Why the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill is so contentious in the Northeast
What is the Bill about?
More than 33 years after an anti-foreigners’ agitation from 1979 to 1985, Assam is in turmoil again — this time because of the Modi government’s bid to get the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 passed in Parliament. Assam and the rest of the Northeast shut down on Tuesday after the Bill was passed by the Lok Sabha.
Seeking to amend the Citizenship Act of 1955, the Bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha in 2016 for granting citizenship to minority Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians who came to India on or before December 31, 2014 due to religious persecution in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. The Bill requires such immigrants to spend at least six years to be eligible for citizenship, instead of 12 years as is currently applicable.
Why is there opposition to the Bill in Assam?
The Assamese and other indigenous communities in Assam say that the Bill is against the spirit of the Assam Accord as well as the National Register of Citizens being updated. The Assam Accord, signed in August 1985, prescribed March 24, 1971 as the cut-off date for detecting and deporting illegal migrants irrespective of religion. The same date applies for NRC inclusion. Some locals argue that the Bill, if passed, will make those who entered India after March 1971 eligible for citizenship overnight. They say that Assam has been bearing the burden of migration even before 1971, and cannot accept any more people.
What is the BJP’s stand?
The BJP says India was divided on the basis of religion and the country has to create space for the non-Muslim victims of Partition facing religious persecution in the neighbourhood. Muslims comprise 34% of Assam’s population. The BJP is believed to have gone ahead with the Bill despite opposition after “testing the waters” with the December panchayat polls, when it won an unprecedented 41% of the seats. This implied that the issue had little or no impact on the voters.
Who will benefit?
The BJP has given the issue a communal edge by arguing that 17 Muslim-majority Assembly seats should not go “Jinnah’s way”. But it is not clear if this can be done by granting citizenship to a large number of Bengali Hindus among the 40.07 lakh people left out of the NRC. The BJP is clearly eyeing the votes of Bengali Hindus, who were once a Congress vote bank, comprising less than 10% of Assam’s population of 3.29-crore. Many Bengalis, however, feel the Bill will do them more harm than good, specifically if 1951 is taken as the base year by the Assam government for a move to define who are ‘Assamese’ and ensuring political, land and other rights for only “sons of the soil”.
What may be the political fallout?
The Asom Gana Parishad has pulled out of the alliance with the BJP. Other regional allies of the BJP are unhappy with the Bill and could take a call with the Lok Sabha elections drawing near. But regional parties in the Northeast are usually dependent on the party or coalition in power at the Centre, and their decision may depend on the trend post-elections.