 75 lakh Bangladeshi Hindus have entered Assam between 1971 and 1989. If the bill is passed, they will become citizens of India.

In Meghalaya, the newly formed Democratic Alliance (MDA) government, in which BJP with its two MLAs is a partner, unanimously decided to oppose the bill. The decision was communicated to the Centre through the JPC, which visited Meghalaya, May 10. The decision to oppose the Bill was taken at a Cabinet meeting chaired by Chief Minister Conrad K Sangma ahead of the visit by the Joint Parliamentary Committee. Meghalaya Deputy Chief Minister Prestone Tynsong called the Bill “dangerous” taking into consideration that Meghalaya and the Northeastern region is bound by a porous international border. Several other leading NGOs in the state, including the Federation of Khasi-Jaintia and Garo People (FKJGP), have protested against the Bill. The Northeast shares an international border of 5,182 kilometres (about 99 percent of its total geographical boundary) with the neighbouring Tibet , China,  Myanmar, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh . The region has 1,596 kilometres of border with Bangladesh alone.

The illegal migration in Assam and the rest of Northeast India has been one of the hot issues that have seen decades of protests, agitation and even bloodshed. The most violent of these was the Nellie massacre in 1983 in which some 3000 Muslim migrant workers were killed. Militant organisations like United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) had the sympathy of the Assamese people for championing the rights of the indigenous people of the state. Assam witnessed prolonged agitation led by the powerful All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) in the 1970s and 80s against illegal migration from Bangladesh. The more moderate AASU started by observing massive satyagraha on the lines of India’s freedom struggle with thousands courting arrests. But at times the protests became violent and adopted methods like bandhs, shut downs and disruption of life.

The movement received huge mass support from almost all sections of the society except from the then ruling government and a few others who wanted to benefit from the votes of the illegal Bangladeshi migrants. Congress party for years saw the Muslim minorities in Assam as its vote bank and did little to stem illegal migration. Now that the BJP has captured power, it is bent on bringing about a legislation that will favour Hindu migrants. While various political parties cultivated religious communities as vote banks, the AASU has consistently stated that its agitation was against all illegal foreigners irrespective of religion or community. The Union voiced its concern to the government of India that the influx from Bangladesh would seriously threaten the existence of the indigenous people of Assam.

In the 1980s taking advantage of the overwhelming support of the people of Assam, the student leaders of AASU formed a political party called Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and fought the elections. The AGP won the state assembly elections in Assam and formed the government twice, from 1985 to 1989 and from 1996 to 2001. Former AASU president Prafulla Kumar Mahanta became Chief Minister and several other student leaders became ministers.

The agitations and protests spearheaded by the AASU against foreigners culminated in the historic Assam Accord signed by the government of India in 1985 to resolve the matter of illegal migration. Though the agitation ended and the student leaders came to power, the central government never implemented many clauses of the accord. Under the Assam Accord, a person who came to Assam from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) after 1951 and before 1971 was given citizenship. The Assam Accord stated in clause 6 that while giving citizenship to immigrants, constitutional protection will be given to original citizens of Assam. This part of the Accord (clause 6) was never implemented. If the “constitutional protection clause” had been ensured, a large number of illegal immigrants (who continued to come to Assam even after 1971) would not have received voting rights. As per the accord, any individual who entered Assam following the midnight of March 24, 1971 or, following the start of the Bangladesh War, would be considered an illegal immigrant, regardless of their religion. 

 Instead, the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act, 1983 (IMDT Act) was enacted by the Parliament of India in 1983 under the Indira Gandhi government to protect illegal immigrants who continued to come to Assam even after 1971. The act made it difficult to deport illegal migrants from Assam. Population experts and scholars have point out that the rapid growth of Muslim population in Assam could not be explained by natural growth but is the result of illegal migration from Bangladesh. The demographic change in Assam and other states of the region has been at the root of much of the insurgency movements and ethnic conflicts. But Bangladesh has in the past and even now continues to deny that there are any illegal migrants from its territory entering India. In 2005 the Supreme Court of India struck down the IMDT Act (1983). Though the Act described the procedures to detect illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and expel them from Assam no one was send back to Bangladesh.

