On Tuesday, the Citizenship Amendment Bill was passed in the Lok Sabha amidst significant opposition. While the bill was not introduced in the Rajya Sabha in the session that just ended, it hasn’t been shelved either.
The proposed amendment claims to give eligibility to Hindus, Sikhs, Parsis, Jains, Buddhists and Christians from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh to apply for Indian citizenship. The bill quotes religious persecution as the reason for this, and leaves out Muslims from these countries. From its inception, the bill has faced criticism from opposition parties. Its proposal to extend citizenship on the basis of religion is seen as a serious threat to India’s secular ethos.
While the bill is not meant for any specific state, those in the northeast are at risk of being affected more. On 8 January, the entire region shut down to register its protest against the bill. In fact, after Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in a rally on 4 January that the government would get the bill passed, Assam has seen a fresh spurt of protests. The bill is perceived as a threat to the Assamese people, who fear they will become a minority in their own state.
The bill's proposal to extend citizenship on the basis of religion is seen as a serious threat to India’s secular ethos
Why Assam is angry
Illegal immigration has been a burning issue in Assam since independence. Unabated infiltration led to a six-year-long agitation from 1979 to 1985 and ended in the signing of the Assam Accord. The Accord clearly stated that any foreigner who entered the state after 24 March 1971 would be deported.
While successive governments failed to solve the problem of illegal immigration, the updation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) 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 Supreme Court.
The people of Assam say the 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 24 March 1971—which is also the cut-off date of NRC—as IT will allow people who have entered the country until 31 December 2014 to eventually be incorporated.
There is also a plausible fear that the bill will legalise infiltration. A state which has continuously demanded an end to illegal immigration now worries it will be turned into a dumping ground for illegal immigrants.
The bill is also a threat to the Assamese language. The state had seen a violent language movement in the 1960s. The Assamese-speaking population fear that Hindus from Bangladesh, who are Bengali speakers, will further marginalise them and jeopardise their identity. The state already has a substantive Bengali-speaking population in the Barak valley.
Assam is also ravaged by floods every year. The state has already lost 7% of its land to river erosion, and almost 27% of the population is landless. In such a situation, bringing in more people will put pressure on an already scarce resource.
There is also a worry that Assam will turn into another Tripura if this bill is passed. In Tripura, the tribal population have become a minority due to large-scale migration, so much so that the identity of the state has shifted.
The bill has triggered protests across the state, led by organisations such as Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti and Assam Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chhatra Parishad. Many intellectuals, educationists and artists have come out on the streets to register their protest. The bill has also ushered in important political changes—the Asom Gana Parishad decided to walk out of its alliance with the BJP in the state.
What has riled a large section of the people is that Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal, who was a student leader at the helm of the Assam movement, 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 All Assam Students Union, has also continuously justified the bill. A day after the bill was passed, he said that Hindu Bangladeshis would stop Badruddin Ajmal’s party (All India United Democratic Front) 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, the bill is aimed at securing votebanks.
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, the bill may also ensure that those non-Muslims left out of the final list are included eventually.
The proposed bill has pitted the Bengalis against the Assamese and reopened older faultlines. While harassment and minority witch-hunting in the name of identifying foreigners continue, this bill will make sure that tensions simmer in the state.
While the governments of Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland have clearly opposed the implementation of this bill, the Assam government continues to back it. Intellectuals who have consistently spoken up against the bill are being targeted. While writing this piece, news came in that cases of sedition have been registered against Dr Hiren Gohain, Akhil Gogoi and journalist Manjit Mahanta for speaking against the bill.
The bill saw people from all walks of life come out in the streets in protest. Despite such opposition, if the government decides to go ahead with the bill, it will push Assam and the northeastern region into a state of paralysis.
The writer is Assistant Professor at Pramathesh Barua College, Assam.