Citizenship Inferno

article

Modi’s pre-election gimmicky announcement of allowing non-Muslim immigrants from neighbouring countries to legally settle in Assam has set the region on fire, including his own party leaders

RAJEEV BHATTACHARYA

RAJEEV BHATTACHARYA

The author is a senior Guwahati-based journalist. He’s a Chevening scholar and has worked with the Times of India, Indian Express, The Telegraph and Times Now television. He is the author of two books on the Northeast dealing with insurgency

Assam has been reeling under sweeping protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016 that proposes to give citizenship to some sections of non-Muslim migrants from the neighbouring countries. The Assamese dominated areas in the Brahmaputra Valley are apprehensive of being flooded by Hindu migrants from Bangladesh, which will also render the historic Assam Accord inked three decades ago meaningless, since it provides for the detection and deportation of all illegal migrants. All opposition parties in Assam, including the Congress, All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) and even the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), which is an ally of the BJP-led government in the state, have also come out against the bill since it will also nullify the ongoing exercise to update the National Register of Citizens (NRC) which was first published in 1951.

At the same time, the Bengali dominated Barak Valley in southern Assam comprising three districts have welcomed the proposed changes to the bill, which is apparent from the memoranda to and representations before the Joint Parliamentary Committee headed by Member of Parliament Rajendra Agarwal. This has clearly brought to the fore the demographic divide in the northeastern state, which can be traced to the 1960s when Assamese was declared as the official language of the state.

Not only in Assam, protests have erupted in the neighbouring hill states as well, including Meghalaya, where the state cabinet has taken a decision to oppose the bill which was promised by the BJP during the general elections in 2014. The Bill aims at amending the Citizenship Act, 1955, to allow sections of Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan to apply for Indian citizenship by relaxing the mandatory waiting period from eleven years to six. In addition, the government has also passed two notifications exempting such migrants from the Foreigners Act, 1946, and the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920, allowing them to continue to live in India if they had arrived before December 31, 2014.

Saffron Ire

The widespread agitation notwithstanding, the Assam unit of the BJP has been unable to come out with a statement spelling out its position on the Bill. Chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal has drawn flak for remaining a mute spectator, although he had said that he would step down if his government failed to protect the rights of the citizens in the state. Another senior minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma, was of the view that the government would issue a statement after the update of the NRC and its subsequent mandatory procedures of verification of claims draws to a close.

Yet, there were other functionaries in the BJP who were opposed to the stance adopted by Sonowal and Sarma. Guwahati Lok Sabha Member of Parliament Bijoya Chakravarty’s opinion was echoed by legislator from Chabua, Binod Hazarika, who threatened to resign from the party if the migrants are allowed to settle in Assam. And there were scores of middle and lower rung functionaries within the party who felt that allowing citizenship to Hindu Bangladeshis would pose a threat to the identity of the indigenous communities of the state. They had embarked upon a signature campaign to underscore their objections against the Bill, but they were prevented from sending the list to party president Amit Shah by the state leadership.

The reaction had been more aggressive among activists of other Hindutva outfits like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and its youth wing Bajrang Dal. Following a meeting on 22 May in Guwahati, almost ninety per cent of functionaries from these two organisations decided to quit, following differences with the central leadership. Many of them are reportedly waiting to join a new group likely to be floated by the estranged and former leader of VHP Pravin Togadia. Some functionaries felt that Togadia would allow them to shape their polices on local issues without any interference.

Mired History

The apprehension in Brahmaputra Valley over the Bill has historical roots that date back to the decades of government indifference to detect illegal migrants in the state and a mechanism of preventive measures. The Assam Accord provided for the detection and deportation of alien nationals and providing safeguards for the indigenous population in the state. Needless to mention that none of these clauses in the agreement have been implemented so far, which has facilitated further migration into the state from across the border, resulting in the occupation of vast swathes that include riverine islands, grazing reserves and forests.

In 2005, another agreement was clinched between the All Assam Student’s Union (AASU), and the state and central governments to implement these clauses, but there has not been any progress so far. The AGP, which was formed with the agenda to implement the accord, swept to power twice (1985 & 1996) in the state but it has also failed to deliver on its commitment.

Alarmed over the existing state of affairs in Assam, former governor Lt Gen (Retd) SK Sinha had dashed off an exhaustive report to the President in 1998 on illegal migration in the state. The report, which was leaked to the media, contained many pages that spelled out the preventive measures that ought to be put in place to check further occupation of land by migrants. The report continues to gather dust in the home ministry, which appears clueless to deal with the situation in the state after the NRC is completed.

The current exercise is expected to detect several lakhs of illegal migrants. Intelligence agencies have already warned about the possibility of disturbances in Assam in the post-NRC scenario.

Appeasing Sentiments

Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh has said that the sentiments of the people of Assam would be taken into consideration before any change is brought about in the citizenship act. A meeting held in North Block on 31 May which was also attended by state chief minister Sonowal and highly placed officials also decided to constitute a committee that will examine the safeguards to be adopted for the indigenous people of the state. However, agitationists are not convinced over these decisions, since the Centre had been dragging its feet over the issue for the past several decades. The AASU has reiterated that it will continue to protest till the Bill has been completely shelved.

Another group led by Supreme Court lawyer Upamanyu Hazarika has begun a signature campaign in the state in support of extending the cut-off date for detection of foreigners from 1971 (as provided in Assam Accord) to 1951. There is yet another conglomerate representing 24 indigenous outfits that has approached the Supreme Court challenging the cut-off date in the Assam Accord with the plea that the same law must prevail over the entire country. They have also opposed the amendments to the Citizenship Act 1955 that grants citizenship to children of illegal migrants in Assam with certain stipulations.

A section of observers feel that the BJP may not wish to table the Bill after all in Parliament since it is unsure of the numbers required for the new law. Some are also of the opinion that the new law would not be able to stand legal scrutiny as it violates Article 14 (which states that there can be no discrimination between two religious groups) and the Citizenship Act 1955 which says people of undivided India are prohibited from acquiring citizenship in India.

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