Former Assam Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, who at the time of signing the Assam Accord was president of the All Assam Students’ Union, and Biraj Sarma, then general secretary of the Asom Gana Parishad, recently met with the Joint Parliamentary Committee and submitted a memorandum which argue that the amendment is an  attack on the Assam Accord. They said if the bill is passed in its current form "the very purpose of the Assam Accord would be gutted".

AGP president Atul Bora said the current bill would harm India’s secular fabric, and make indigenous Assamese people a " linguistic minority" in their own state. Bora also noted that the bill would effectively make Assam’s recent exercise of updating its National Register of Citizenship pointless. Another leader Prahlad Gogoi  said, "We took so many people till 1971," adding, "We just can’t take anymore". AGP which is a coalition partner in the BJP government in Assam has threatened to pull out of the coalition if the bill in its present form is passed. The Congress, the main opposition in Assam has also voiced its opposition to the bill.

Critics of the bill have pointed out that the religion-specific clauses of the bill violate the principles of secularism embedded in the Indian Constitution. In the Brahmaputra Valley, the opposition to it also stems from the fact that it contravenes the Assam Accord of 1985. According to the accord – signed by Assamese nationalists and the Union government – to mark the end of an anti-foreigner movement in the state, everyone who entered the state after the midnight of March 24, 1971 would be declared an illegal immigrant, irrespective of their religion. The date corresponds to the beginning of the Bangladesh War.

Meanwhile, the opposition to the bill in the Brahmaputra Valley has not gone down well in the Bengali –dominated Barak Valley. The distrust between the two valleys, which dates back to 1947, has come out in the open yet again. The public hearings by the JPC in the Barak Valley saw people turn up in large numbers to express their support to the proposed amendment. Some in the Barak Valley even threatened to seek separation from Assam if the Assamese intelligentsia continues to oppose the bill.

Congress MP Shashi Tharoor called the present bill a gross transgression of the idea of India as envisaged by our founding fathers. The Indian idea, he said, is that people that are different in all respects come together and rally around the Indian democracy. A democracy which has endured differences of caste, creed, conviction, and culture and agreed on the ground rules of how everyone will disagree. Therefore, we must pause and ask important questions, not just to our government, but to ourselves as well. What is the India that we call home? Who can call themselves an Indian and why?

This bill is the fulfilment of a promise that the ruling BJP government had made in its 2014 Lok Sabha election manifesto. The promise read, "India shall remain a natural home for persecuted Hindus and they shall be welcome to seek refuge here". The initial steps to this were the notifications issued in 2015 and 2016, which excluded religious minorities of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh from being deported, as illegal immigrants, under the Passports Act, 1920, and the Foreigners Act, 1946. This bill is the final step of the process. In fulfilling this promise, the central government is implicitly defining India as the Hindu homeland, something that the Hindutva brigade has done since a long time.

The only other country that makes such a claim is Israel, which claims to be the homeland for all Jews. According to Tharoor, this bill approves Jinnah's two nation theory of a Hindu India and a Muslim Pakistan, something that we as a nation have rejected time and again.

As per the government, the exception has been created because these minorities are fleeing persecution and have no other option aside from coming to India illegally. It is clear that this bill, in spirit, addresses refugees, people who are forced to move out because of a well-founded fear for their lives, and not immigrants, people who voluntarily move often seeking economic opportunities. Even if we admit the good intention of this bill, in terms of addressing the plight of these mistreated people, critics ask why Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, Ahmadiyya Muslims from Pakistan and Uighur Muslims from China have been overlooked. For these communities are also fleeing from government pogroms en-masse.

India, no doubt has hosted victims of persecution in the past- be they Zoroastrians in the 12th century, or more recently, the Tibetans. While we as a nation pride in such generosity and magnanimity, the question now is why are we partial and discriminatory since suffering and cruelty are not partial to some.

The bill is likely to come up for discussion in the upcoming Monsoon Session of Parliament. Thus, it remains to be seen whether the bill will become law. In any case, the government will have to explain the faith-based provisions in the current bill and address the concerns of the people of Northeast India in particular.

(Published on 21st May 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 21)