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Citizenship conundrum could inflame North-east

If the Centre does not handle issues arising out of the controversial Citizenship Bill adroitly, the backlash could affect India’s Act East policy initiative.

Sagarneel Sinha |

The Citizenship Amendment Bill 2016, which amends the Citizenship Act of 1955, has been controversial since the bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha in the year 2016. The bill provides citizenship to the six religious minorities — Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains, Christians and Parsis — belonging to the three officially declared Islamic countries — Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. However, many including the opposition parties, the Congress, the Left, Trinamool Congress and even BJP’s allies like Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) have been strongly opposing the bill.

According to the Congress, Left and Trinamool Congress, the bill goes against the principles of the Indian Constitution as it provides citizenship based on religious grounds. Obviously, opposition by these parties against the bill is to appease the Muslims — a significant vote bank for them — and BJP’s support to the bill is to push the agenda of Hindu nationalism by providing citizenship to the persecuted minorities — mostly Hindus — of the three Islamic countries. It is to be noted that presently, the Bill is under scrutiny of Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC).

However, in the North-east, the concerns regarding the bill are not about Hindus vs Muslims. Here the issue is about locals vs foreigners. The North-east has been facing the immigration issue since a long time with persecuted minorities of Bangladesh, previously East Pakistan, moving into the region in search of shelter. This has changed the demography of the region.

For example, the large influx of Hindu Bengalis facing state-sponsored persecution in East Pakistan in 1971 changed the demography of Tripura from indigenous tribal majority into a Bengali majority state. Similarly, in Assam, which has been facing the load of immigration, there is a decline of Assamese speakers from 57.81 per cent in 1991 to 48.38 per cent in 2011.

On the other hand, Bengali speakers in the state have increased to 28.91 per cent in 2011 from 21.67 per cent in 1991. It is obvious the Assamese community wouldn’t want to be a minority in Assam. Significantly, the Bodo (an ethnic tribe of Assam) speaking population too has decreased to 4.53 per cent in 2011 from 4.86 per cent in 2001.

Decreasing indigenous population has been the cause of worry among the original inhabitants of the North-east who fear a Tripura like situation. So, various organisations of the region are vehemently opposing the Bill. AGP, which is one of the partners of BJP led government of Assam, has been opposing the Bill and has even warned to end the alliance with the BJP. AGP is demanding to drive out both the Bengali Hindus and Muslims who had migrated to the state from Bangladesh, earlier East Pakistan.

So, the rising voices of dissent against the Bill in the North-east are justified and the Centre cannot run away from the issue. To address the issue, first of all, the Centre has to listen to the voices of the North-east by organising meetings with all the organisations of different communities of the region.

Secondly, the Centre cannot ignore the issue of granting citizenship to the immigrants — the Bengali Hindus, Chakmas, an ethnic tribe practising Buddhism, Hajongs, an ethnic tribe practising Hinduism and Animism, and other various tribes practising Hinduism, Buddhism and Animism — who have preferred India facing religious persecution and discrimination in Bangladesh. One shouldn’t forget that there is certainly a difference between illegal immigrants and refugees – who face religious persecution and discrimination in their own land.

Besides, the Centre has to consider the burden faced by the North-eastern states due to large influx of immigrants into the region. It is a well-known fact, the North-eastern states, except Assam, are mostly dependent on the Centre. Clearly, it is not fair for the North-eastern states to bear alone the burden of immigrants. The government also has to ensure the Citizenship Amendment Bill 2016 doesn’t alter the demography of the Northeast as no local inhabitants would like to be reduced to a minority in their own land.

One possible way is for the Centre to devise a formula of systematically transferring a sizeable section of immigrants from North-east to other parts of the country in order to ensure that the indigenous communities of the North-east remain as majority in the region. For that, Centre has to earn the confidence of the other states and also consider granting economic packages to those states as they may not be ready to take the burden of the refugees.

However, the first priority of the Centre is to consider the views of different communities of North-east, the most diverse region in India, and channelise all the diverse views of the region regarding the Citizenship bill into a uniform view.

And if the Centre doesn’t pay heed to the regional sentiments in time, there are high chances of extremist elements trying to fish in troubled waters and this could be detrimental for the development of the region and also to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Act East’ policy.

The writer is a Tripura-based commentator.