Amid intensifying protests, a total of 11 political parties, including 10 from the north-eastern states and Janata Dal (United), unanimously opposed the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, on Tuesday. Most of the opposing parties are NDA allies, including the ruling parties of Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram.
The meeting in Guwahati was convened by Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma in association with recent NDA-defector Asom Gana and attended by Mizoram Chief Minister Zoramthanga, who hailed the bill as “dangerous” for the people of the north-eastern states.
The leaders at the meeting have reportedly decided to send a delegation to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Ram Nath Kovind to abort the proposed amendment.
If the Centre decides to go forward with implementing the bill, the next course of action will be chalked out accordingly, Sangma said on Tuesday. He later clarified that the alliance is “issue-based” and not “politically motivated”, implying that the allies not thinking of disrupting their alliance with the BJP-led NDA in an election year.
The 10 political parties that participated in the meeting from across the north-east were — the Mizo National Front (MNF), the United Democratic Party (UDP), the AGP, the Naga People’s Front (NPF), the National People’s Party (NPP), the National Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP), the Hill State People’s Democratic Party (HSPDP), the People’s Democratic Front (PDF), the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) and the Khnam.
Overview of the controversy
The Citizenship Bill with its amendments passed the lower house of the parliament on January 8, sparking widespread protests and polarising people across the north-east for granting citizenship on the basis of religion amidst the ongoing NRC controversy in Assam.
Offering nationality to refugees belonging to non-Muslim minority communities from countries, the Bill has been described by many critics as India’s “turn” towards becoming a religion-based state. It is argued to be in direct contradiction of the spirit of the Indian Constitution which lays down secularism and equality as fundamental tenets.
Read more:Hindutva politics in Assam
What does the Bill ensure?
The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, seeks to amend the Citizenship Act of 1955. In doing so, it would extend citizenship to refugees who are Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Jains, Parsis and have lived in India for a minimum of six years (as opposed to the existing 14 years cut-off), thereby their status in India and making it legal to deny citizenship to Muslim immigrants.
Rana Ayyub called this Bill a “transparent attempt to stoke religious polarization before general elections” in the Washington Post. It is a move that makes it clear that Muslims are not welcome in India.
Noise in the north-east
Besides civilians, several indigenous and student bodies in Assam are agitating against the Bill, saying it would be detrimental to their cultural identity and would nullify provisions of the 1985 Assam Accord, which fixed 1971 as the cut-off year for deportation of illegal immigrants irrespective of religion.
Around 70 , led by Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS), took out protest rallies in the north-eastern state on January 7, to dissuade Lok Sabha members from voting to pass the bill.
The Mizo Zirlai (MZP), the All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union (AAPSU), the Naga Students’ Federation (NSF), and the All Assam Students Union (AASU) had thrown in their support to a “bandh” call by the North East Students’ Organisation (NESO) after the bill passed Lok Sabha.
The same week, senior journalist Manjit Mahanta, Sahitya Akademi awardee and RTI activist Hiren Gohain, and KMSS leader Akhil Gogoi were slapped with sedition charges for highlight “that citizenship should be on the basis of secular principles, and the rightful demand of the Assamese people on the Citizenship Amendment Bill must be achieved by democratic means”.
“The gist of my speech was that if all democratic struggle by different parties and in the country fail to protect the interest and identity of the Assamese within the framework of the Constitution, the people will have no choice but to demand an independent Assam,” Gohain said, after the Guwahati High Court granted him interim bail.
Many National Democratic Alliance (NDA) allies in the north-east have expressed their objection to the Centre’s Citizenship Bill. The Asom Gana Parishad has already quit the alliance over the matter.
Atul Bora, President of AGP said on Tuesday, that his party had tried its best to convince the BJP that the Bill was against the interest of the people in the region. “I approached Home Minister (Rajnath Singh) but he told me that the Bill will be cleared at any cost,” Bora said.
Meghalaya, Mizoram, Manipur
BJP leadership in Meghalaya and Manipur also announced they were opposed to the move.
The BJP rules Manipur in alliance with the National People’s Party (NPP), Naga People’s Front (NPF) and the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), all of which have claimed that the idea of religion-based citizenship does not resonate with their constituents.
Zoramthanga’s Mizo National Front is part of the BJP-led North-East Democratic Alliance (NEDA in Mizoram.
Similarly, in Meghalaya, the ruling National People’s Party (NPP), the United Democratic Party (UDP), the BJP and the Hills State Peoples Democratic Party have all said they are not on board with the Citizenship Bill.
Nagaland was the latest to join the fray on January 28.
“Nagaland enjoys protection under Article 371(A). However, we rejected the Bill in solidarity with the other north-eastern States,” Chingwang Konyak, chairman of the ruling People’s Democratic Alliance containing the BJP, told the media.
Other NDA allies, such as Sena and JD(U), also backed Assamese leaders who have roused the state to protest the proposed law.
Most opposition parties, including the Congress, TMC, and CPI(M) have steadfastly opposed the proposal of granting citizenship on religious grounds, further arguing that the move would interfere with the process of updating and reverifying the NRC, perhaps even rendering it redundant.
Ahead of the meeting on Tuesday, Modi promised to protect the interests of Assam. Taking to Twitter, he also thanked the people of the state for supporting the BJP in the elections to three tribal autonomous councils.
The NRC issue
The Bill must be seen in the context of the controversial final draft of the NRC, according to which, 40 lakh of the Assamese population risk losing citizenship. Updated for the first time since 1951 to account for illegal migration from Bangladesh, the draft has left out 40,07,708 people and has refused to justify the large-scale exemption.
The list, which is probably one of the biggest exercises in disenfranchisement in the world, is replete with discrepancies which only exacerbates mass confusion, as the centre refuses to reveal the basis on which so many names were left off the list. Many claim it is less anti-immigrant, and more anti-Muslim and anti-Bengali.
However, if the amended Citizenship Bill passes in Rajya Sabha, non-Muslims left off the NRC will qualify for citizenship by naturalisation. The same cannot be said for Muslims.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius