Cutting across political parties, a large number of people protested against granting of Indian citizenship to Hindu foreigners on Tuesday, saying it would threaten the existence of the indigenous people of Assam as the JPC on the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 began its hearing here. The bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955 to make illegal migrants belonging to six communities — Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians — eligible for Indian citizenship after six years of residence in the country.
The 16-member Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC), headed by BJP MP Rajendra Agarwal, visited the north-eastern state under public pressure to incorporate the opinions of organisations and individuals into the bill.
Several organisations and citizens have voiced their concern against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, which they have claimed would breach the clauses of the “historic” Assam Accord that states all illegal foreigners who came to the state after 1971 from Bangladesh, irrespective of their religion, have to be deported.
The protesters, waving placards, took out a peaceful procession to the Assam Administrative Staff College, where the JPC conducted its hearing on the bill, and submitted their memoranda, the police said.
Among those who opposed the bill were state leaders of the ruling BJP, its ally Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and opposition Congress.
Senior Congress leader and former chief minister Tarun Gogoi said the party opposed the bill “tooth and nail”.
“In the Preamble to the Constitution, it is written that India is a secular republic. This bill violates the basic structure of the Constitution,” he said and questioned the basis on which the Centre sought to amend the Citizenship Bill.
“The states in India were created on the basis of language and not religion. But the bill wants to divide us on the basis of religion, when in Assam, we have been living in harmony with Bengalis and Muslims,” Gogoi said.
He said the Assam Accord that stated March 25, 1971 would be the cut-off for detection of foreigners for their deportation had been accepted by all the political parties.
“But the bill violates both the Assam Accord and the purpose of updating the National Register of Citizenship (NRC) to identify the foreigners. Will it solve our problems or create more?” he asked, adding that it was the “biggest wrong” committed by the BJP and Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal against the people of Assam.
Assam Congress chief Ripun Bora said while the bill spoke of people of religious minorities in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, it actually meant Bangladeshi Hindus.
Sonowal, with the help of AGP, was determined to destroy Assam and remain in power, he alleged.
Opposing the bill, prominent BJP women’s wing leader Meera Borthakur said, “A foreigner is a foreigner, whether Hindu or Muslim. The Assamese people have not become so weak that we need to import people from Bangladesh.
“We have come to meet the JPC as individuals. By coming here, we are not opposing Chief Minister Sonowal, but adding to his strength in the interests of the people. We have faith in him and his promise to protect ‘jati, mati, bheti’ (community, land, home).”
AGP president and Assam minister Atul Bora told reporters after meeting the members of the JPC, “Even though the AGP is in the (BJP-led) state government, the question of us supporting the bill does not arise.
“Assam’s language and culture will be affected (if the bill is enacted). The six-year-long anti-foreigners Assam Agitation and the historic Assam Accord will become meaningless.”
Voicing his protest, Krishak Mukti Sangram Samitee chief Akhil Gogoi said if such a bill was passed, the identity of the indigenous people of Assam would be at stake.
It would also threaten the existence of the Assamese language and lead to identity crisis among the people, he added.
BJP MP Kamakhya Prasad Tasa, who is a member of the JPC, told reporters, “A wrong message is being spread that only Hindu Bangladeshis will be brought in through the bill.
“There is no need for the people of Assam to be worried as there is no mention of Hindu Bangladeshis in the bill, but the linguistic minorities of Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan.”
The organisations or individuals, who did not register their names earlier, were also heard and their memoranda received by the committee, official sources said.
Stating that the dates of the maiden tour of the JPC were fixed by the Lok Sabha Secretariat, the sources claimed that the panel members would hear the representatives tomorrow at Silchar in south Assam.
Many organisations and individuals, who submitted memoranda to the committee, claimed that they were not given receipts and feared that their documents would not be considered when the JPC took the final decision on the bill.