ASSAM turning into a political minefield

Members of different organizations and individuals shouting slogans and opposing the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 during the hearing before the Joint Committee on the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, at the Assam Administrative Staff College, Khanapara in Guwahati on Monday.

by Satyen Mohapatra

July 8, 2018
New Delhi:Assam has become a political minefield today with the large scale protests against the proposed amendment to the Citizenship Act, 1955.
Political parties, student and youth groups, NGOs, artists have all taken to the streets, taking out torchlight processions, mass signature drives and campaigns demanding withdrawal of the proposed bill.

The amendment bill seeks to grant Indian citizenship to six minority communities – Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Parsis and Christians – from three neighbouring countries, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and reduce the period of stay in India to six years from the current requirement of 11 years to be eligible to apply for citizenship.

The BJP led central government argues that persecuted Hindu minorities of Muslim majority countries in India’s neighbourhood could only turn to a Hindu majority country like India for shelter and therefore must not be considered illegal if they do not have travel documents and they should be allowed to apply for Indian citizenship.

The Modi government’s friendly and warm gesture towards all Hindus and non Muslims in the neighborhood, gets into trouble in the north eastern state particularly Assam due to the state’s complex political-social history rooted in the whole citizenship issue.

It is a sensitive issue in Assam because Assam geographically having a porous border with Bangladesh historically had migrants legally and illegally always entering into Assam.

Illegal migrants have always posed a threat in Assam to the locals as far as indigenous language, culture and economy was concerned and were the main reason for the years of Assam agitation led by students which finally ended with Assam Accord being signed between the Centre and state government and the student body.

The Assam Accord stipulated March 25, 1971 (the day Bangladesh was born) as the cutoff date for detection and expulsion of the illegal migrants.
Over the years while politicians have given lip service to Assam Accord virtually nothing was done seriously to detect illegal immigrants and expel or deport them back to Bangladesh.

The charge was that politicians of all hue started using illegal immigrants for vote bank politics in Assam and other north eastern states. When Congress was in power the charge was that Bangladeshi Muslim migrants were being used as vote bank.

When BJP came to power in 2014, Assam’s hopes were raised that a final solution to the vexing citizenship problem will come soon. The BJP’s stated position over years stressed even by PM Modi has been that illegal migrants ( majority of them being Muslim Bangladeshi) will be detected and expelled from Assam.

Nothing on this front has happened so far except work started on a National Register of Citizens (NRC) to register all bonafide citizens for weeding out the illegal migrants. The time limit has for the work to be completed has been extended till July end this year.However, even on this issue, there are some concerns of section of the Assam population. Bengali Muslim minority of Assam fear that the National Register of Citizen(NCR) being prepared might leave out many of them, rendering them stateless.

In a letter to External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, four United Nations special rapporteurs said ”concerns have been raised that local authorities in Assam may manipulate the verification system in an attempt to exclude many genuine Indian citizens from the updated NRC.”
But NRC authorities say the fears are misplaced as even those left out would get an opportunity to prove their citizenship through claims and objections.

The central government last year came out with a proposal to amend the Citizenship Act to facilitate granting of citizenship or stay rights to Hindus, Sikhs, Parsis, Buddhists, Jains and Christians from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In Assam this proposal was strongly opposed by All Assam Students Union and Asom Gana Parishad (in alliance with BJP in Assam) because it would allow all illegal immigrants from Bangladesh to suddenly become eligible for citizenship if they were Hindus.
This would go against the Assam Accord where all illegal immigrants were to be expelled belonging to any religion. Secondly Hindus from Bangladesh who had entered even after the 1971 cutoff date will be eligible for Indian citizenship.

Asom Gana Parishad,the party, which was born out of the six-year-long Assam students’ movement against illegal immigrants, threatened to come out of the BJP-led state government if the Centre went ahead with the Bill.AGP’s three Ministers in Assam Government have threatened to quit if the controversial Bill is passed.

There is division on linguistic line while Assamese in Brahmaputra Valley are against the proposed bill the Bengali-majority Barak Valley has favoured the idea because Bengalis will get citizenship.
Even politicians belonging to Congress are supporting the move going against the official party line. North East Students Organisation is opposing the proposal. Meghalaya cabinet has taken a decision opposing the move for a bill.

Over 100 organisations have submitted memorandum to Joint Parliamentary Committee when it visited the state.

Actually there is a fear among Assamese that they will lose their cultural and linguistic identity to Bengalis and will become minorities in their own state and Bengali will become state language if Hindu migrants were allowed citizenship and free passage into the country

While long standing linguistic barriers are being fanned by supporters on both sides, religious fears are also raising their heads. Finance minister Himanta Biswa Sarma is supposed to have stated that Assamese should allow the Hindu Bangladeshis to settle in Assam in order to counter the state from becoming a Muslim majority state.

Lakhs of Bangladeshi Hindus who had entered Assam as illegal migrants after 1971 will become Indian citizens at one go if this Bill is passed.

The mass agitation is going to force BJP to come out with its own clear stand on the issue. It is the BJP which has always been a strong supporter of detection and expulsion of illegal migrants (belonging to any religion) from the north East because they were changing the demography of indigenous people and now BJP itself is reneging on its stand by being ready to provide citizenship to Hindus and other non-Muslims through this Bill.

Assam Chief Minister Sonowal till now is taking a neutral role and has not stated his position clearly besides stating that the interests of Assamese people will be safeguarded. But with the agitation snowballing he will have to take a stand

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