The visit of the Joint Parliamentary Committee on the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 to the Northeast last week has left the region, particularly Assam, divided. Protests have been held across the region for and against the Bill, which proposes that “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”. This Bill seeks to change a fundamental character of the country’s citizenship act, which does not discriminate or privillege any person seeking Indian citizenship on the basis of her religion. The repercussions will not be limited to Assam, which seems most tense about the Bill, but extend even to neighbouring countries.
The Bill has raised the prospect of old faultlines reappearing in Assam. The privileging of non-Muslims from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan is, of course, expected to feed into the existing debate over citizenship claims in Assam. The Assam Movement, from the 1970s, framed the citizenship debate in secular terms as “natives” versus “outsiders”, or Assamese versus others. In recent decades, with the rise of Hindutva groups, this debate has acquired a religious edge with the tag of outsider limited to Muslims of perceived Bangladeshi origin. Ironically, the proposed amendment has also revived an old divide between the Brahmaputra and the Barak river valleys. This division is not merely regional, but also linguistic. The large Bengali Hindu population of the Barak Valley, many of them refugees from districts which are now part of Bangladesh, have supported the amendment whereas the residents of the Brahmaputra Valley see it as an instrument that may change the ethnic demography of the region. These debates portend a return to the intensely polarising politics of the 1980s in Assam, which turned the diverse people of the state not just against “outsiders” but also each other. It extracted a price from the polity — Assam’s social and economic development was stunted for years as violence gripped the state. Assam can’t afford a return to those bloody years.
India’s citizenship provisions are derived from the perception of the country as a secular republic. In fact, it is a refutation of the two-nation theory that proposed a Hindu India and a Muslim Pakistan. Independent India adopted a Constitution that rejected discrimination on the basis of religion and the birth of Bangladesh undermined the idea that religion could be the basis of a national community. The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 imagines India as a Hindu homeland, which is a refutation of the constitutional idea of the republic. The JPC must call for shelving it.