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Simply Put: Why Citizenship Bill disturbs Assam

Amendment Bill qualifies illegal immigrants on basis of religion; divide plays out between regions with distinct linguistic identities, among ruling partners and within parties. TORA AGARWALA explains

Written by Tora Agarwala |
Updated: May 19, 2018 8:39:57 pm
Former CM Prafulla K Mahanta leads a protest by AGP, BJP’s ruling partner, against the Bill in Guwahati. (PTI Photo)

Since last week, Assam has witnessed protests over an amendment to the Centre’s Citizenship Act 1955 that proposes to make minority (non-Muslim) immigrants from three neighbouring countries eligible for Indian citizenship. This has underlined a geographical divide, with the Bill facing protests in Assamese-dominated Brahmaputra valley while being welcomed in Bengali-dominated Barak Valley, Assam’s southern tip.

What are the protests about?

There have been two waves of protests, for or against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016. During and after the visit of a Joint Parliamentary Committee to Assam and Meghalaya (May 7-10) to collect feedback, the Brahmaputra Valley saw protests opposing the Bill while the Barak Valley saw counter-protests in the Bill’s support.

Read | Citizenship (Amendment) Bill: Protests spread, under fire, CM Sarbananda Sonowal speaks up

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What is the Bill about?

It aims to amend the Citizenship Act 1955 to allow Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan to apply for Indian citizenship. The present Citizenship Act allows an immigrant to apply for citizenship if s/he has lived in India for 12 months immediately before the application, and for 11 of the last 14 years. On July 19, 2016, the government introduced the Amendment Bill in Lok Sabha, relaxing the 11-year cutoff to six years out of 14, for immigrants of the six religions from the three countries. Also, in 2015 and 2016, the government passed two notifications exempting such immigrants from the Foreigners Act 1946 and the Passport (Entry into India) Act 1920 — which provide for deportation — and enabling them to continue living in India if they had arrived before December 31, 2014.

What feedback did the JPC get?

The JPC, comprising 16 members and headed by BJP MP Rajendra Agrawal, visited Guwahati (Brahmaputra Valley), Silchar (Barak Valley) and Shillong (Meghalaya). In Guwahati, 135 groups submitted memorandums — one was signed in blood — objecting to the Bill. In Silchar, hundreds of organisations pushed for the Bill. In Shillong, the Meghalaya Cabinet decided to oppose the Bill.

Simply Put: Why Citizenship Bill disturbs Assam There have been two waves of protests, for or against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016. (Express Photo by Vignesh Krishnamoorthy)

Why two stands in Assam?

Opponents feel the Bill will aggravate the problem of illegal migration. Those in favour feel it will help end alienation of Bengali Hindus living in Assam, many of them in Barak Valley.

BRAHMAPUTRA VALLEY: The opponents stress Assam cannot accommodate any more immigrants and feel the Bill goes against the 1985 Assam Accord signed between the Rajiv Gandhi government and leaders of the Assam movement spearheaded by the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) against illegal Bangladeshi immigrants — irrespective of religion. Under the Accord, any person who came into Assam after midnight of March 24, 1971, would be identified as a foreigner. A non-obstante clause was inserted in the Citizenship Act 1955 under Section 6A. “This basically meant the cutoff date for citizenship to migrants in Assam was March 24, 1971, while for the rest of the country it was 1950,” says Lurin Jyoti Gogoi, AASU general secretary.

BARAK VALLEY: The linguistic divide between the two regions can be traced back to 1947, when most parts of Bengali-speaking Sylhet joined East Pakistan, while one part was retained in India and is part of Barak Valley. Those pressing for the Bill express concern about “Partition victims” who have been displaced and persecuted. “Where will they go? No other country will give them shelter,” says Haridas Dutta, general secretary of Nagorik Satro Rokhya Songram Parishad. “We want the six-year naturalisation period to be relaxed to six months,” Dutta says.

If the Bill is passed, how many stand to gain citizenship?

Estimates vary. “Since 1971, there have been about 20 lakh Bengali Hindus living illegally in India. If the Bill is passed, an additional 1.70 crore Hindus living in Bangladesh, according to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, 2015, will come into India and get citizenship,” says Akhil Gogoi, president, Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti. He feels the cutoff of December 31, 2014, will not hold any currency.

BJP spokesperson Rajdeep Roy has a much lower estimate for displaced Bengali Hindus in Barak Valley. “Someone who has gone through both the Accord and the Bill will very well understand that the latter is defining only a subset of 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 lakh,” he says.

How are political parties and other organisations placed?

The BJP is pushing for the Bill; its ally AGP opposes it, as do the Congress in Brahmaputra Valley and Badruddin Ajmal’s party, AIUDF. There is a geographical divide within parties, too. BJP women’s wing leader Mira Borthakur and MLA Atul Bora have opposed the Bill on social media. In the Congress, Barak Valley MLAs Kamalakhya Dey Purkayastha and Gautam Roy have welcomed it. AASU, North East Students Organisation, Indigenous Forum Assam and Akhil Gogoi’s KMSS are opposing the Bill, while Dr Subramanian Swamy’s Virat Hindustan Sangam and Barak Valley local organisations are supporting it.

What is the government stand?

While Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal has said he would step down if his government failed to protect the rights of Assam citizens, ministers including Himanta Biswa Sarma have said that the government would express its stand after publication of the updated National Register of Citizens next month.

Is the Bill connected to the NRC?

Opponents feel it undermines the update process of the 1951 NRC, which, like the Assam Accord, too uses March 24, 1971, as a cutoff. The BJP disagrees. “Why should it affect the NRC, which will continue in its own pace?” says Rajdeep Roy. The NRC is at the centre of the geographical divide too. “Many Bengalis in Barak Valley are worried that they will not get a place in the NRC,” says Samar Bijoy Chakraborty of the Barak Valley chapter of Virat Hindustan Sangam.

Will the Bill stand legal scrutiny?

Those opposing it believe it will not. Says Kamal Nayan Choudhury, a senior advocate at Gauhati High Court: “The fundamental ground for opposition is the violation of the Article 14 (which states that there can be no discrimination between two religious groups). Also, according to Section 5 of the Citizenship Act 1955, people of undivided India are prohibited from acquiring citizenship in India. Then how can the very same Act have a provision that grants citizenship (to them)?”

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