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Citizenship Bill

Subverting an accord

Print edition : Feb 01, 2019 T+T-
Congress workers in Assam taking out a procession to protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019, in Guwahati, on January 7.

Congress workers in Assam taking out a procession to protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019, in Guwahati, on January 7.

At a National Register of Citizens  centre in Mayong, Assam, a man helps those whose names were left out from the register fill up forms for their inclusion in the NRC, on August 13, 2018.

At a National Register of Citizens centre in Mayong, Assam, a man helps those whose names were left out from the register fill up forms for their inclusion in the NRC, on August 13, 2018.

Sarbananda Sonowal, Assam Chief Minister.

Sarbananda Sonowal, Assam Chief Minister.

Asom Gana Parishad Ministers Phanibhushan Choudhury (left) and Atul Bora return after submitting their resignations to Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal, in Guwahati on January 9.

Asom Gana Parishad Ministers Phanibhushan Choudhury (left) and Atul Bora return after submitting their resignations to Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal, in Guwahati on January 9.

Protests rock Assam and other north-eastern States as the Centre plans to amend citizenship laws in order to grant legitimacy to illegal immigrants.

THE Narendra Modi-led government’s attempt to tamper with the core clause of the Assam Accord with an amendment to the country’s citizenship laws met with angry protests in Assam and other north-eastern States and aggressive resistance by the opposition in the Rajya Sabha to the introduction of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019. The Modi government got the amendment passed in the Lok Sabha by a voice vote amid protests by opposition parties in the Lower House on the last day of the session on January 8.

The Bill seeks to remove the “illegal migrant” tag on all those immigrants belonging to six religious groups, namely Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Parsis and Christians, from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan who came to India without valid travel documents up until December 31, 2014, and make them eligible to apply for Indian citizenship.

Clause 5 of the Assam Accord, the core clause, provides for the identification, deletion of names from electoral rolls and expulsion of all “illegal migrants” from Bangladesh, irrespective of religion, who came to Assam after March 24, 1971.

The National Register of Citizens (NRC) is also being updated in Assam under the supervision of the Supreme Court by using March 24, 1971, as the cut-off date for determination of Indian citizenship. Verification of claims by 31 lakh applicants who were left out from the complete draft and over 2.65 lakh objections to being left out is due to start from February 15.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government at the Centre has now two options left: it can either push the Bill in the Upper House during the Budget session, which begins on January 31 and which will also be the last session of the current Lok Sabha, or take the ordinance route ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha election.

Being a Bill introduced in the Lok Sabha, it will automatically lapse if the government does not get it passed in the last session. An ordinance can be issued only when Parliament is not in session.

Life in the north-eastern States came to a grinding halt in response to a call for a “Northeast Bandh” and bandhs called by the All Assam Students Union (AASU) and other constituent student bodies of the North East Students Union (NESO) in respective States against the Bill. People from all walks of life, including students, writers, intellectuals, singers and artists, joined thousands of angry protesters who took to the streets in Assam. Six protesters were injured in police firing in Tripura. A dozen activists representing 70 organisations led by the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti and the Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chatra Parishad staged a nude protest in front of Parliament House on January 7.

On January 10, the Assam Police registered a suo motu case of sedition against Dr Hiren Gohain, a noted intellectual who has been in the forefront of the movement against the Bill, for allegedly supporting the demand for “Independent Assam” during a protest organised in Guwahati on January 7. Dr Gohain denied the charge and described it as a conspiracy to weaken the movement against the Bill. The police action against Dr Gohain was widely condemned in the State.

The BJP, which runs coalition governments in Assam, Manipur, and Tripura and its own government in Arunachal Pradesh and which shares power in Meghalaya, found itself isolated in the north-east over the Bill, with the region putting up a united opposition to granting citizenship on the basis of religion to “illegal migrants” from Bangladesh.

Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh made a statement in the Rajya Sabha that the Bill was not for Assam alone and that it would be applicable to the whole of India. He sought to allay apprehensions among the people in Assam by saying that the beneficiaries of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill would be able to reside in any State of the country—the burden of these persecuted immigrants would be shared by the whole country. “Assam alone would not have to bear the entire burden; the Government of India is committed to giving all help to the State government and the people of Assam,” he said.

However, State Health, Finance and Public Works Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma revealed the real motive behind the amendment, which was to garner the votes of Bengali Hindus.

Sarma claimed that the Bill would benefit eight to nine lakh Hindu “illegal migrants”—including about five lakh voters residing in Assam who would be critical in ensuring the election of Assamese candidates in 17 Assembly constituencies in the State (including the Sarbhog constituency represented by State BJP president Ranjeet Kumar Dass)—and save them from “Jinnah’s ideology”.

In a desperate bid to push the BJP and the Sangh Parivar’s Hindutva agenda, he also said that Hindus would become a minority in Assam if the Bill was not passed.

The Modi government’s promise of ensuring Constitutional safeguards to Assamese and indigenous people under Clause 6 of the Assam Accord has failed to cut much ice with the opponents of amendments in citizenship laws in Assam.

New Delhi’s push for the amendment also led to the BJP’s ally Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) quitting the Sarbananda Sonowal-led coalition government and snapping ties with the saffron party. This comes at a time when the Lok Sabha election is barely three months away.

