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On a slippery slope

Prasenjit Biswas |

Recent developments in Assam pose a serious threat to the stability of the Sarbananda Sonowal-led BJP government, as its main ally, the Asom Gana Parishad, is simmering over the Centre’s proposed Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2016. In its draft, the proposed bill has talked about granting the right to apply for citizenship to all religiously persecuted minorities from South Asian countries excluding Myanmar and Sri Lanka. This has raised the hackles of Assam’s BJP government as the party is badly divided over the idea of granting citizenship to Hindu Bangladeshis who came to India till 2016.

The upper Assam MLAs of the BJP, led by Rituporno Barua, see a “conspiracy” to remove Sonowal from power. Those MLAs from upper Assam are openly criticising the bill as, according to them, it goes against the interests of local indigenous people. On the other hand, BJP MLAs from central and lower Assam are not openly saying anything against the bill as they have a large segment of Hindu Bengali voters in their constituencies. The state’s electoral arithmetic has succeeded in producing a difference of opinion, which ended up creating sharp polarities within a disciplined and ideologically cohesive party like the BJP.

The polarities are very clear within. On the one hand, Himanta Biswa Sharma, the most powerful minister in Assam’s BJP after the chief minister has openly supported the Sangh-BJP stand on accommodating Hindu Bengalis after the process of updation of national register of citizens’ is completed. He is supported by state BJP chief Ranjit Das and Union Minister Rajen Gohain. The argument advanced by them is that Assamese indigenous people have a greater threat from Muslims of Bangaldeshi origin than from Hindu Bengalis (read Bangladeshis). They have been joined by Tripura governor Tathagata Roy, who openly called for the merger of Bengali Hindus within Asomiya Hindu identity for safeguarding both Asomiya and Bengali Hindus. The citizenship amendment bill, as mooted by BJP, carries all these strains of thought in it.

Such ideas are strongly opposed by almost the whole of the Brahmaputra valley’s civil society, student bodies and even the surrendered camp of the United Liberation Front of Assam. Their argument is that once such a bill allows right to citizenship for Hindu Bengalis, the entire Hindu population of Bangladesh — some 190 million people — will be resettled in Assam by the BJP to garner its vote bank.

The biggest votary of this argument, Akhil Gogoi, gave a clarion call to uproot the Sarbananda-Himanta combine unless they pass a cabinet resolution opposing the bill. Their argument got handy support from the Meghalaya government, which passed a cabinet resolution opposing the bill. The BJP minister in Meghalaya, AL Hek stated that the bill would endanger the existence of the indigenous people of Meghalaya and other places in the North-east.

Although technically, the NRC updation process is on, the Centre is mulling to introduce the bill in the next session of the Parliament. That was the immediate tip off point for the Asomiya people and other groups to get united. The Assam government stated that only after the NRC process is over, will it be possible to assess how many peoples’ names do not figure therein and only then should one think about the citizenship amendment bill and not before NRC is over.

Those arguments curried no favour to the BJP position within the party as well as outside. In the recent meeting of the North east Democratic Alliance held in Guwahati, Amit Shah preferred to remain silent over the status of citizenship of Hindu Bangladeshi who came to Assam due to religious persecution.

The NRC process conducted under the supervision of a two member bench of the Supreme Court of India led by Ranjan Gogoi from Assam has already referred a few constitutional issues to the full constitution bench.

One of the key issues is whether clause 6A of the Citizenship Act, 1955, is constitutionally valid. Yet the same bench refused to stop the NRC process after the Assam Sammilito Mahasangho filed a petition. Many civil society bodies have raised the issue that if 6A, which is under consideration before a full bench of the Supreme Court is ultimately found to be unconstitutional, what would be the use of the NRC updation then?

The debate here is whether Assam can have a different cut-off date for citizenship from the rest of the country? Clause 6A — an Assam-specific amendment, which was brought in after the Assam Accord was signed in 1985 — and the rules framed under it for updation of the NRC of 1951, apparently contradict many key constitutional provisions.

One of the critical provisions is that the NRC of 1951 conducted under the Census Act of 1948 debars use of any data from it for the purpose of considering it as evidence under the Evidence Act of 1872 or for any other civil and criminal proceedings while such data is used for determination of citizenship under Citizenship act of 1955. This has given rise to a legal debate about whether 1951 should be treated as base year for citizenship or the base year should be as per the Assam Accord, which is stipulated as 25 March 1971. One of the anxieties is that is if the base year is now determined arbitrarily, already existing citizens would be rendered stateless.

Another significant debate related to the constitutionality of the NRC lies in its denial of the principle of “citizenship by birth” in its attempt to replace it by “citizenship by bloodline”. The NRC has asked a person born in India to prove their legacy. It also co-relatedly asks for proving the parental linkage by another official document.

Again, both these criteria of proof are subject to a verification procedure adopted by NRC authorities in the name of 360 degrees verification of credentials and antecedents of an applicant. By the procedure adopted for verification, the NRC authorities are sending documents to issuing authorities, while issuing authorities are in no way obligated to recheck millions of documents, unless there is some doubt about a particular one.

In the process, the NRC authorities are not able to follow their own procedure of verification as pan cards or passports are never re-verified by issuing authorities under any law of the land, unless there is a penal complaint of tampering. As a result, millions of genuine and bonafide Indian citizens’ documents are put on hold by the NRC in their first draft publication that dropped some 4.8 million names from the list of applicants.

Another contentious matter is the way in which the NRC authorities are classifying citizens into categories of “original inhabitant” and “non original inhabitant”, although the Supreme Court judgment stated that the sole test for the NRC is to determine whether someone was there in Assam before 25 March 1971. For example, in the three Barak valley districts of Assam, the NRC authorities did not identify anyone as “original inhabitant” under subclause 3(3) of rule 4A of the Citizenship Rules of 2003. This has resulted in a strange demand for reservation of land rights and representational rights only for “original inhabitants” and not “non original inhabitants”.

The recently-published Brahma Committee report stated that land rights of indigenous people are not protected in Assam. This directly violates the Constitution as there is no such classificatory definition of who is “original” and who is “non-original” in India. The NRC has put forth this arbitrary distinction due to its discriminatory procedures.

Without defining OI, it is stated that OI category people would not have to give any documentation in support of their antecedents, while NOI people will have to undertake 360 degrees verification. Going by this, only people belonging to some non-descript non-original category are subjected to a procedure of proving citizenship by bloodline. This is happening only in the case of Assam and in complete violation of the Representation of Peoples’ Act, 1950 and many others such as the Expulsion of Immigrants’ Act, 1950.

Those who are opposing the citizenship amendment bill on the grounds of religious discrimination did not oppose the amendment to the Citizenship Act, 1955 in 2004 that granted the right to citizenship to Hindus from Pakistan. Critics point out, why discriminate against Bangladeshi Hindus when such rights are granted to Pakistani Hindus in the amended Citizenship Act of 2004?


The writer is an associate professor, department of philosophy, North Eastern Hill University, Shillong