The controversy in Assam over amendments to the Citizenship Bill 2016 may not make national headlines. But it has the potential of becoming a perfect storm in the near future. The BJP’s own ally, the AGP, several governments in the Northeast and even sections of the BJP are opposed to the bill. The Citizenship Amendment Bill was introduced in 2016 to enable India to grant citizenship to individuals from six minority communities from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The bill lowers the waiting period for these minorities to be granted citizenship. While the bill has all-India significance, its stakes are high in Assam where the politics of migration has an unusual intensity.
The protests over the bill have constitutional and political significance beyond Assam. The Citizenship Amendment Bill 2016 raises several issues. It makes illegal migrants eligible for citizenship based on their religion. It clearly violates Article 14 of the Constitution. Proponents of the bill argue that even though it does not explicitly state it, the bill grants citizenship based on a reasonable classification. On this view, these minorities are likely to be persecuted in the three states in question; it is unlikely that any other state would grant them citizenship; and therefore, a special dispensation for them is justifiable. The claim that India has special obligations only to persecuted minorities of particular religions is debatable. But even if we grant for a moment that the historical circumstances of these persecuted minorities are different, the form of the bill matters.
Instead of simply saying that members belonging to particular religions will be eligible for differential treatment, the bill should have laid down some general secular criteria (persecution history, history of migration etc) which could, in principle, at least, be applied to all groups. But the direct exclusion of Muslims from being eligible for this pathway under any circumstances makes the constitutional form and citizenship communal. The BJP could easily have achieved the substantive objective by a more general framing. But the fact that it chose to discriminate on the basis of religion suggests the bill was more about sending a signal to its constituents than about resolving a genuine problem. Form matters. There was no need to communalise the form of the law.
Second, the bill clearly violates the Assam Accord. Whatever one may think of it, the issue of the credibility of an accord signed by the Union of India is not entirely a trivial one. And it may have ramifications for future negotiations. Third, the bill has potentially interesting implications for asymmetric federalism. One of the proposals under consideration is to exempt Assam from the purview of the bill while making it applicable to the rest of India. There is not much opposition to this bill in other states. The political consequences of this bill are not nearly as severe as in Assam.
But these arguments are not about the niceties of constitutional law. In fact, this debate exposes the limits of constitutional law in resolving intense problems of migration and identity. The protests over the bill have reminded us of the fragility of legal resolutions in Assam. The traditional faultlines in Assam have not gone away. There are multiple anxieties at stake. Assam has borne the brunt of migration in ways that unsettled so many identities and created distributive conflicts. The process of completing the National Register of Citizens is on, and either way its results are going to leave large numbers of people disaffected and vulnerable.
As Sanjoy Hazarika has tirelessly pointed out, the real challenge for India will begin after the process of identifying immigrants is done. What do we do with people we will have declared stateless? Are mass deportations, camps or even large-scale disenfranchisement, really an option for a polity that claims to be a democracy? How do we address these concerns without a disproportionate burden falling on Assam? But under the current dispensation and logic of political argument, it is hard to see how India avoids this inhumane outcome.
The second anxiety is the one that fuelled the Assam movement in the first place: The dilution of Assamese identity. This is the local Bengali-Assamese opposition overlaid over what the BJP has constructed as a Hindu-Muslim difference. Once again, the imperatives of the BJP’s national agenda have run up against regional identity claims. Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal, the hero of the anti-illegal migration movement, will not have his political skills tested. Vigorous opposition to the bill in Assam is stoked by fears and memories of Bengali domination.
This faultline will have to be deftly managed. But two things will make it difficult: First, the nature of competitive politics, where the incentives to take radical positions and polarise is increasing. Second, Bengali-Assamese tensions have a greater possibility of spilling over into West Bengal where, too, the political climate is becoming more fragile. Third, there is the conflict in the micro geographies of Assam. The bill has evoked different reactions in the Brahmaputra and Barak Valley. In Barak Valley, Hindu Bengali migrants welcome the bill. This issue comes under the shadow of the still practically unresolved matter of the implications of migration for the other constitutional promise of protecting Fifth and Sixth Schedule areas.
The truth is that the Assam quagmire will not be solved easily. Pulling a thread that tries to disentangle one part of the solution immediately puts strains on other parts of the problem. Nor can any political party claim either wisdom or full credibility in Assam. It is perhaps with this in mind that the Joint Parliamentary Committee has been proceeding cautiously on the Citizenship Amendment Bill, trying to take in all the stake-holders. None of these issues are new or unexpected. But what makes this moment fraught is the fact that anxiety levels are going up. There is increasing communalisation in the state. Most importantly, the nature of competitive politics is such that the incentives of political parties to try and outbid each other using the card of ethnic politics has increased.
No solution in Assam is an easy solution. But a cross-party dialogue and consensus, on throwing cold water on simmering conflicts and lowering the stakes will help at the margins. It is high time issues in Assam take national priority once again. Or we will be sleep walking into yet another tragic conflict in Assam, whose consequences will be national.