It is not hard to guess why the joint parliamentary committee (JPC) reviewing the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 decided at the last minute to postpone the public hearings in Assam it had scheduled for the first week of November. The decision apparently was made after RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat met Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal. Too much of a spotlight on the citizenship amendment bill, they seem to have concluded, could hurt the party’s electoral prospects in the by-election in Lakhimpur — the BJP won the seat, though with a reduced margin.
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No one familiar with the deeply contested history of immigration and citizenship in Assam should be surprised that the citizenship amendment bill would be controversial in Assam. It has rekindled the long-standing foreigner controversy. Opinion is divided along expected lines between the Brahmaputra Valley and the Barak Valley that nurture very different memories of the Partition.
The bill’s staunchest critics are the old guard of the Assam Movement. Since Sonowal himself was one of its prominent leaders, he has been criticised for not openly objecting to the bill. But the vociferous opposition by some of Sonowal’s one-time comrades in the Assam Movement, who are now leaders of regional parties and allies of the BJP-led state government, has made the bill politically toxic for the BJP.
The BJP must reconsider the bill, says the AGP president and Assam’s agriculture minister, Atul Bora, since it had promised to implement the Assam Accord. The controversy threatens to unravel the coalition that brought the BJP-led alliance to power in the state only a few months ago.
Electoral tacticians will have no trouble understanding the decision. But the JPC’s action sends troubling signals: The ruling party appears unwilling and unprepared to engage in a serious public debate on an issue that involves how the membership in the nation is defined. Winning elections by any means necessary is its priority.
Critics of the bill have expressed concern that it could trigger a new influx of Hindu refugees from Bangladesh. Former Assam chief minister and AGP founder-president Prafulla Kumar Mahanta has said that religious persecution of Hindus in Bangladesh is not as much of an issue under the Sheikh Hasina government than what it once was. He points out that more than 29,500 Durga pujas were held in Bangladesh this year and that many of them had received financial assistance from the government.
Mahanta’s statement is entirely consistent with the Modi government’s policy towards Bangladesh. The concern that the change in India’s citizenship laws could trigger a new influx is not out of place. Yet the BJP accuses Mahanta of “causing confusion” on the issue by opposing the bill. A BJP leader has charged that the AGP did little to implement the Assam Accord when it was in power under Mahanta’s leadership. But whatever the shortcomings of the Mahanta-led AGP government, the reason for its failure to implement the Assam Accord is not hard to find. Most people in Assam understand the main obstacle to be the IMDT law: It had severely limited the government’s capacity to act.
When in 2005 the Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional, it said in its ruling that the IMDT law had created “insurmountable difficulties” for the government in the identification of unauthorised immigrants living in Assam. Indeed the court had agreed with much of what the leaders of the Assam Movement were saying. The IMDT law, said the apex court, encouraged massive illegal migration from Bangladesh to Assam and that it was the “main barrier” to identifying illegal immigrants.
Ironically, the BJP’s evident disinclination to openly engage in a public debate on the citizenship amendment bill reminds people in Assam of the way in which the IMDT law was passed. The seventh Lok Sabha elected in 1980 had enacted the IMDT law in 1983. While the 1980 election is remembered in the rest of India for sweeping Indira Gandhi back to power, the memory of that election is very different in Assam. The Assam Movement had just begun and its organisers had called for a boycott of the elections. Elections could be held in only two of Assam’s 14 parliamentary constituencies — both located in the Barak Valley, where the Assam Movement had little resonance. Thus a law that had more consequences for Assam than for any other part of the country was passed by Parliament at a time when Assam was grossly under-represented. That’s not how a deliberative law-making body should function.
One hopes that Parliament this time will not make the same mistake: That it will do more to facilitate public participation and public input in the course of legislating the citizenship amendment bill. A thorough discussion of the bill, however, requires that its goals be spelt out in a more transparent manner.
The proposed amendment, in its current formulation, seeks to exclude undocumented immigrants belonging to certain minority communities of Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan — Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians — from the category of illegal migrants making them eligible to apply for Indian citizenship. The list of religious minorities excludes Muslim groups like the Ahmadis, certainly a persecuted religious minority in Pakistan.
It is hard not to read the proposed amendment as being about something else: To deal with what some people have long taken to be a piece of unfinished business of the Partition. They believe that Indian citizenship laws should recognise a right of return of Hindus from Pakistan and Bangladesh to India, similar to the right of Jews to return to Israel, or of ethnic Germans to Germany. Those of this persuasion are unhappy with the Indian Constitution’s rejection of the two-nation theory since Indian law cannot distinguish between Hindu and Muslim arrivals from Pakistan and Bangladesh. The real purpose of the citizenship amendment bill seems to be to introduce this distinction into India’s citizenship laws.
The implications of the amendment are huge, not only for Assam, but for the rest of India and the subcontinent. The Constitution’s rejection of the two-nation theory is crucially important for the status of Indian Muslims as equal citizens. The proposed amendment will impact not only the sense of security of Indian Muslims, but also the future security of Hindus in Bangladesh, and the credibility of India’s historical position on the Kashmir question.
Whatever the form the amendment finally takes, there is no alternative to developing a shared understanding of the issue through a hard national conversation. The implications of the bill are far more profound than the innocuous formulation “persons belonging to minority communities, namely, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan.. shall not be treated as illegal migrants” might suggest.