The three AGP Ministers in the Sonowal Cabinet, party president Atul Bora, Phanibhushan Choudhury and Keshav Mahanta, tendered their resignations to Sonowal on January 9. The regional party has 14 legislators in the 126-member Assam Assembly. However, there will be no threat to the survival of the Sonowal government as the BJP has 61 legislators and its other regional ally, the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF), has 12. Pressure was mounting on the AGP to quit the BJP-led government in protest against the Bill.

In Meghalaya, the ruling National People’s Party (NPP) announced that it would quit the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) if the Bill was passed. The Conrad Sangma-led Meghalaya Cabinet earlier passed a resolution seeking withdrawal of the Bill. The BJP is a partner in the NPP-led ruling coalition and has a Minister in the Cabinet.

The Lok Sabha passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019, amid protests by opposition parties who dubbed it “divisive” and violative of the secular fundamentals of the Constitution.

The Modi Cabinet approved the redrafted Bill on January 7 after the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) on Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, headed by Rajendra Agrawal, tabled its report in both Houses of Parliament.

Enactment of the Bill will complicate the issue of determination of citizenship in Assam. It will create two classes of Indian citizens in Assam—one with their names in the updated NRC and one without.

The second class would comprise those belonging to Hindu and five other non-Muslim religious groups who came to Assam from Bangladesh between March 25, 1971, and December 31, 2014.

A signatory to the Assam Accord, AASU rejected the constitution of a high-powered committee by the Modi government to assess and recommend the levels of reservation of seats in the Assam Assembly and the local bodies and other constitutional safeguards for Assamese and other indigenous people under Clause 6 of the accord. The Central government included one representative of AASU on the committee.

But AASU refused to join the committee and rejected it on the grounds that constitutional safeguards would have no meaning without the implementation of Clause 5. AASU leaders said that instead of implementing Clause 5 and driving out all illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, Hindus as well as Muslims, who came to Assam after March 24, 1971, the Modi-led BJP government had taken steps to allow illegal Bangladeshi immigrants to stay permanently in the State and obtain Indian citizenship. They dubbed the formation of the high-powered committee an “eyewash” and pointed out that a committee was constituted in 2000 to go into issues of constitutional safeguards under Clause 6. It was headed by G.K. Pillai, then Joint Secretary in the Ministry of Home Affairs, and Sarbananda Sonowal was one of the three representatives from AASU on it.

In its Assam Vision Document, 2016-2025, the BJP promised to implement the Assam Accord in letter and spirit. AASU and other organisations opposing the Bill dubbed the BJP, Modi and Sonowal “betrayers” for going back on this promise. Sonowal sought to allay the apprehensions by saying that the interests of the Assamese and other indigenous people would be protected, but there were no takers for his promises.

The JPC report revealed the legal complications that may arise because of the two cut-off dates for the determination of citizenship. The Department of Legal Affairs opined that “the proposal to legalise the minority migrants who entered Assam till December 31, 2014, without valid travel documents as proposed in the Bill, appears to be contrary to the Assam Accord”.

However, the Legislative Department clarified that the report stated that “Section 6A of the Principal Act only deals with foreigners who entered India, from Bangladesh into Assam between January 1, 1966, and March, 24, 1971. It does not provide for any form of detection, deletion or expulsion of foreigners beyond the said date. The proposed proviso to exempt persons belonging to certain minority communities coming from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan has general application beyond the Assam Accord and is intended to apply to the whole of India. The Legislative Department has emphasised that there appears to be no conflict in the application of the proposed proviso regarding exemption of minority communities coming from Bangladesh to Assam between January 1, 1966, and March 24, 1971, as per the Assam Accord.”

The committee, however, recommended passing the Bill after ruling NDA members voted down all amendments by Congress, CPI(M) and Trinamool Congress members.

The committee said that it felt the “intent of the government is to protect the interests of those migrants of Indian origin who are subjected to unfair treatment for no fault of theirs”. It added: “Display of such supportive and humanitarian approach on the part of the government towards the minorities who fled the three countries, including Bangladesh, due to religious persecution, is quite appreciable. In fact, as the notification of the new cut-off date implies that no more migrants would be legally allowed into India after December 31, 2014, it should motivate every stakeholder including the Central government and the State governments to work in unison to ensure putting in place foolproof measures to prevent illegal migrants from entering the country, especially Assam, which has borne the maximum impact of influx from Bangladesh.”

The committee said that while agreeing with the cut-off date of December 31, 2014, it wanted the government to engage and mobilise all the resources for implementing effective border fencing and technology deployment to detect and stop further influx of illegal immigrants.

With the Modi government keeping the Bill alive despite widespread protests in Assam and other north-eastern States, the situation in the region is expected to remain politically volatile until the Bill is either withdrawn or it lapses.

For the BJP, it is a catch-22 situation. If it fails to table the Bill in the last session of the Lok Sabha, it may not go down well with its targeted electorate—Bengali Hindu voters in Barak Valley and other parts of Assam, Tripura and West Bengal. If it does, it runs the risk of losing support among the Assamese and other indigenous people in the region and losing regional parties as electoral allies. All eyes will be on how the Modi government and the BJP deal with the situation.