PM Modi faces protests over Citizenship Bill during North East campaign visit

Protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, continue across the north-east with Assam as the hotbed. The agitation was particularly pronounced in anticipation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address in the state on Saturday. The All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) observed Condemnation Day on Saturday, in protest against the PM’s visit to Assam.

Addressing a public meeting at Changsari, Kamrup, Modi once again reiterated his commitment to shelter the non-Muslim minorities of Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, calling it ‘a national responsibility’ to be fulfilled by his government. He further stressed the need to distinguish between “infiltrators” stealing India’s resources and helpless refugees who flee persecution in their homeland. He assured the people of the region that the bill will in no way cause harm to their interests.

The AASU supporters waved black flags opposing the Prime Minister’s cavalcade making its way from the Raj Bhawan to the airport. Protesters marched with black flags, released black balloons, and burned effigies of Modi and Assam CM Sarbananda Sonowal in Upper Assam. Protests continued across the states like Meghalaya and Manipur as well, on Saturday.

What Modi said

“Those who restored their faith in Ma Bharati, those who chant ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’—such people had to save their lives and take shelter in India,” the Prime Minister declared on Saturday, a month after up a stir with his barbed remarks about illegal refugees at a political rally in Silchar. On January 4, he had claimed the Citizenship Bill would atone for the wrongs committed during India’s partition.

“Be it Pakistan, Afghanistan or Bangladesh—before 1947, they were all part of India. When the country was divided based on faith, the religious minorities—Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Christian, Parsi, and Buddhist—were made to believe that things will improve, but they were betrayed. It is India’s responsibility to shelter them, a national responsibility which we fulfilled,” Modi had said.

Assam’s voices

Besides civilians, several indigenous organisations 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.

AASU General Secretary Lurin Jyoti Gogoi vehemently criticised the line of centre’s thought concerning the Citizenship Bill. “What the Prime Minister said is unconstitutional. Who has granted the right to differentiate between people based on religion? It’s a politically motivated statement. Our movement will continue in a democratic way, and people of Assam will give a befitting reply to the ruling government for this political game,” he said.

Former Assam Director General of Police, Harekrishna Deka told NDTV that the Prime Minister is up to no good by playing Hindutva card.

“In effect, he is suggesting that the Hindu illegal migrants from Bangladesh are the helpless displaced people and the Muslim illegal migrants are silent demographic invaders in Assam…For him, all Hindu migrants crossing over to Assam are victims of persecution in Bangladesh, though there is no historical support to that effect,” said Deka.

“His logic is that they are victims of persecution for just being Hindu minority in a Muslim majority country. It seems, he is determined to get the amendment passed without caring for the future of Assam’s indigenous communities.”

A farmers’ outfit Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti also staged a naked protest outside the Assam Secretariat in protest against the Bill. A 12-hour Assam bandh call by a number of Ahom saw an overwhelming response in Upper Assam with sporadic attacks reported from a few places.

Last month, senior journalist Manjit Mahanta, Sahitya Akademi awardee and RTI activist Hiren Gohain, and KMSS leader Akhil Gogoi were slapped with sedition charges for insisting “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”.

North-east stepping up the offensive

In the north-east at large, several NDA allies that form a part of ruling coalitions in their respective states have expressed their opposition to the Bill. Meghalaya’s Conrad Sangma has threatened to join Asom Gana Parishad in the withdrawal of its support, if the proposed legislation passes Rajya Sabha.

Sangma’s National Peoples Party (NPP) which has threatened to quit the NDA and adopted a resolution to this effect at its general body convention in Shillong on Saturday, backs the governments in Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Nagaland.

After a meeting in Guwahati last month, convened by Sangma, a total of 11 political parties, including 10 from the north-eastern states and Janata Dal (United), unanimously opposed the Citizenship Bill.

Overview of the controversy

The Citizenship Bill, with its amendments, passed the lower house of the parliament on January 8. This event sparked widespread protests, 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 neighbouring 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.

What does the Bill ensure?

The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, seeks to amend the Citizenship Act of 1955. In doing so, it would extend naturalised citizenship to refugees who are Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Jains, Parsis and Sikhs, and have lived in India for a minimum of six years (as opposed to the existing 14 years cut-off), thereby legalising 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 polarisation before general elections” in the Washington Post. It is a move that makes it clear that Muslims are not welcome in India. 

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 . The same cannot be said for Muslims.

The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill is doomed to be shelved as each of BJP’s ally in the North East is opposing it. It was passed in Lok Sabha on January 8 and the government is expecting to get the Rajya Sabha’s nod in this session. But, with relentless protests in the northeast supported by opposition parties and NDA allies alike, the prospect of its getting passed is growing slimmer by the day.

Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius

AssamCitizenship billNarendra ModiNRC