It is by now very clear that the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016 which still needs the approval of the Upper House of Parliament has provoked mixed reactions all over the country. For a few states, the citizenship bill is absolutely undesirable, especially for Assam and other northeast states where the BJP is now in power.
Besides the question of Hinduisation of India, the bill may be seen as an attack on India’s secular character and a blow on regional culture as well. It is a very transparent attempt to stoke religious polarisation before general elections scheduled for April-May. The crocodile tears of the BJP government for helping distressed people and its claim that the proposed Citizenship Bill 2016 is a humanitarian gesture are controverted by India’s action in deporting Rohingiya refugees, even violating international laws that prohibit governments from returning individuals whose lives are under threat in their home country.
The Lok Sabha approved a bill on January 8 which proposed to grant residency and citizenship to non-Muslim immigrants from three major Muslim majority countries -Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afganisthan. It means migrants belonging to Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Parsi and Christian communities who entered India without necessary documents before 2014 will not be deported and would gain citizenship after six years of residency in India. No country in this world has ever passed this kind of bill for granting citizenship to foreigners.
Secondly, it is strange that a country like India having a secular Constitution has passed this kind of bill for amending the 1955 Citizenship Act. It is more interesting that a politician like Mr. Himanta Biswa Sarma, a defector to the BJP from the Congress, supported the bill by arguing its purpose was the protection of India’s “Hindu identity”. He earlier said: “If the Bill is not passed, then Hindus in Assam will become a minority in just five years.”
Assam will be another Kashmir, he claimed. He only proved himself to be a sycophant of Prime Minister Modi who also previously admitted that the bill is tied to his party’s desire to make India a Hindu nation that prioritises the rights of Hindus irrespective of their citizenship.
During a rally in Assam’s Bengali Hindu dominated region of Silchar recently, Mr. Modi said that the citizenship bill is an “atonement for the past mistakes of partition”. He promised the region’s Bengali-speaking Hindus that he would make sure that they were accepted and welcomed by “mother India” by passing this bill. But what he ignored was that he and his party are trying to alienate Assam’s indigenous population. He did not keep in mind that the public anger against the bill has historical roots.
During Bangladesh’s bloody struggle for liberation from Pakistan in the early 1970s, many Bengalis moved to Assam. Over the years, their increasing numbers stirred anxieties among the indigenous Assamese about the preservation of their distinct culture and ownership of land. As a result, between 1979 and 1985, an “anti-foreigner” agitation – dubbed the “Assam movement”, targeting the Bengali immigrants – erupted in the state. To end the violence, India’s central government signed the Assam accord with the leaders of the Assam movement in 1985. The accord specified that only people who could prove that either they or their parents had entered or lived in India prior to March 1971 could assume Indian citizenship and legally reside in the state of Assam.
Last year, a new National Register of Citizens (NRC) was prepared in the state to distinguish Indian citizens from undocumented immigrants according to the rules set by the 1985 accord. This list included only 28.9 million of the 32.9 million people residing in the state, rendering nearly four million people stateless.
Assam is one of the few states in India where language and culture are more important than religion. It is because of these fears that the decision to denationalise millions of people was widely supported by Assam’s indigenous population. Fears prevailed that their culture may be decimated by the influx of “foreigners”. The Assamese’ main fear is that Bangla speaking people from neighbouring Bangladesh, irrespective of their religion, would come to dominate Assam.
Hindu and Muslim Assamese are united on this viewpoint and they all want undocumented immigrants to be driven out of the state. However, with this new citizenship bill, the BJP government is trying to convince Assamese Hindus that their loyalty should lie not with the indigenous Muslim communities of their state – who speak their language – but with Bengali Hindus. For now, the majority of Assamese Hindus seem unconvinced by Hindu nationalist arguments. It is strange that the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and its allies who once fought for the historical Assam Accord, after a long delay, tried to make their position clear and expressed anger by saying the BJP move would make the region Bengali-dominated and eclipse local cultures.
It is another step towards Hinduisation of India and is seen as a part of the BJP’s larger ideological and political agenda to transform India into a
‘Hindu Homeland’. The BJP is clearly using this bill to send a message to Hindus in other parts of India that under its rule, “Hindus will always come first”. From the very beginning, the BJP viewed the NRC as a way to rid the country of Muslim “foreigners”.
The decision to grant citizenship based on religion goes against the letter and spirit of the Constitution. In northeastern states, which share a history of ethnic cleansing of minorities, the bill is having damning repercussions. The new citizenship bill will deepen the old fault lines in Assam, both religious and linguistic. The BJP will undoubtedly use the bill as an emotive issue to excite the Hindu vote bank in Assam and other parts of the country The Modi government in passing the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016 in the name of showing humanitarian gesture in reality has made yet another sinister attempt, may be a suicidal one too, by attacking the Indian constitution, whose very basis lies in the concept of secularism and equality.
This week, the Supreme Court of India will also begin hearing arguments on the contentious dispute over the Babri Masjid which was demolished by Hindu nationalists in 1992. In West Bengal, the party has been trying to organise a Ram Rath yatra. BJP leaders have sought an ordinance to build a temple on the site. It is clear that the Citizenship bill is one more effort to stoke Hindu nationalist fervour before the Lok Sabha election.
(The writer is International Visiting Professor, Fairleigh Dickinson University, New Jersey)