Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016: Favouring foreigners over citizens

By Albert Thyrniang

The other day I passed through Nellie a town in Nagaon district, central Assam. It is infamous for the 1983 Nellie massacre in which more than 2000 people were brutally killed. Leaving Assam’s bloodiest massacre aside, the tragedy ultimately led to the Assam Accord of August 15, 1985. One of the most important clauses of the accord states that illegal immigrants who came to Assam after 1971 would be deported. The Assam Accord, of course ended the six year anti-illegal immigrant movement that started in 1979.

On January 8, 2019 the Lok Sabha passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016. The Bill proposes that Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan who are persecuted on account of their religion will be eligible for Indian citizenship after residing in the country for six years instead of 11 years. The Bill also says that the beneficiaries who came to India as late as 2014 are eligible for Indian Citizenship if they belong to any of the above-mentioned religions. The Bill, if it becomes a law will render the Assam Accord null and void. Another effect of the Bill is that it will nullify the NRC, an exercise to detect Bangladeshi nationals who illegally entered the state after March 24, 1971, the date fixed in the Assam Accord. No wonder Assam is in shock.

Not just Assam but the entire North East erupted in protest against the dangerous Bill. Shut downs, rallies, public meetings are some of the protests to vehemently oppose the bill. People also vented their anger through social media. Violence was reported, notably the firing by security forces in Tripura injuring five youths, two of them seriously. The police were also not very kind in Assam. Sahitya Akademi awardee, Hiren Gohain, rights activist, Akhil Gogoi and journalist, Manjit Mahanta were slapped with sedition charges after a suo-moto FIR waa filed against them for alleged secessionist speeches.

The BJP government which is adamant in pushing the Bill is blind and deaf to the genuine concerns of people of the North East and such insensitivity towards the sentiments of the region is bound to have serious fall outs. Assam BJP spokesperson, Mehdi Alam resigned from his post and from the party. The Assam Gana Parishad (AGP) pulled out of BJP-led Assam government. All Chief Ministers in the region, including BJP CM of Manipur have opposed the bill. The Nationalist People’s Party (NPP) in Meghalaya and other alliance partners of the BJP in other states of the North East are seriously considering parting ways with the NDA. Many BJP MLAs in the region have either written or spoken to the Prime Minister/Home Minister to withdraw or modify the Bill to avoid confrontation.

The passage of the Bill in the Lok Sabha and the subsequent massive protests in the seven states has brought North East into the limelight. The national media have focussed their lens on the fragile and complex region, a home to more than hundred major tribes and many more sub-tribes, who except for their tribal features, are distinct and different from one another. Discussions on national televisions are held on prime time for which besides the big- mouthed politicians, lawyers and constitutional experts are part of the panels. Hence by default, the Bill has helped the rest of India to understand this neglected and alienated region better.

These prominent personalities referred to clearly state that the CAB is both communal and unconstitutional. It seeks to grant citizenship on the basis of religion and the countries they come from whereas the Indian Constitution is secular.  Part II of the Constitution of India, 1950 and the Citizenship Act, 1955 have only birth, descent, registration, naturalization and incorporation of the territory as methods for gaining Indian citizenship. Religion and previous domicile of the persons do not come into picture at all. The Bill will overturn the Constitution by granting citizenship to persons of certain religions from certain countries. This is not just against equality for all articulated in article 14 of the Constitution but is against international democratic norms. The world might be laughing at the ‘largest democracy’ in the world.

The controversial and contentious Bill is anti-Assam, anti-North East, anti-tribal and anti-minority as some have termed it. It is so because it is Assam and the North Eastern states that will be adversely impacted by the proposed law, for the simple reason that North East has a 1,596 kilometre long porous border with the erstwhile East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. The region, connected to the mainland by the 21 to 40 kilometres wide Siliguri Corridor will bear the brunt. These states are inhabited by various indigenous tribals who are a minorities compared with the population of India. Hence the makers of the Indian Constitutions made special provisions for protection of the survival of their identity, language, culture, customs, land, forests under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. If CAB becomes a law, the Sixth Schedule will quickly be dismantled and the wisdom and genius of the fathers of the Constitution will be replaced by idiocy and stupidity of right wing BJP members and their  mentors like the RSS and others.

The fear of the people of the North East is not imaginary. It is very genuine. Tripura is a glaring example. The tribal state has become a non-tribal state. The tribals are now only 31 per cent of the total population. Tribals have become a minority in their own land. They have lost their political and economic power to the ‘immigrants’ from across the border. The Chief Minister of Tripura is a non-tribals. Tribals have little voice. They are even looked down and frowned upon.  Protests are brutally put down. The recent firing at protesters in Tripura is one such one incident. No state in the North East wants to be another Tripura.

According to rough calculation Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh and Christians population in Bangladesh number around 15 million (Hindus alone are 14 millions). Now, just think about the following foreseeable situation. Leaving out Assam the average population in the other states in North East is just 2 million. If one million or even half a million from the neighbouring country come and settle in each of the six states as Indian citizens in the next 5 years, the demography will change rapidly. The political, economic and even social equations too will be significantly altered!

The BJP has for long been vehemently accusing the Congress of playing vote bank politics and indulging in minority appeasement. Today the 39 year old ultranationalist party that grew from two members in Lok Sabha in 1984 to 282 in 2014 and rides on the Hindutva ideology is playing the worst kind of vote bank politics and majority appeasement. The Bill was hurriedly brought from nowhere with an eye on this year’s general elections. After the blunder of demonetisation that resulted in impoverishing ordinary citizens and loss of at least 1.5 million jobs, the haphazard implementation of GST, the broken promises of bringing black money from abroad to be distributed to all poor households and the recent loss in assembly elections in the Hindi heartland, the fast diminishing popularity of PM Modi has forced the BJP to pass the Bill in the Lok Sabha that favours foreigners over citizens.

Prima facie the Bill is a conspiracy by the RSS and the BJP to turn North East into a Hindu majority region to ultimately fulfil their plan of converting India into a Hindu state. It might be a long term strategy of the right wing groups to enable the BJP to get a clear majority in the legislative assemblies of these states and thus realising their dreams of seeing the BJP rule all the states in the North East.

Regional political parties need to take a stronger stand against the Bill. BJP governments or those in alliance with the BJP in all states need to firmly protest including resignation and pulling out of the NDA to convey a clear message. So far this not has happened. Even BJP MLAs and MPs from the region need to make their protests louder. Letters to the central leadership might not be sufficient to convince the powerful men in Delhi to put the Bill in abeyance.

The argument that the central government will ensure that the whole country will share the burden of accommodating the immigrants is an eyewash. As stated by many it is obvious Bangladeshis won’t travel to Gujarat, Maharashtra, UP etc. The government won’t physically force them into trains and buses out of the North East. It is convenient for them to settle in one of the North Eastern states. The North East will have to be a dumping ground and the legal or illegal immigrants will sooner than later outnumber the local population, ultimately rendering the provisions under the Six Schedule meaningless and the powers of the district councils of no value. Even state governments will be dominated by the population from the adjoining country, just like Tripura. The uniqueness of North East India will be gravely endangered.

After widespread protests some signs are visible towards cancelling the Bill or at least amending it significantly not to affect the North East. The Union Home Minister has conveyed that he will meet the Chief Ministers from the region. Hope better sense prevails and the North East is not handed over to foreigners.

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