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Tue, 25 Sep 2018

Northeast Today

Citizenship Bill Imbroglio

Citizenship Bill Imbroglio
July 14
12:18 2018

Cover Story of June Edition

The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, proposed by the Central government to make migrants of six communities eligible for attaining Indian citizenship, has been opposed tooth and nail- extensivelyin Assam. #ParthaPrawal and #SayantaniDeb finds out more

Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016

Before delving in deeper about the controversies that have surfaced due to the proposed Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, let us try to know a bit as what actually is this Bill.

The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, was introduced in the Lok Sabha on July 15, 2016, and this seeks to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955, to provide citizenship to illegal migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. These migrants are mostly Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian who were religiously persecuted in their native countries. The Bill, however, doesn’t have a provision for the Muslims. Moreover, the Bill also aims to reduce the required years of continuous stay in the country to obtain citizenship by naturalisation from 11 to six years.

Even though the Bill is aimed to grant citizenship to a wider range of communities, however, in the recent times it has been widely seen as a ploy to grant citizenship to the Bengali speaking Hindus, persecuted from Bangladesh.

Bill’s Impact on NRC

Assam, from 1979 to 1985, witnessed a period of extreme tension and bloodshed. It was the time when the Assam Agitation was at its peak. The Agitation was a movement against illegal migrants in Assam and was led by the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and the All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP). Through this movement, the agitating organisations carried out a series of protests and demonstrations to compel the Indian government to identify and expel the illegal Bangladeshi immigrants and protect and provide constitutional, legislative, and administrative rights exclusively to the indigenous people of Assam. Putting an end to the six-year-long struggle, the Assam Accord was inked between the Government of India and the representatives of the agitating organisations on August 15, 1985. Updating the National Register of Citizens (NRC) to identify the illegal migrants from Bangladesh and deport them was one of the key issues of the NRC.

The provisions of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, are in complete contrast to the key-points of the NRC. The Bill is designed to grant citizenship to non-Muslim refugees persecuted in neighbouring countries; NRC, however, does not distinguish migrants on the basis of religion. It will consider deporting anyone who has entered the State illegally post-March 24, 1971, irrespective of their religion. Hence, if the Bill becomes an Act, the non-Muslims who are currently put up at the six different detention camps across Assam shall not be deported, even if their names are not featured in the final draft of the NRC. Only the Muslims immigrants who will not be a part of the final NRC will be deported.

“Illegal means illegal and there can’t be a decision on the basis of religion or language. Not just Muslims, but also treat every Hindu as illegal who had entered Assam illegally after March 24, 1971. The basic concept of keeping the Hindus and driving away the non-Hindus, mostly Muslims, is bizarre and absurd,” said Sashanka Sekhar Baruah, a resident of Guwahati while interacting with Northeast Today.

“And if you want to keep the illegal Hindu Bengalis, then why waste so much time in updating the NRC?” Baruah concludes.

Religion for Citizenship Conferral

Religion is one of the most important aspects that have been highlighted in this current Bill and the government has drawn flak for playing the religion card to grant citizenship to the illegal migrants persecuted from their lands. However, if we return to the history pages, we could find that this is not the first time when religion is being made the consideration for the granting of citizenship. However, on previous occasions, the manifestation has never been so direct.

CITIZENSHIP AMENDMENT BILL (7)

In Article 6 and 7 of the Constitution of India, a mention of religion can be found. Article 6 confers citizenship to people who migrated to India from Pakistan after the declaration of partition. Article 7, on the other hand, grants citizenship to individuals who migrated to Pakistan during partition but returned to India later on. Even though these two provisions seem neutral on the surface, however, the provisions have profound religious indicators committed to them.

While Article 6 was directed towards Pakistani Hindus who had moved to India, Article 7 indirectly pointed towards the Indian Muslims who had left India during partition but later wanted to return to India. Nowhere in these provisions, ‘religion’ has been mentioned or expressed explicitly.

