The controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019 passed earlier this month in the Lok Sabha, has created a political backlash in Assam and rest of Northeast India. The Bill states that illegal migrants belonging to specified minority communities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan will not be treated as illegal migrants under the Act, making them eligible for Indian citizenship. Minority communities falling under this category are Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, Sikhs, Christians and Parsis. This denotes that illegal migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan who are Muslims, other minorities who do not belong to the above groups (for example Jews), or atheists who do not recognize themselves with any religious community, will not be eligible for citizenship.
This bill resolves to modify the Citizenship Act, 1955, which did not allow citizenship rights to any category of illegal migrants. The contentious bill appears to be a follow up of the promise made by the BJP before 2014 elections to grant citizenship rights to people belonging to the Hindu community who are persecuted in the neighbouring countries. The 2014 Election Manifesto of BJP stated- “India shall remain a natural home for persecuted Hindus and they shall be welcome to seek refuge here.”
The problem is that this provision infringes on the right to equality assured under Article 14 of the Constitution because it provides biased treatment to illegal migrants just on the basis of their religious belief. The Bill has not yet become law, as it is yet to be passed by the Rajya Sabha.
The bill also mandates that the registration of the Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) card-holders can be cancelled in case of violation of any law. The OCI is an immigration status authorizing a foreign citizen of Indian origin to live as well as work in India indefinitely. But this bill will only take into account the grant of citizenship to those who migrated to India before December 31, 2014.
Assam’s finance minister Mr. Himanta Biswa Sarma speaking to press on January 9, 2019, said that the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill is politically neutral and will not impact BJP’s prospects in the state in the general elections. He said that even if it does have an impact on two-three seats, the party (BJP) is ready to take a hit in the larger interest of the country.
In Assam, during recent years, the BJP as well as its parent body, the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh have registered remarkable growth. The success of the BJP in the 2014 Lok Sabha and the 2016 assembly polls can be seen as a confirmation that their ‘Hindutva Agenda’ worked in Assam. Voters in Assam also backed BJP believing the promise made by this national party that they will protect their jati, mati, bheti (community, land, and base).
It was based on this supposed success of ‘Hindutva Agenda’ in Assam that the national BJP/RSS leaders in charge of the state and the convener of BJP-led North East Democratic Alliance Himanta Biswa Sarma, started polarising Assamese society on the Hindu-Muslim link for the 2019 general elections.
Defending the controversial citizenship bill, he said its implementation is necessary for the state to ensure that it does not face a Kashmir-like situation in the future.
Using Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, they have tried to present only the Muslims as ‘illegal immigrants’ and hence try and form a new political alignment between the majority Assamese community and the Bengali Hindus, extensively seen to be supportive of the Bill. The Bengali Hindus have long been a vote bank of the BJP in the state since the beginning.
Innumerable minority communities residing in the neighbouring countries of India have suffered severe persecution because of their religious beliefs, race, ethnicity as well as language. Differential treatment of Tamils in Sri Lanka, Tibetans in China, Hindu Nepalese in Bhutan and Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar is not hidden from anyone. A virtuously religious classification of nature of persecution in the bill is clearly arbitrary because it violates the fundamental principle of secularism mandated in the Indian Constitution. Indian citizenship law should remain completely secular so that all religious community have a sense of inclusiveness.
As the 2019 elections draw closer, we can expect more electoral tactics devised by the political parties to polarise voters on the basis of religion and community in Assam.