By Ayan Sharma:
On November 1, in an otherwise regular and drab book launch in Guwahati, the powerful BJP minister from Assam, Himanta Biswa Sarma, stirred up the occasion with a contentious remark. Sarma was unveiling his new book, “Anya Ek Dristikon“. But more than the book it was his provoking words that stole the limelight.
Replying to multiple queries on his party’s controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, an unflinching Sarma, as reported in the media, said, “The whole thing is that we have to decide who our enemy is. Who is our enemy, the 1-1.5 lakh people or the 55 lakh people? The Assamese community is at the crossroads. We could not (save) 11 districts. If we continue to remain this way, six more districts will go out (of our hands) in the 2021 Census. In 2031, more (districts) will go out.”
Although the minister’s figures do not match any official statistics, many in the state believe that the number of immigrants from Bangladesh to Assam easily stands above 5-6 million people by now, majority of it being Bengali Muslims. It is probably this figure that the minister employed in his brazen effort to reduce the complex (anti) immigration debate in Assam to the polarising Hindu-Muslim binary, with the 1-1.5 lakh statistic being a shrewdly minimised reference to the new Bangladeshi Hindu immigrants, his party is offering to embrace through the new bill.
The bill proposes to amend the existing Citizenship Act in the country in order to accommodate the religiously persecuted minorities (Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians) from the neighbouring Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan who seek refuge in India. The government wishes to make these refugee groups eligible for Indian citizenship through naturalisation by reducing the required aggregate period of residence or service of a Government in India from the existing 11 to 6 years.
This overture is part of a carefully designed process that has continued ever since the Modi government assumed power. Several concessions have already been offered to these communities that include issuing Long Term Visas, permits to buy residential properties, procuring PAN cards, Aadhaar cards, driving licences, opening bank accounts, lowering of visa fees, besides others.
While Sarma’s brash rhetoric may help push his own interest a step further, this kind of a parliamentary bid does not augur well for an already immigrant-burdened state like Assam. As Assam will face the major brunt of the refugees from Bangladesh, a massive resistance has already sprung up to the bill, both within and outside Assam, ever since the first draft was introduced in Lok Sabha in July this year.
Bonojit Hussain, a researcher and member of The Delhi Action Committee for Assam which organised one such protest at Jantar Mantar, reacted, “This bill is a clear effort to communally divide the Assam’s social milieu. The migrant Muslims who have been accommodated in the state so far are already a backward lot and with this kind of a move, they are going to be exploited even more. Also, with lakhs of new Bangladeshi Hindus immigrating to Assam, the Assamese speakers will be reduced to a minority and that is not welcome.”
Besides these concerns, a question being raised now is regarding the adverse effect this bill will unleash on the ongoing National Register of Citizens (NRC) upgradation process in the state. Speaking on this, Hussain adds, “Assam is linguistically and ethnically a complex space with multiple groups having multiple claims. A consensus was reached when the Supreme Court ordered the NRC (upgradation) work under its monitoring. But now as the government desires to embrace foreigners on the basis of religion, it’s a total negation of NRC and the idea of citizenship.”
Back in Assam, the strength of the resistance has only shot up with dozens of organisations frequently hitting the streets. Besides the demonstrations and rallies, these organisations, varying from student to ethnic to cultural, have sent thousands of review petitions to the Joint Parliament Committee (JPC) which is handling the bill at the moment. In a possible threat to the stability of the BJP-led state government, the bill has not gone down well with its alliance partner Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) too.
Led by two-time former Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, AGP has fought the bill due to its outright violation of the Assam Accord of 1985. The Accord determined the cut-off date for illegal immigrants entering Assam as 24 March, 1971. Ever since, this has served as the bedrock of the powerful anti-immigrant discourse in Assam and dominated politics unfailingly.
Lambasting the government for pushing the bill, Mahanta recently wrote on Facebook, “Assam has already absorbed the burden of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants as determined by the Assam Accord and thus won’t accommodate any further. Since Bengal and Tripura too have refused to do so, why shall Assam not?”