Division on Linguistic Lines

The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, has triggered a sharp division of opinion on linguistic lines in the Brahmaputra and the Barak valley. While in the Brahmaputra Valley, Assamese is the predominant language, in Barak Valley it is Bengali. The Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) on the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill was on a three-day visit to the state where it received submissions from organisations and individuals regarding the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. Overall 135 organisations submitted memorandums to the JPC in Guwahati on May 7, 2018. Then on May 9 and May 10, 300 organisation had submitted memorandums in Silchar.

“Why the JPC allotted just a day for submitting memorandums in the Brahmaputra valley when the valley has 32 districts out of 35 districts of Assam. And with just three districts, why was two days allotted in the Barak valley? While the 135 organisations were against the Bill, the 300, on the other hand, were in support of the Bill. I find this strange, and I suspect foul-play with the Government having a major role to play in it. The government, I feel, is trying to divide the state on linguistic basis,” said Pranab Das, a school teacher from Guwahati.

It may be mentioned here that On May 7, submitting opposition to the Bill to the JPC in Guwahati, almost all the organisations, political parties and individuals expressed their fear of losing their cultural and linguistic identity to Bengali if doors were let open to migrants from across the border to settle in the state on religious grounds.

Vox Populi

AASU general secretary Lurin Jyoti Gogoi while speaking to Northeast Today regarding the issue, said, “Assam has already taken a load of 20 years of illegal migrants when the base year for updating the NRC was changed from 1951 to 1971. The state is not in a position to accommodate any more immigrants.”

“As per the Assam Accord any person who came to Assam after the midnight of March 24, 1971, would be identified as a foreigner. Non-obstante clause was inserted in the Citizenship Act, 1955, under Section 6A. This basically meant the cut-off date for granting citizenship to migrants in Assam. The base year in Assam is 191, whereas, for the rest of the country, the base year is 1950,” Gogoi added.

Reacting on similar lines, Samujjal Bhattacharyya, chief advisor to North East Students’ Union (NESO), said, “Assam will be the worst affected because while a large number of Hindus from Bangladesh have already illegally entered into the state in the last few decades, more would come and seek to stay here, in the process causing a further damage to the state’s demography and reduce the Assamese and other indigenous communities into minority.”

President of All Bodo Students’ Union (ABSU) Pramod Bodo, echoing Bhattacharyya and Gogoi, said, “The BJP-led government at the Centre is showing concern to foreign nationals instead of protecting the interests of its indigenous people. Protecting the language, culture and identity of the people of India should have been the top priority of the government. But, the keenness of the Centre to pass the Bill tells a different story.”

President of Assam Pradesh Congress Committee (APCC) Ripun Bora sharing his view regarding the proposed Bill said, “Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal should immediately make his stand clear as to whether he really supports the Bill and that he, in a true sense, is trying to facilitate settlement of lakhs of Hindu migrants in Assam. He had come to power on the promise of protecting the identity of the Assamese and other indigenous communities, he should remember that.”

Speaking about the Bill, Umashankar Sarmah, a student from Assam said, “The Bill is a slap on the face of the indigenous people of Assam. The issue of nationality is a serious and delicate one and it needs a panel of people representing the best intentions of the people of Assam. Instead, the Bill is being imposed upon the people against the spirit of the Assam Accord.”

“The Bill is not properly based on the humanitarian grounds and it is also against the historic Assam Accord and India’s long-standing refugee policy,” Basanta Nirola, a student.

RALLY

Saurabh Bosu, a student of Tezpur University, said, “It violates the Assam Accord and no wonder why people are raging over it. But yet, the propositions are quite valid if looked into carefully for any national citizenship, even though the move looks highly political and shady right before the elections.”

Manipur’s Jamgoulen Kipgen said, “The Indian government should stop all attempts to dilute and obliterate the identity and culture of Northeast, especially in Assam. The government should stop passing this Bill, otherwise, there will be civil unrest in entire Northeast. If the Bill becomes an Act, the Assam Accord, as well as NRC, would be rendered toothless.”

