Bill that could burn Assam

Activists of All Assam Students Union (AASU) and members of Sadou Asom Karmachari Parishad protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, in Guwahati on June 6.

It was during an election campaign speech in Ramnagar in Assam’s Silchar district in February 2014 that Narendra Modi spoke about “accommodating” Hindu migrants from Bangladesh. “We have a responsibility toward Hindus who are harassed in other countries. Where will they go? India is the only place for them. We will have to accommodate them here.” The issue found a mention in the BJP manifesto, too. In July 2016, it became clear how the BJP wanted to address it when Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh introduced the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 in the Lok Sabha. The Bill was destined to run into trouble from the start, with its controversial features that were seen by many as undermining secularism and the Constitution.

The Bill to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955, seeks to give illegal migrants from “minority communities in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan” -- Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsi and Christians – an easy and short path to Indian citizenship, but not for illegal Muslim migrants from these countries even if they are from persecuted Muslim sects. Firstly, illegal migrants from these six religions are not to be treated as illegal migrants. Secondly, the requirement of continuous stay in India of 11 years to be eligible to apply for naturalization as a citizen is to be cut to six years. Muslim illegal migrants are simply to be deported.

As soon as the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, was introduced in Parliament, ir ran into a wall of opposition, with several political parties and civil society groups calling it “communal” and “violative of the Constitution”.

When the BJP countered that the communities chosen were those that suffered persecution in those countries, the opponents questioned why Ahmaddiya Muslims, who face state-sponsored persecution in Pakistan, do not find a place in the amendment. An analysis by PRS Legislative Research noted that the Bill implied that illegal migrants who are Muslims or other minorities who do not belong to the six religions mentioned (for instance, Jews) or atheists, who do not identify with any religious group, would not be eligible for citizenship.

This, many argued, made illegal migrants of only certain religions eligible for citizenship and thus violated Article 14 (Right to Equality) of the Constitution. For them, the omissions made the Bill spurious. The BJP government, some said, seemed to have taken inspiration from Israel’s “Law of Return” for Jews, which gives any Jew living anywhere in the world the right to go and live in Israel and gain Israeli citizenship.

The Bill is seen to be a way to further the BJP’s “divisive” agenda and make electoral gains in the border- states by getting more non-Muslims into the voter’s list. The BJP-RSS had for long raised the issue of other parties, especially Congress, getting illegal Muslim migrants into the voter’s list and playing vote bank politics. In his election campaign speeches, Modi repeatedly spoke about illegal Muslim migrants from Bangladesh and the need to deport them, while Hindus fleeing Pakistan or Bangladesh were to be welcomed.

While the Bill, which was sent to a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) soon after introduction in the Lok Sabha, did not make much of an impact elsewhere in the country, Assam and other parts of the north-east are up in arms over it, although sections like the Bengali Hindus in Assam’s Barak Valley have welcomed it. The National Register of Citizens is being updated in Assam, as per the Assam Accord of 1985 and following a 2013 Supreme Court order, in order to identify all illegal immigrants who came into the state after March 24, 1971 (the cut-off date agreed in the Assam Accord) and deport them.

Those opposed to the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, see in it a clear design to nullify the NRC exercise, under which even Hindu illegal migrants would be identified as such and would have to be deported. Instead, the Bill seeks to allow all non-Muslim migrants who came in until December 2014 to stay on. This, the Assamese fear, will change the demography of the state and these migrants would gain the upper hand.

These fears were apparent when a clutch of north-east states, activists and groups opposed the Bill during their deposition before the JPC, which visited the state in March this year. The BJP is also facing heat over the Bill from its allies in the north-east. The Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) in Assam and National People’s Party (NPP) in Meghalaya have already voiced their opposition to the Bill. For the AGP, the argument is that the Bill violates the Assam Accord.

The first draft of the updated NRC was published amidst tight security in the state on December 31, 2017, listing 1.9 crore people, out of Assam’s estimated 3.29 crore population. The second draft is expected to be published on June 30. Police and security forces are said to be preparing for tension and violence, especially as there are fears that many would find their names omitted.

The AGP has minced no words in saying that it will walk out of the ruling alliance with the BJP if the Centre pushes ahead with the Bill. The BJP, which has plans to further tighten its grip over the north-east states ahead of the Lok Sabha elections in 2019, will have to tread cautiously on the issue. Meanwhile, the Congress is a divided house on the issue, with a section supporting the Bill.

As the sound and fury over the Bill escalates, the government seems to have gone into slow-motion mode over the Bill. Rajnath Singh has made it clear that all concerns will be addressed before the Bill is finalised and tabled in Parliament.

The JPC also appears to be in no hurry to finalise its report and present it in the upcoming monsoon session of Parliament. Will the Modi government put the Bill in cold storage or will it give it a final push and bring it before Parliament next month?

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Bill that could burn Assam

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