Speaking after his recent visit to Bangladesh, he added, “The Bangladeshi Prime Minister has informed us that the Indian Government has surprisingly kept them in the dark about the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. Also from several inquiries, it is found out that the persecution of Hindus there has significantly reduced during Sheikh Hasina’s reign as compared to the previous one of Khaleda Zia. There have been over 29,000 Durga Puja pandals there this year. In this light, the logic of religious persecution for embracing the Hindu Bangladeshis is ridiculous. Assam will never be allowed as a dumping ground for foreigners.”
Despite being tactfully pushed under the garb of ‘humanitarianism’, it is indeed not so tricky to distinguish BJP’s ulterior political motive behind the bill. Without denying the atrocities on the above communities, questions are however posed as to why such a liberal attitude is being shown only to select communities of refugees and not others in the neighbourhood.
Pretty ironically, the persecuted Rohingyas of Burma and Bangladesh or the Lankan Tamils or the Ahmadis of Pakistan or the Hazaras of Afghanistan fall short of BJP’s ‘humanitarian’ scheme of things. It is then probably not unreasonable when Prafulla Mahanta alleges the BJP of being no different and greedily swimming on the tide of Hindu votes just like the Congress is perceived to be riding on Muslim votes. Perhaps the government would have done better by pressurising the respective nations to improve the status of their minorities and simultaneously place these persecutions before international human rights bodies.
What also makes this bill dubious is its appearance in the political timeline of the country. The BJP has struggled in most of the state elections in the last two years. It is finding itself in troubled waters again in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab. The two states go to polls in February 2017. Unsurprisingly, the party’s traditional ‘Hindu nationalist’ plank will be crucial there. With the recent hullaballoo over surgical strikes across the LoC, the ‘nationalism’ debate has only soared high. Combined with a Hindu sentimental touch through the new bill, this two-pronged strategy is expected to favour the party in the coming polls.
However, buoyed by a relentless resistance already, the central government recently decided to hold a public hearing with the JPC over the matter. The hearing, which was scheduled on October 25 in Delhi, was however boycotted by many of the invitees since only a handful of petitioners were picked up. The popular demand has been for the JPC to come to Assam and directly interact with all the stakeholders.
Santanu Borthakur, an advocate in the Gauhati High Court and a petitioner on the matter, rejected the invite on similar grounds. Speaking over phone about the government’s insincere effort, he said, “After strong demands from various quarters in the state, the JPC finally agreed to come to Assam for a ‘hearing’ and ‘evidence’ collection. But now they have cannily said they would come here to ‘study’ the situation post the November 19 by-polls, making its position ambiguous to the waiting stakeholders.”
On the legal aspect of the bill, Borthakur added, “Though the Union government is legally empowered to enact such legislation, it evidently defies the secular spirit of the Indian Constitution as there is no provision in it to grant citizenship primarily on the basis of religion(s). Israel is probably the only country to do so. Illegal immigration from Bangladesh has been a perennial socio-economic problem in Assam and it has nothing to do with any religion.”
But then what can be done if the government has the power to pass this bill? “As it can be legally passed (in the Parliament), it can be challenged in courts too. In the past, the IM (DT) [Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals)] Act was challenged and consequently got nullified by the Supreme Court. We won’t hesitate to repeat a similar thing,” Borthakur puts in perspective.
Interestingly, opposing the popular backlash against the bill in most parts of Assam, some sporadic conflicts have erupted in the Barak Valley too. Home to mostly erstwhile Bengali Hindu immigrants from Bangladesh, this region has long been prone to an anti-Assamese sentiment. On November 7, a group called Union Territory Demand Committee (UTDC) burnt effigies of Rajen Gohain, a Union minister from Assam, who had appealed to all the Hindu Bangladeshis to adopt Assamese language and culture. The incident, seen as a direct snub to the Assamese cultural pride, has risked reviving old linguistic rivalries in the state.
The stakes are visibly high with the debate gaining heat each passing day. Assam has been witness to many a mass resistance in the past, the Assam Agitation of the 1980s being the fiercest one. Several organisations have already warned of a similar episode if the bill is not rolled back. With the ruling dispensation getting increasingly adamant to thrust its agenda, the political discourse in the state becomes all the more jittery in the days ahead.