Sharing his views on the Bill, Assam’s Mark R Khawzawl said that he strongly opposes the Bill and according to him, illegal immigrants will always remain illegal and no one should be provided citizenship on the basis of religion.

“If we look from the perspective of the migrants, it is like a hope renewed for a new home. But, if we look from the perspective of the government, the secular policy of our country will be threatened, there won’t be any equality and secondly, the Assam Accord would be violated. Not only Assam, but the neighbouring states would also be affected and people would be aliens in their own state,” said Manipur’s Solomon Siamboi.

Meghalaya’s Shanbor Marngar feels that passing of such a Bill would cause major problems for the indigenous people.

“Firstly, there would be problems such as overpopulation which would result in a reduction of the amount of surplus and thus malnutrition. It would also lead to unemployment which would make many homeless. There will be no peace in the country,” Marngar added.

Nagaland’s Mhademo Y Khuvung, opposing the Bill said that if the Bill becomes an Act, then there are chances of widespread violence and unrest in the country.

Siam from Manipur, while speaking to Northeast Today said, “Accepting migrants from outside and granting them citizenship on religious grounds is illusory and unacceptable as this will suppress the true existence and value of the indigenous group. Later it will lead to alienation and side-lining of the locals.”

Lanza from Nagaland says that granting citizenship to migrants will only lead to overpopulation and spike in unemployment.

“Apart from harming the socio-economic condition of the society, the cultural fabric of the states will also be disturbed,” Lanza concluded.

Guwahati-based businessman and political commentator Hemanta Bhattacharyya, while sharing his views on the Bill with Northeast Today said, “The proposed Bill in no way says that more people will be roped in from the neighbouring countries. It only says that those people who entered India after May 24, 1971, and are residing here will be granted citizenship but they will not have the right to vote or right to property. I do not think we have anything to lose out. The entire episode has been wrongly portrayed. The Hindus have nothing to lose or fear about.”

Assam state BJP’s spokesperson Rupam Goswami, interacting with Northeast Today, said, “Our party has been clear since the beginning that Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and Christians, who have been forced to leave the neighbouring countries should be given shelter in India. The notion that is being spread that crores of Hindus from Bangladesh will land in Assam is unfounded.”

Barak Valley Leaders Speak

Voicing support to the bill, BJP spokesperson Rajdeep Roy of Barak Valley told Northeast Today, “Someone who has gone through both the Assam Accord and the proposed Amendment Bill will very well understand that the Bill is defining only a subset of the population who have all this while been termed ‘illegal immigrants’. As such, this is a very small set – it won’t be more than 10-15 lakhs.”

Meanwhile, Congress MP Sushmita Dev during an interview with a media alleged that the saffron brigade is trying to create unrest in Assam through the controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill.

“The bill seeks to grant Indian citizenship to illegal immigrants belonging to certain minority communities such as Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, an issue that has already sparked a huge backlash in Assam, which shares borders with one of these countries,” she reminded.

Opposition Galore

Even though through the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, the government seeks to grant citizenship to persecuted Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian and settle them across the length and breadth of India, the bill, however, not witnessed widespread opposition as it has in Assam.
Making her stance clear, the West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has straightaway rejected the bill and said that even if the Bill is passed, no refugee/migrant shall be allowed to settle in her state.

Even the Meghalaya Democratic Alliance (MDA) government has opposed Bill. The MDA’s sole reason for opposing the bill was that it does not serve the purpose of the people of the state, which is a small tribal one. According to the MDA, the Bill is “dangerous” taking into consideration that Meghalaya and the north-eastern region is bound by Bangladesh, Nepal, China and Myanmar.

The Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh, while sharing his views on the proposed Bill had said, “The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill concerns Assam. It will not affect Manipur.”

However, the Bill has also been opposed in the state by the All Manipur Students’ Union (AMSU) and they called it a serious threat to the indigenous people of the north-eastern states.

