The Citizenship Bill 2016, reintroduced two years later with amendments and passed by the lower house of the parliament on January 8, 2018, has managed to stoke protests and polarise people across the north-east ever since.
In a move that seeks to grant citizenship on the basis of religion and is thus in direct contradiction of the spirit of the Indian Constitution, the Bill has become a source of insecurity, and a national talking point. Offering nationality to refugees belonging to non-Muslim minority communities from neighbouring countries, the Bill has been described by many critics as India’s “turn” towards becoming a religion-based state.
What does it take to become an Indian?
The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, seeks to amend the Citizenship Act of 1955. In doing so, it aims to grant citizenship by naturalisation to immigrants who were persecuted in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan and entered India before December 31, 2014. According to reports, the idea driving this amendment was to make good on BJP’s 2014 election promise — to grant shelter and citizenship to Hindu refugees persecuted in neighbouring countries.
The law would thus extend to refugees who are Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Jains, Parsis and Sikhs, and have lived in India for a minimum of six years, thereby legalising their status in India and making it legal to deny citizenship to Muslim immigrants.
Also read: Hindutva politics in Assam: An overview
Why is the Bill raising such a stink? Because it reeks of Islamophobia
It is worth noting that shortly before the Bill was tabled in the Parliament, India deported five Rohingyas from Assam to Myanmar, violating international laws that prohibit governments from sending individuals back to their home country where their lives are under threat. BJP president Amit Shah has even called Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh a national security threat on several occasions, comparing them to termites.
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. It is as if the government wants to posit Pakistan and Bangladesh as Muslim homelands and establish an Akhand Bharat with Hindus its natural citizens.
Calling it a sinister attempt that attacks constitutional tenets of secularism and equality, she further drew attention to the north-east “which share a history of ethnic cleansing of minorities”. The region has erupted in protests since the Bill was announced.
Social fabric of the north-east under threat
Besides civilians, several indigenous organisations and student bodies in Assam began 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 organisations, 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.
In a recent rally in Assam, Prime Minister Modi had announced his confidence in the passage of the Bill, claiming it would serve as a “penance against the injustice and many wrongs done in the past”. This seems to have fuelled anger among those opposed to the move. Agitation has spread all over the north-east, demanding immediate revocation of the bill.
The Mizo Zirlai Pawal (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 the 11-hour “bandh” call by the North East Students’ Organisation (NESO) earlier this week.
Many National Democratic Alliance (NDA) allies in the Northeast, including the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) in Assam, the Mizo National Front in Mizoram;, the NPP in Meghalaya, the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura in Tripura, and the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party in Nagaland have expressed their objection to the Centre’s Citizenship Bill. The AGP has already quit the alliance over the matter.
Even the BJP-led coalition government in Manipur has rejected the bill, urging the Centre to exempt the state from the controversial legislation on Thursday. 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.
In Meghalaya too, there is strong dissent against the Bill. A group of 14 non-profits on Thursday sponsored a night blockade to protest the Bill, leading to disruption in traffic movement on the National Highway. According to police officials, protestors attacked a vehicle carrying rescuers from Odisha who were on their way to the 15 miners trapped in a rat-hole coal mine in the East Jaintia Hills. Some groups in the Garo Hills region continued their protests against bill by observing a black flag day.
Later on Friday, the BJP leadership in the state asserted they were “with the indigenous people”, as the cabinet passed a resolution opposing the proposed legislation. 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.
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. Earlier this week, NDA allies Shiva Sena and JD(U) also backed Assamese leaders who have roused the state to protest the proposed law.
Sedition charges lift profile of the protests
In Assam, senior journalist Manjit Mahanta, writer and RTI activist Hiren Gohain, and KMSS leader Akhil Gogoi were slapped with sedition charges on Thursday for their remarks on the Bill. The Assam police also charged them under Sections 120B (criminal conspiracy), 121 (waging war against the government) and 123 (concealing with intent to facilitate design to wage war), sparking protests and reproach from all quarters.
Following demands to withdraw the charges by the Congress, AIUDF, AGP, KMSS and even the banned ULFA, the Gauhati High Court on Friday granted absolute bail to Mahanta and interim bail to Gohain and Gogoi.
Sahitya Akademi awardee Gohain who had spoken during a meeting on January 7, said he merely “highlighted 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 organisations 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,” he said.
Former chief minister Tarun Gogoi told reporters that the case against Gohain, Gogoi and Mahanta is a “blatant misuse of power” by the BJP government in the state.
Assam and NRC
The Bill must also 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