Home Minister Rajnath Singh introduced the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016 in Parliament in July this year; it seeks to give citizenship by naturalisation to immigrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan belonging to the Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Cimmihristian communities, facing religious persecution and coming to India before December 31, 2014. Such people would be living illegally in the current context of the provisions of the Passport (Entry into India) Act 1920 and the Foreigners Act 1946.
However, while all regions welcomed the move, opposition grew in Assam — on the premise that Hindus from Bangladesh who came thus would obliterate the culture of local indigenous communities. Many of these protests smack of vested interests which have always derailed peace in the state. Several political entities, activists and perennial “student leaders” have been blowing the issue out of context, trying to mislead the public on the applicability of the bill and its actual impact.
Former CMs Tarun Gogoi and Prafulla Mahanta, who are opposing the bill, miserably failed in their long tenures to implement the Assam accord signed in 1985 — but they are trying to take refuge in this now. Their failure was a calculated design to ignore the issue while in power. It also reflected both poor capacity to send back illegal immigrants and votebank considerations. Thus, ration cards were rampantly garnered by many and over three decades, such arrivals mingled in the state. From six such districts in 2001’s census, there are now nine Muslim-majority districts in Assam as per 2011’s census. The number of Hindus has come down in those districts. Also, as informed by MoS, home affairs, Kiren Rijiju in Parliament, there are about two crore illegal Bangladeshis in India.
The Modi government took the call in August to set up a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) on the bill; this is chaired by Lok Sabha MP Satyapal Singh, a reputed police officer earlier. This committee’s term has been extended till the end of the budget session next year. The committee is doing a meticulous job of examining all the issues closely, with many interest groups. It will offer suggestions that make certain provisions more relevant and implementable, and also hopefully touch on other provisions to fine-tune the bill’s details.
The bill proposes to reduce the number of years, from 11 to six of the last 14, required to live in India to obtain citizenship by naturalisation. This could be further relaxed as persecuted people from the six religions and three countries would have nowhere to go. Also, the amendment of section 6A of the current act would be of paramount importance, so these communities are exempted from its provisions, the term “Bangladesh” being in Section 6A. Further, as the current National Registrar of Citizens (NRC) update is underway in Assam and requires documents to be provided as proof for oneself and one’s ancestors’ citizenship prior to March 25, 1971, in the context of the proposed bill, the same provisions become irrelevant for migrants from these six religions. They should be exempted. Much harassment has already happened with many Bengali Hindus, categorised as “doubtful” for no fault of theirs.
A few arguments are being offered regarding the validity of the bill in the context of reasonable classification under Article 14 of the Constitution, which grants the right to equality by attempting to cover the six minorities from the three countries. But, as the whole issue goes back to the days and basis of Partition, persecuted minorities have to be taken care of on humanitarian grounds. Till date, religious violence continues in the three countries — the recent burning of temples and killings of Hindus in Bangladesh are clear indications of the prevailing situation.
A few quarters have also suggested a separate state for the Barak valley in Assam: That will aggravate problems as many demands will ignite again and create serious law and order issues. The greater Assamese society must prevail now to cover the current ethnic spread across the two valleys — Brahmaputra and Barak — and the hills, so that Assam remains united.
While the bill should be passed at the soonest, the Satyapal Singh-led committee and the government must reach out to various groups, understand the rationale behind their opposition and explain how the legislation benefits Assam and sets right the situation created by the almost non-implementation of the Assam accord. That the cut-off date is already notified and henceforth, no more foreigners will be allowed, should motivate every group to work together to ensure foolproof measures are taken to prevent illegal migrants from entering Assam.
Border-fencing and technology to detect suspect movements should be implemented in a time-bound manner. Equally important is proper documentation for citizens and persecuted minorities who will wait for their turn to apply for citizenship as soon as the time period is satisfied as per the amended act’s provisions. Assam can move forward, instead of remaining a burning state with misplaced political issues.