In Assam, from civil society organisations to the entertainment industry, the Bill has been opposed tooth and nail. Even the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), an ally in the state government, has also opposed the Bill and its leader and former CM Prafulla Kumar Mahanta even said that if the Bill is passed, then it would break its alliance from the government.

And as this story was penned down and was getting published, protests and demonstrations against the Bill continued across Assam.

At this juncture, let’s recall a quote from Dr BR Ambedkar. While commenting on the complexity of drafting citizenship laws during the drafting of the Indian Constitution, Ambedkar had said, “Except for one other article in the draft constitution, I do not think that any other article has given the drafting committee such a headache as this particular article. I do not know how many drafts were prepared and how many were destroyed as being inadequate to cover all the cases which it was thought necessary and desirable to cover.”

Amending citizenship law is complex. No matter how many hearings the JPC has or how much the government justifies its decision, the road for the Bill to become an Act is an arduous journey.

Fallacies in the Bill

The proposed Bill comes with its own shares of legal fallacies. First, those termed as ‘religious minority migrants’ are actually not migrant but refugees. Migrants are those who move to a separate country voluntarily, whereas refuge is an involuntary act of forced movement and as per the declaration by the government, the proposed Bill is to provide citizenship to those have been persecuted from their native countries. And religious persecution cannot be termed as a ‘voluntary’ movement, hence the ones whom the government is claiming to be migrants are actually refugees, seeking asylum in a foreign land. It must be understood here that laws and policies for migrants and refugees are entirely different; hence the use of correct terminology (to define these people persecuted from their lands) is very essential.

The second fault in the proposed Bill is to provide shelter to individuals of a particular religion(s), completely ignoring the Muslims. Since the government is saying that its intention is to protect and provide shelter to the ‘religiously persecuted people’, then why are the Muslims rejected and ignored when Muslims are considerably discriminated against and oppressed in China, Sri Lanka and Myanmar. Their demands for asylum in India have fallen on deaf ears. The 36,000 Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar who fled to India in the wake of 2015 insurgency is another example when India denied shelter to the religiously persecuted people.

There is more than what meets the ears. Several experts feel that the BJP-led NDA government in the Centre is trying to amend the Act only to provide citizenship to the almost 2 lakh undocumented Hindu Bangladeshis currently residing in Assam.

“Honestly speaking, the Act is not to grant citizenship to any persecuted Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian, it is but to legalise the illegal Hindu Bangladeshis residing in Assam or are presently lodged in the detention camps. State PWD, Health & Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma had openly said that if Assam and Assamese had to survive and the growth of Muslim population has to be countered, then the Hindu Bengalis will have to be settled in Assam. For me, this is one of the most absurd justifications. How can we even think of protecting our home with the help of those who have invaded us illegally for decades? This is just voted bank politics. Congress played with the Muslim vote bank, the BJP is playing the Hindutva card,” said journalist of an English daily published from Assam seeking anonymity owing to professional obligations.

“According to the 2011 census, the Muslim population in Assam is 34.22 percent. Question is who are these Muslim people? Are they the Assamese Muslims? No, they are not. They are those illegal migrants from Bangladesh who were provided shelter and security by the Congress governments over the decades. And the BJP is trying to shelter the Hindu Bangladeshis, which in future will be its vote banks,” further added the Guwahati-based journalist.

Let’s Ponder

Suppose, after a series of consultations, the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, is finally passed, then what will Assam face? The NRC will become nullified as the illegal Bengali Hindus identified under the NRC will not be deported as they will gain permanent citizenship of Assam under the new Act.
If the Bill is passed, will more Hindus migrate to Assam from Bangladesh under the pretext of religious persecution? Even though, as of now, the Hindus residing in Bangladesh have expressed no will to migrate to Assam, but if they do, will they eventually become the majority and will Assam have to fight again to keep its identity alive?

And most importantly, by passing the Bill and granting citizenship to the ‘religiously persecuted’ Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian, will we not stamp these countries(from where the migration took place) as institutions of religious oppression and worsen bilateral ties in an already slanted regional socio-political atmosphere.

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