The passage of Citizenship Bill in Lok Sabha on January 8, 2019, has triggered widespread protests in Northeast against BJP-led NDA government. The Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) exited the BJP-led coalition in Assam, the moment Citizenship Bill was cleared by the Union Cabinet on January 7. Post AGP exit, other regional parties in BJP’s 11-party Northeast Democratic Alliance (NEDA) in Tripura, Nagaland, Mizoram, and Meghalaya are also mooting over their future plan of action for the ‘coalition’. Calling the passage of Bill unfortunate, Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma said, “We, as a government and as a Cabinet, have expressed concerns, reservation and taken resolution against the Bill. We spoke against it long back, much earlier than any other did. This is something which we don’t support”.
Soon after the bill was passed, an 11-hour bandh was called across the seven northeastern states by North East Students Union (NESO), an umbrella student body representing all the states on January 8. The protests turned violent in Assam and Tripura where protesters clashed with the police and burnt down vehicles. Carrying placards and raising slogans, about 10 protesters belonging to the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti from Assam stripped themselves naked in front of the Parliament.
Supported by the AGP, the Congress and other ethnic organisations, people in the northeastern states, especially Assam, are protesting against the Bill as it aims to grant Indian citizenship to non-Muslim migrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan on grounds of religious persecution. Assamese believe that Bill negates all the political negotiations that they have achieved since Assam Accord (1985), to secure their cultural and linguistic identity for which they have been fighting since 1970. The Accord was signed between representatives of the Government of India and the leaders of the Assam Movement on August 15, 1985, following a six-year agitation by All Assam Students Union (AASU) demanding identification and deportation of immigrants in Assam after Bangladesh war.
The protests in Assam are from seventy indigenous outfits including AGP led by NESO and All-Assam Students Union (AASU) and also supported by minority-dominated All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF). The opposers also feel that the Bill contradicts the ongoing updation of National Registration of Citizens(NRC) according to which the migrants who came to Assam after March 24, 1971, will be stripped off their citizenship. On the other hand, the bill makes Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Christians and Parsis from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan eligible for Indian Citizenship as long as they have entered India before December 31, 2014. Thus reintroducing the previously excluded migrants as citizens of India as long as they are not Muslims. It is feared that the migrants gushing in from the neighbouring states will further dilute the ethnic composition of the states. There has already been discontent in NorthEastern states over the influx of refugees from Bangladesh since 1971 war. However, the Bill is cherished by the people in Bengali dominated areas like the Barak Valley as they hope it would shield them from the NRC. While the Bengali speaking Muslims who form the majority in Central and Western Assam are strongly against the Bill as the bill specifically targets Muslim migrants.
The protesters in Assam are also demanding that Article 371 which safeguards the rights of local people in employment and education should be extended and Clause 6 of the Assam Accord(1985) be implemented. Clause 6 which is meant to safeguard the socio-political rights of the indigenous people has not been fully implemented in Assam. In Tripura, The Indigenous People’s Front and the opposition Indigenous National party are opposed to the bill. While in Arunachal Pradesh it is feared that the bill would benefit Chakmas and Tibetans leading to the infringement of the rights of the ethnic population.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi while addressing a rally in Maharashtra said: “I want to assure my brother and sisters of Assam and the Northeast, the youth there, that their rights will not be harmed”. To further allay the fears of people in North East, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh on January 9 in the Upper House said “I assure the House that we are committed to preserving Northeast’s identity and culture…We want a peaceful situation in the Northeast and are in constant touch with the state governments. We will strive to protect the identity and culture of the Northeast and will take steps to address all concerns”.
However, the introduction of the Bill in the Lower House was staunchly criticised by the opposition. The leader of Indian National Congress in Lok Sabha Mallikarjun Kharge requested the Speaker to send the Citizenship Bill to a select committee as it was related to the Constitution and many people have reservations about it.
The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016, which seeks to amend The Citizenship Act 1955 and was introduced in the Lok Sabha in July 2016. It seeks to make immigrants belonging to the above mentioned six religions and the three countries eligible for citizenship. It could not get through Rajya Sabha leading to its introduction in 2019. Since its inception, it has been riddled with controversy. The main bone of contention is the facts that it exclusively targets the Muslim migrants. The bill is seen as a vote consolidation exercise of BJP by the people of North East and the Opposition. The introduction of Bill amidst so much protest is certainly a bold move by the BJP government especially when the polls are nearing and its lack of numbers in the Upper House.