News & Information From Northeast India

Citizenship Amendment Bill: Why is Assam angry and protesting it?

Amid much opposition, the Narendra Modi government moved ahead with the Citizenship Amendment Bill which was passed in the Lok Sabha last Tuesday. However, the bill was not introduced in the Rajya Sabha keeping in mind the continuing protests in the Northeast states and repeated disruptions in the Rajya Sabha.

There is a possibility that the government can introduce the bill in the Rajya Sabha in the coming Budget session.

This proposed amendment claims to give eligibility to Hindus, Sikhs, Parsis, Jains, Buddhists and Christians coming from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh to apply for Indian citizenship. The bill quotes religious persecution as a reason and leaves out the Muslims of these countries. From its very inception, this bill has faced criticism from opposition parties. This bill’s proposal to extend citizenship on religious basis is seen as a serious threat to the country’s secular ethos. The bill has not included some other minorities from these countries like the Bahais, Jews etc. It has also not recognised sectarian violence that victimises Shias and Ahmediyas.

The region of Northeast has strongly opposed the bill. While this bill is applicable to the entire country, the northeast states are at the risk of being affected more. The entire region shut down on the January 8 as a protest against this bill. In fact, the state of Assam witnessed a fresh spurt of protest after Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in a rally on January 4 that the government will get this bill passed. The bill is perceived as a threat to the Assamese people and is seen as a risk of rendering the community minority in its own home.

Illegal immigration has been a burning issue in Assam since independence. This unabated infiltration led to a six-year-long agitation from 1979 to 1985 and ended in the signing of the Assam Accord. This Accord clearly stated that any foreigner, who entered the state after March 24, 1971, will be deported. While successive governments failed to solve the problem of illegal immigration, the recent updating of the National Register of Citizens was taken up to solve the problem of illegal immigrants by incorporating citizens in the register. This massive process of updating the NRC is being undertaken under the supervision of the Supreme Court.

For the people of Assam, this proposed bill will subvert NRC and render the entire exercise futile. This bill will clearly bypass the Assam Accord which earmarked the cut off date of March 24, 1971 which is also the cut-off date of NRC as this bill will allow people who have entered the country till December 31, 2014 to be incorporated eventually.

There is also a plausible fear that this bill will legalise infiltration. A state which has continuously demanded an end to illegal immigration now runs the risk of being turned into a dumping ground of illegal immigrants.

This bill is also a threat to the Assamese language. The state witnessed a violent language movement in the 1960s. The Assamese speaking population fear that Hindus from Bangladesh who are Bengali speakers will further marginalise the Assamese-speaking community. It will further jeopardise the very identity of the community. The state already has a substantive Bengali speaking population in the Barak Valley and newer addition will worsen the situation.

The state of Assam is also ravaged by yearly floods. The state has already lost 7 per cent of its land to river erosion. Almost 27 per cent population is landless in Assam. In such a situation, bringing in more people will put more pressure on an already scarce resource.

There is a fear that Assam will turn into second Tripura if this bill is passed. In Tripura, the tribal population have been turned into a minority due to large scale migration. So much so that the entire identity of the state has changed. This bill may do the same to the other Northeast states.

This bill has triggered violent outbursts across the state. Led by organisations like Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti and Assam Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chhatra Parishad, protests were staged all across the state. Many intellectuals, educationists and artists came out in the streets against this bill. The Citizenship Amendment Bill has also ushered in important political changes in the state. The BJP’s ally and the regional party Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) decided to walk out of the alliance.

What has riled a large section of the people in Assam is that chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal, who was a student leader at the helm of the Assam Movement and got the IM(DT) Act scrapped and was given the title of Jatiya Nayak (national hero), did not oppose the bill.

In fact another popular minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma, who was also a part of AASU, have continuously justified the Citizenship Amendment Bill. A day after the bill was passed in the Lok Sabha, Sarma stated that Hindu Bangladeshis will stop Badruddin Azmal’s party from winning. Ironically, he asserts that these people are needed to safeguard Assamese by somehow balancing the minority population. This shows that rather than saving persecuted minorities, this bill is aimed at securing vote-banks.

The final draft of NRC left out almost 40 lakh people. Of these, 22 lakhs were Hindus. While almost 30 lakh people have applied to be included in the NRC, this bill is also seemed to ensure that those non-Muslims left out of the final list are also included eventually. This will render the entire exercise of NRC futile as Hindu Bangladeshis who have clearly entered the state after 1971 will also have an opportunity to be included.

The proposed bill has pitted the Bengalis against the Assamese and reopened older faultlines. While cases of harassment and minority witch hunting in the name of finding foreigners continue, the Citizenship Amendment Bill will make sure that Assam’s politics continue to simmer with the foreigners’ issue.

While governments of Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland have clearly opposed the implementation of this bill, the Assam government continues to back the bill.

The Citizenship Amendment Bill however saw support in parts of Barak Valley mostly from people who believe that it will give respite to Hindu Bengalis who are also targeted as D-Voters and those who have been left out of the draft NRC.

While the genuine concern of people of the Barak Valley should be taken on board, the need of the hour is to build a concerted effort against any policy that will jeopardise the peace of the state. Let it not be Hindus versus Muslims, Bengalis versus Assamese or the Brahmaputra versus Barak Valley – but those who stand for Assam’s interests versus those bothered solely for electoral gains.

Image Credits: Biju Boro.

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