Citizenship Bill: Assam protests and the irony of BJP’s attempt to “protect minorities”

By Arre Bench

The Citizenship Bill proposes to allow “persecuted minorities” from neighbouring countries to seek citizenship in the country. It’s ironic to see the BJP project itself as a champion for minorities in other countries, when it can be argued that they’ve failed at creating a safe haven for those already residing within our borders.

On February 18, 1983, one of modern India’s grisliest massacres occurred in central Assam. An Assamese mob approached a cluster of villages in Nagaon district, armed with knives, sticks, and a few guns, and assaulted the district’s inhabitants, most of them Muslim immigrants. The incident came to be known as the Nellie Massacre, and the indiscriminate killing that day led to the loss of 2,191 lives, according to official reports, though some estimates put the death toll far higher. The cause of the violence was public resentment against the Indira Gandhi government, which had granted approximately four million Bangladeshi immigrants the right to vote in the state elections of ’83.

The Nellie Massacre took place in the shadow of the Assam Agitation, a six-year movement spearheaded by the All Assam Students Movement (AASU) and Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) that demanded the Indian government identify and expel illegal immigrants in the state. They locals feared losing the right to their lands and their jobs to the “outsiders”. And though the agitation was against illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, Bengali Hindus as well as Muslims too became easy targets.

Clearly, the issue of citizenship is one loaded enough to set Assam and its neighbouring states off like a tinderbox, and the ongoing debate in Parliament about the Citizenship Amendment Bill threatens to reignite the simmering embers of this dormant conflict.

Assam and the entire Northeast region declared a unified bandh yesterday – the first time since Independence – to protest against the Bill. And the AGP exited the BJP-led coalition after the Cabinet approved it, bringing arch rivals Prafulla Mahanta of the AGP and Congress’s Tarun Gogoi together.  

The controversial bill proposes to allow “persecuted minorities” (read non-Muslims) from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan to apply for Indian citizenship within six years, instead of the currently proscribed window of 11 years. The original inhabitants of the Northeast fear this will pave the way for their culture to be swept away by a tide of immigrants, a sentiment that has found expression in the AGP’s exit, and Meghalaya CM Conrad Sangma’s announcement to not support the NDA.

In a bid to quell the rising unrest, PM Modi made a speech to announce that rights of his “brothers and sisters in the Northeast” would be looked after, showing that the BJP is committed to pushing this bill through both Houses of Parliament and seeing it enacted as law. While this obdurate approach might cost them allies and votes in the Northeast ahead of 2019, the ruling party has elected to press ahead regardless. As they would spin it, in the words of Assamese BJP minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, the bill is emblematic of “a fight between Jinnah’s legacy and India’s legacy.”

India’s famed diversity has not come without cost.

How very BJP of our ruling party to portray its initiatives as a salvo against our “evil” neighbours. But having a firm grasp on the majority in the Lok Sabha is not the same as having a firm grasp of irony, something the BJP has failed to see in its current predicament.

While portraying India as the tolerant, accepting, democratic alternative to the nations on our borders, is obviously the BJP’s goal, but a look back at our history of treating minorities unfairly puts their claim on shaky ground. India’s famed diversity has not come without cost. Going back to the dawn of civilisation in the subcontinent, the Dravidian inhabitants of the Harappan civilisation were forcibly displaced and had to learn to live alongside the Aryan immigrants from the steppes of Central Asia. Ancient and medieval Indian history is also a tale of religious conflict, as Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, and Buddhist kings all committed various atrocities against so-called “non-believers” within their realms. In modern India as well, the melting pot has boiled over at periodic intervals, with minorities being targeted in pogroms like the ones that took place after Partition, in 1984, and 2002. India might be famed for its unity in diversity, but behind that unity lurks a history of violence.

While minorities have been able to settle and assimilate into mainstream Indian society, how safe they actually feel is a question that’s up for debate. Which is why it’s amusing to see the BJP attempt to depict itself as a champion for minorities in other countries, when it can be argued that they have failed at creating a safe haven for those already residing within their borders.

The last four years, has seen a rise in the attack against minorities. It’s reached a point where Naseeruddin Shah, a national treasure of an actor, gets trolled for saying he’s worried about his children’s safety in India. Shah’s concern is not misplaced – from the cow vigilantes who tortured Dalit youth in Una to those who lynched Mohammed Akhlaq in Dadri, proponents of rabid Hindutva have created an atmosphere of fear for those who do not follow their way of life. The fear-mongering propaganda that surrounds “love jihad” and “ghar wapsi” is just another symptom of the fervour with which minorities are demonised in this country.

Even though the BJP is unlikely to acknowledge any of these inconvenient truths as it pushes to pass the Citizenship Amendment Bill, it’s morbid to watch them make assurances to foreign minorities, like a cat promising to protect a family of mice from a terrier. The impact this bill has on the political landscape for the upcoming election is yet to be seen – but gauging by the coalition pullouts in the Northeast, it doesn’t bode well for the BJP.

The article was published in Arre.

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