Why Assam, Northeast are angry

Source: By Abhishek Saha: The Indian Express

The Citizenship Bill has sparked protests across the Northeast, particularly Assam, from citizens, Opposition parties and even BJP leaders and their allies. What makes the Bill so sensitive, why is the government still pushing it?

Citizenship Bill: What it’s about

Passed by Lok Sabha on January 8, the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill is yet to be introduced in Rajya Sabha. It amends the Citizenship Act, 1955 by selectively relaxing the eligibility rules for immigrants in getting Indian citizenship. Under the existing Act, an immigrant must have lived in India for 12 of the previous 14 years. The Bill relaxes this to six years for certain sections of immigrants. Legal experts say that when the Bill is read together with a Home Ministry notification of September 7, 2015 on The Passport (Entry into India) Amendment Rules, 2015 and with The Foreigners (Amendment) Order, 2015, the cutoff for citizenship becomes December 31, 2014. This is for immigrants belonging to six minority (non-Muslim) religions —Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, Christians — from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan.

Why has Citizenship Bill led to protests?

Protesters have expressed fears that the prospect of citizenship will encourage migration from Bangladesh. They have cited several grounds for opposing this.

Demography: This will change across Northeastern states, protesters say, as has already been happening in Assam and Tripura over decades of migration. “Assamese could become the second language. Then there is also the question of loss of political rights and culture of the indigenous people,” said former Chief Minister Prafulla Mahanta, who was the face of the Assam Movement (1979-85) against illegal immigration, and one of the signatories to the Assam Accord at the culmination of the movement.

Bill vs NRC: Protesters say the Bill goes against the Assam Accord and negates the ongoing update of the National Register of Citizens (NRC). The Accord and the NRC set March 25, 1971 as the cutoff for citizenship, irrespective of religion. To be included as citizens, applicants need to prove that they (or their ancestors) were present in Assam before that date. AASU adviser Samujjal Bhattacharya and activist Akhil Gogoi told The Indian Express that the Bill proposes to “protect illegal Bangladeshis who have come after 1971”.

Religious discrimination: While the Assam Movement did not discriminate between Hindu and Muslim immigrants, the Bill proposes to grant citizenship on the basis of religion. The protesters call it unconstitutional. “The Bill plays with the Constitution, and that is very dangerous,” Mahanta said.

Who are protesting?

They include leaders of non-BJP parties, BJP allies and a few of the BJP too, with influential groups such as the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), civil society organisations and leading intellectuals. Mahanta’s AGP has pulled out of the BJP-led government. Protesters have held rallies and meetings, and observed a Northeast bandh called by the North East Students’ Organisation (NESO) and AASU. Students have boycotted classes. A section of the protesters attacked BJP offices in Assam; four others were injured in police action in Tripura.

Why is the government intent on pushing such a sensitive Bill?

The Bill is not just for Assam and the Northeast, but for the entire country. In Silchar on January 4, Prime Minister Narendra Modi described it as“atonement” for mistakes committed during Partition. In Guwahati, BJP general secretary Ram Madhav too cited Partition as a justification. While Parliament was in session, Home Minister Rajnath Singh said the regularised immigrants would not be settled in Assam alone but be distributed among various states.

Those opposing the Bill, however, see an Assam context. In the NRC update, the draft final list leaves out 40 lakh applicants. In the absence of official figures, leaders across political parties have estimated that Bengali Hindus constitute a large section of the 40 lakh. With 30 lakh having filed claims, some of them are expected to be included later. In a TV interview, BJP Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma spelt out his estimate — after the claims are disposed, the final NRC will leave out around 8 lakh Bengali Hindus who had migrated before 2014. Based on the distribution of these 8 lakh among Assembly seats, Sarma has made another estimate. “If the Bill is not passed, 17 Assamese seats, which elect Assamese people, will go the Jinnah way,” he said at a press conference.

But will the Citizenship Bill not affect demography?

There is no specific report on whether the refugee migrant population from Bangladesh is causing unexpected demographic changes of certain North-Eastern States,” the Home Ministry told a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) that had examined the Bill. The JPC quoted this in its report, but disagreed: “In fact, demographic changes have been indicated in successive census but the illegal migrants claim that they are original residents and citizens of India…”

On another aspect, the JPC agreed with the Home Ministry: “In the Committee’s opinion, the cutoff date of 31 December, 2014 assumes greater significance as it has been intended to determine eligibility and prevent further influx into India, negating thereby the possible malafide design of the vested interests in the neighbouring countries.”

Does that not contradict the 1971 cutoff?

The Home Ministry told the JPC that “according to the Ministry of Law & Justice, the proposed Amendment appeared to be contrary to the Assam Accord”. “The Department of Legal Affairs (Law Ministry), inter-alia, apprised the Committee that the proposed amendments appear to be contrary to the Assam Accord,” the JPC report said. However, the Law Ministry’s Legislative Department noted that “the proposed proviso to exempt persons belonging to certain minority communities coming from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan has general application beyond the Assam Accord and is intended to apply to the whole of India”.

How many will benefit from the Citizenship Bill?

On January 9, MoS (Home) Kiren Rijiju told Lok Sabha: “In the absence of any authentic survey, the accurate data of Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains and Christians who came from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan etc and settled in various parts of India including Assam up to December 31, 2014 is not available. However, as per available information, more than 30,000 persons belonging to such minority communities from these countries are staying in India on Long Term Visa.” This was in response to a question by Badruddin Ajmal, AIUDF MP from Assam.

The JPC had asked the Intelligence Bureau for data about the immediate beneficiaries from the Bill. From its records, the IB gave a count of 31,313 (25,447 Hindus, 5,807 Sikhs, 55 Christians, 2 Buddhists and 2 Parsis) who have been given Long Term Visas on their claim of religious persecution in the three countries. For citizenship, they have to prove that they had migrated to escape religious persecution, the IB said. In his deposition, the IB director noted that there could be many others who have come and have already got citizenship “by various means”.