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19 February, 2019

Opposition to citizenship bill

India’s northeast is in turmoil over the Modi government’s bid to amend the Citizenship Act in keeping with the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Hindu state concept.

The Constitution, which came into force in 1950, provided for grant of citizenship rights to a person who migrated from Pakistan before July 19, 1948 if either of the person’s parents or one of the grandparents was born in pre-partition India and he or she has been residing in India since then.

The Citizenship Act, as amended in 1955, allowed an immigrant to apply for citizenship if he or she has lived in India for 12 months immediately before the application, and for 11 of the previous 14 years. Religion was not an issue.

The army crackdown in East Pakistan in 1971 led to the inflow of an estimated 10 million refugees into India. After the birth of Bangladesh, they were repatriated to that country. Later there were reports of illegal immigration from Bangladesh, mostly to the state of Assam, due to economic hardship.

Since the colonial period, there had been large-scale migration from Bengal to neighbouring states. Reports of fresh immigration kindled in the minds of the Assamese fear of loss of their linguistic and cultural identity.

In 1979 the All Assam Students Union (AASU) and the All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP) launched a massive agitation, marked by recurrent violence. It raged for six years, disrupting the working of educational institutions. It ended in 1985 with the signing of the Assam Accord on the initiative of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

The Accord provided for grant of citizenship to those who entered Assam before 1966. Those who entered between January 1, 1966 and March 24, 1971 were to be identified and disfranchised for 10 years. Those who came in still later were to be expelled.

Although migrants from Bangladesh included both Hindus and Muslims, the BJP, in keeping with its ideological predilection, focussed its attention on the latter. After Narendra Modi came to power the Centre started differentiating between immigrants on religious basis.

By two notifications issued in 2015 and 2016, it exempted Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian immigrants from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan who came to India before December 31, 2014 from the provisions of the Foreigners Act and Passport Act. These enabled the non-Muslims to remain in India without fear of eviction.

It also brought forward in 2016 a bill to amend the Citizenship Act of 1955 to permit non-Muslim immigrants to apply for citizenship if they have lived in India for 12 months immediately before the application and for six of the previous 14 years. The Lok Sabha referred the measure to a joint parliamentary committee.

When the committee visited the northeast last May to elicit public opinion, protests against the bill erupted in the Brahmaputra Valley of Assam. In the Barak Valley, which has a heavy concentration of Bengalis, there were demonstrations in favour of the bill.

Modi encountered black flags, a nude demonstration and go-back slogans when he landed in Assam’s capital, Guwahati, for a campaign tour of the northeast during the weekend. The demonstrators demanded scrapping of the Citizenship Amendment Bill.

The Prime Minister sought to assuage the feelings of the people by offering a slew of development schemes and assuring them that the proposed law would not harm the interests of the northeast. The BJP has been able to make much headway in Assam proper in the recent past with its policy of promoting division on religious lines. But the tribal population views the issue not in terms of religion but in terms of protection of indigenous culture.

The government claims that the objective of the bill is to extend protection to religious minorities facing persecution in neighbouring countries. The claim is dishonest. The government is pushing back Rohingya Muslims who came to escape persecution in Myanmar. AASU’s resolute opposition to the proposed law stems from the realisation that it undermines the Assam Accord which is still in the process of implementation.

Assam is the only Indian state which prepared a National Register of Citizens on the basis of the 1951 census, the first since Independence. Updating of the NRC in terms of the Assam Accord has been on since 2013 under Supreme Court monitoring. The final draft of the updated NRC was released last July and objections are being examined.

The Modi government has thrown a spanner in the NRC works. It has introduced religion as a citizenship criterion and shifted the cut-off date to qualify for citizenship.

The changes may yield the BJP some electoral dividend but the unease they have caused may take a long time to settle.

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