Voices of dissent

Print edition : March 01, 2019

THE Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seems to have miscalculated the reactions to the Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2019, particularly in the north-eastern region, which is in ferment. Not only is the Bill blatantly sectarian and selectively communal in its objective, it contradicts the National Register of Citizens (NRC) whose objective is to sift out “original” citizens from “illegal immigrants” in Assam. Therefore, the groups supporting the NRC are opposed to the Bill as it seeks to give citizenship status to a select group of persecuted minorities. The groups feel this will upset the demographic balance, which is sought to be set right by the NRC.

The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has been arguing that the “persecuted minorities” of certain denominations have “no place else to go to except India”. The burden of the “persecuted migrants”, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh told Parliament, would be shared by the entire country. People belonging to these communities who were designated as “illegal migrants” and had entered the country on or before December 2014 would be naturalised under the amended law.

The BJP’s allies, the Janata Dal (United) and the Shiv Sena, have also been critical of the Bill. Opposition to the Bill emerged during the deliberations of the Joint Parliamentary Committee. The JPC report was presented to Parliament on January 7, and on January 8, the Bill was moved and passed. The Bill was introduced in July 2016 and then referred to the JPC, which was to submit its report by December 2016. The JPC issued a press communique seeking the views of the stakeholders. It received more than 9,000 memoranda, held 14 sittings, and undertook field visits to Jodhpur, Rajkot, Ahmedabad, Silchar, Guwahati and Shillong.

The JPC report was problematic even as it pretended to be objective. The introductory chapter seeks to depict Pakistan and Bangladesh as theocracies and by implication intolerant. Their choice to become theocratic states had, the report averred, led to “their organised way of religious persecution for minorities which continued till date”. The chapter also included a reference to the “influx of large number of people that has visibly impacted the demographic pattern in several parts of India especially the North East” and the “sufferings of these minorities” compared with other minorities in the rest of the world.

Justifying the need for the Bill, the JPC report referred to a Supreme Court judgment (Sarbananda Sonowal vs Union of India, 2005), which pointed to the dangers of the demographic changes in Assam and the implications of the same for the nation. The judgment observed that “as a result of population movement from Bangladesh, the spectre looms large of the indigenous people of Assam being reduced to a minority in their home state. Their cultural survival will be in jeopardy, their political control will be weakened and their employment opportunities will be undermined.” Ironically, the opponents of the Bill, primarily indigenous groups, argue that the Bill will undermine their cultural and other identities. The opposition to the Bill has been strident in Assam as it has been found to be in direct contravention of the Assam Accord because it proposes to confer legal status on all non-Muslim minorities who entered the State after 1971.

Representations from Assam pointed out that the Bill would “bring a radical change in the demographic pattern of Assam and pose a threat to the economic, political, cultural and social affairs of the indigenous people”. It was unconstitutional as it attempted to provide citizenship based on religion. The feedback received by the JPC from the north-eastern region was opposed to the Bill, with some quarters suggesting that if minorities felt insecure in neighbouring countries, the Indian government could take the issue up with the governments of the respective countries. It was also stated that the Bill would not stand the test of judicial scrutiny as the government had no data of “persecution” of minorities in Bangladesh or discrimination on the grounds of religion.

The argument in favour of the Bill is that there have been requests for extension of visas by members of minority communities from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh as they could not re-enter those countries for fear of persecution. In September 2015, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued a notification giving a one-time waiver for such communities, regularising their stay. The JPC was informed by the Intelligence Bureau (I.B.) that 31,313 persons had been given long-term visas following claims of religious persecution. The break-up was as follows: Hindus (25,447), Sikhs (5,807), Christians (55), Buddhists (two) and Parsis (two). This did not apply to refugees of all denominations or from countries other than the three specified ones. It was applicable only to those immigrants from specified denominations who had applied for long-term visas and who had claimed persecution. The Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar or Sri Lankan refugees were not part of this. There is a standard operating procedure for dealing with such groups. Since India is not a signatory to the United Nations Convention of 1951 on Refugees or its 1967 protocol, it is not obliged to treat them as refugees or confer rights on them. “From available data, I think it will be a small number. I feel it is from the human angle as they have left their original countries decades back. They are here; they have become citizenless,” the I.B. Director told the JPC, referring to the persecuted minorities.

Some JPC members questioned the need for specifying certain religious communities and suggested that the term persecuted minorities could suffice. The Legislative Department clarified that “persecuted minorities” might negate the objective of the Bill because if a wider interpretation to “minority” was given, the aspect of religious persecution would be lost sight of.

This was like letting the cat out of the bag, with the intent and bias of the government becoming increasingly clear: first, to classify certain countries where, according to it, large-scale religious persecution was taking place, even when the number of applicants who suffered such persecution was not more than 31,000; second, to classify certain specific minorities as having suffered persecution; and third, by circumscribing persecution only of a specific religious nature.

The dissent notes submitted by many prominent MPs were exhaustive, though parts of them were found to have been expunged in the final report. On January 3, Biju Janata Dal MP Bhartruhari Mahtab, in his note, said the Bill violated the spirit of the Assam Accord. He requested that the Bill be deferred until the NRC was completed and the issue of refugees from Bangladesh addressed. Javed Ali Khan, Rajya Sabha member belonging to the Samajwadi Party, and Saugata Roy and Derek O’Brien of the Trinamool Congress party said separately that “there was no consensus in the committee about the final report” and expressed apprehensions that the Bill would cause “ethnic divisions in Assam”. They said that they had moved amendments to remove the reference to these countries as well as the specific communities, but these were defeated by a “show of hands”. They pointed out the pitfalls of the NRC where 40 lakh people whose citizenship had come under question, 28 lakh were West Bengali Hindus, 10 lakh were Bengali Muslims and two lakh were Hindus from States other than Bengal and Assam. Bengali Hindus were being harassed by vigilante groups in BJP-ruled States, they wrote.

Mohammad Salim, Deputy Leader of the CPI(M) in the Lok Sabha, pointed out the manner in which all opposition was “voted down” and demanded the inclusion of all refugees and persecuted persons. His dissent note included sections on the betrayal of the Assam Accord and India’s compromised refugee policy. He wrote that India, by virtue of its standing in various international protocols, had a responsibility to all asylum-seekers and immigrants. “To do anything less than that would move India to join the wave of anti-immigration hysteria that has taken hold in Europe and North America and structured into state policy in Israel. Worse than anything, it would be back-peddling on our own tradition of a visionary and inclusive foreign policy.”

Congress MPs who gave dissent notes included Bhubhaneshwar Kalita, Pradip Bhattacharya, Adhir Ranjan Chaudhary and Sushmita Dev. Chaudhary, an MP from West Bengal, pointed out that the statement of objects and reasons of the Bill did not explain the rationale behind differentiating between different categories of illegal immigrants on the basis of religion. Sushmita Dev from Silchar, Assam, said that she was in favour of “offering unconditional and guaranteed citizenship to those who have a historical claim to it” though the Bill did not have any clause for securing citizenship.

She lamented the lack of “democratic space” in the draft report. She explained that in the absence of documents, genuine citizens, including linguistic minorities and Assamese-speaking people, were left out of the NRC process. The problem of documentation by those seeking citizenship was acknowledged by the government, she averred and, therefore, by implication the same latitude could be extended to those who had been left out of the NRC. There were no data, she said, on the number of immigrants from Bangladesh in Assam and there was “no way to determine the religion of these people”. Bangladesh had denied any illegal immigration from its territory, she said.


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