Citizenship Amendment Bill and the people of Assam

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by Suhail Mohammed    7/6/2018

Most recently, the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill has been the talk of every nook and corner of the state with people from all walks of life joining the bandwagon and raising voices against the ill-fated bill. The state has witnessed severe protest over the past few weeks and protesting slogans even beat the deep blowing horns and revving engines of lumbering trucks on the national highways across the state. The peace-loving state has all of a sudden sensed odd that could dismantle the rich social fabric and harmony. This is happening at a time when the cumbersome National Registration of Citizens is still in progress in the state. The people have been struck a double blow and anxiety is at peak amongst the people.

With The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, the government plans to change the definition of illegal migrants. The Bill, introduced in the Lok Sabha on July 15, 2016, seeks to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955 to provide citizenship to illegal migrants, from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, who are of Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian extraction. However, the Act doesn’t have a provision for Muslim sects like Shias and Ahmediyas who also face persecution in Pakistan. The Bill also seeks to reduce the requirement of 11 years of continuous stay in the country for six years to obtain citizenship by naturalization.

The magnitude of the anxiety can be seen on the days Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) on the Bill visited Assam. Assam is always a sensitive space for ethnonational questions. But the steering that swept the whole of the state over this bill was not seen in the recent history of Assam. The anxious participation of people and organizations representing all communities in Assam on the days of a public hearing at Guwahati and Silchar was unprecedented. Though the JPC went back after the public hearing, actions and reactions over the Bill are still hitting the shores with same vibrancy. Innumerable organizations are unleashing agitation and mass campaigning programs. Artists, writers and literary figures are not confined to placing their response but also coming to the street in opposition to the Bill. Open opposition by 21 editors of regional electronic and print media groups is also a remarkable aspect. All these reactions have touched the masses, and the Bill has become the center of public debate all over the state.

Another reason for opposing the bill is specific to Assam. The Assam accord fixes March 24, 1971, as the cutoff date for identification and expulsion of foreigners in Assam. That means the government of India is duty-bound for identification and deportation of an illegal immigrant who has entered Assam on or after March 25, 1971. We should not forget the history of fixing of this date. The leadership of Assam agitation started from 1979 under the joint leadership of All Assam Students Union and Asom Gana Sangram Parishad, demanded National Register of Citizenship (NRC) of 1951 be the basis for identification and expulsion of foreigners in Assam.

BJP’s coalition partner Assam Gana Parishad has threatened to cut ties with the party if the Bill is passed. It considers the Bill to work against the cultural and linguistic identity of the indigenous people of the State. NGOs such as The Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti and students’ organization All Assam Students’ Union also have come forward opposing the Bill.

All Opposition parties, including the Congress and the All India United Democratic Front, have opposed the idea of granting citizenship to an individual by religion. It is also argued that the Bill if made into an Act, will nullify the updated National Registration of Citizenship (NRC). The process of updating the NRC is currently underway in Assam.

Thousands of slogan-shouting protesters from all almost all association and organizations marched through towns across the state, before submitting memoranda addressed to the prime minister to the respective district deputy commissioners. Meanwhile, some MLAs of the ruling BJP also opposed the bill and said allowing citizenship to Hindu Bangladeshis would pose a threat to the identity of the Assamese people and affect the interest of the indigenous people of the state.

The state government is too determined to provide citizenship to the Hindu Bangladeshis as the saffron outfit senses political gains and a sure vote bank. It can stoop much below, and the arrest of a 16-year-old Assamese YouTuber reflects the same. The teenager, a resident of Assam’s Golaghat district, had uploaded a video on YouTube that made fun of several BJP leaders including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal and another critical minister from the state, Himanta Biswa Sarma. The video has since been taken down. The boy, a regular YouTuber, has also deactivated his account.

Amid the continuing row in Assam over the citizenship amendment bill, Governor Jagdish Mukhi said the state is completely divided over the issue and the government is seized of the matter. He further said,”Assam is divided over the issue (citizenship amendment bill). The Brahmaputra valley has a different view and the Barak valley different. Not only political parties, but social, cultural, literary organizations have taken their respective stand.”

While Bill is designed to grant citizenship to non-Muslim refugees persecuted in neighboring countries, NRC does not distinguish migrants by religion. It will consider deporting anyone who has entered the State illegally post-March 24, 1971, irrespective of their faith. Currently, there are six detention camps for illegal migrants in Assam, but it’s still not clear how long the people will be detained in these camps. The process of deportation or duration of detention is not transparent as the government has not stated it. But if the Bill becomes an Act, the non-Muslims need not go through any such process, meaning this will be discriminating against Muslims identified as undocumented immigrants.

One needs to understand the political motives of the BJP ruled central government. It has been four years now, and all the critical policies taken by the government has failed, the government has been unable in economic front and foreign policies to name a few. The recent losses in the by-elections held and with the allies not in a mood to compromise seats for the saffron party, shock waves have hit the party. The opposition parties uniting and giving a tough fight has further hampered its wishes of winning with a thumping majority in 2019. To fulfill the political ambitions and to remain in power the central government now wants to polarise voters further and gain vote banks. The bill will have adverse effects in Assam and its neighboring states. The people of Assam should understand the ill motives and put up a united fight and continue protest in an organized manner. It is high time that people from all communities should oppose the Citizenship Amendment Bill unitedly without giving any space to any divisive tendency.