Decoding the Citizenship Bill That Has Led to Protests in Assam

This Bill amends the Citizenship Act of 1955 and defines who can be a citizen of India. The PRS Legislative Research points out to the three salient features of this Bill

• The Bill amends the Citizenship Act, 1955 to make illegal migrants who are Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, eligible for citizenship.

• Under the Act, one of the requirements for citizenship by naturalisation is that the applicant must have resided in India during the last 12 months, and for 11 of the previous 14 years. The Bill relaxes this 11 year requirement to six years for persons belonging to the same six religions and three countries.

• The Bill provides that the registration of Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) cardholders may be cancelled if they violate any law.

It is the first and the second feature which has come under heavy criticism in states like Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura. Apart from the fact that this law differentiates on migrants on the basis of religion, as most of the other communities except the Muslims become eligible for citizenship in India, it also makes it easy for the illegal immigrants to become Indian citizen, if they belong to any of the 6 communities mentioned above.

Citizenship Bill & Assam

Assam, a state which has seen decades of violence based on ethnicity, is again coming close to the boiling point over this new Bill. The state which is broadly divided into two parts — the Barak and the Brahmaputra valleys — has reacted differently to the Bill which was introduced in Lok Sabha in July 2016. The issue has come to the fore once again as the Joint Parliamentary Committee is conducting public hearings in Assam this month.

• Brahmaputra Valley: The dominant partner of the two valleys has been resenting the move of the central government to pass this Bill. The valley has seen violent protest in linguistic lines for decades. The protest is by the original inhabitants against the influx of Bangladeshis, who many claim take the advantage of porous orders to enter the state.

The decades of anti-foreigners’ agitation in Brahmaputra valley was spearheaded by All Assam Students’ Union (AASU). It finally culminated into the signing of Assam Accord by the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. As per the accord signed in 1985, the immigrants, who came to Assam after March 24, 1971, have to be detected and deported. The National Register of Citizens (NRC) is being updated by the state government based on that cut-off date.

But the new proposed Bill threatens to dilute that. This would allow the Bengali Hindu immigrants to get citizenship, something which is being strongly opposed by the parties in Brahmaputra valley.

• Barak Valley: The story in this Bengali dominated region of Assam is completely different. Barak Valley which was part of Sylhet before the partition which led to the formation of East Pakistan and subsequently Bangladesh has a majority of Bengali speaking population. The state language in this part of Assam is Bengali. Here the Bill is welcomed with open arms, as many feel that this would finally lead to the end of the persecution of Bengali Hindus in Assam.

In recent JPC hearings, hundreds of organisations petitioned in favour of the Bill. Unlike the rest of the Assam, the politicians across the party lines in these three districts, came out unequivocally in support of the Bill.

Heat on BJP from allies & opposition

Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal is under extreme pressure over the Citizenship Bill. The BJP had fought the election on a strong anti-immigrant campaign. In fact the CM himself had come of age through the language movement. The BJP’s main ally in Assam Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) is a party founded on the issue illegal immigrants and its single point of focus has been the enforcement of the Assam Accord in letter and spirit.

Thus they are vehemently against the new Bill and are now threatening to quit the alliance if the Centre goes forward with the Bill. Numerous leaders, including the former Chief Minister and once firebrand youth leader Prafulla Mahanta, have threatened to quit the government over the BIll.

Tarun Gogoi, the former CM and Congress leader, has accused the BJP of playing politics in the name of religion. He has asked the party to take a stand against the migrants and not differentiate on the basis of religion.

Tale of the two Bengalis

The spirit of the Bill differentiates between the Bengali and Muslim immigrants. The Bill identifies the non-Muslim immigrants as refugees and the Muslim immigrants as aggressors. The non-Muslim immigrants are seen as victims of Partition and it is believed that they fled Bangladesh in the face of religious persecution.

But this leaves Bengali Muslims doubly marginalised. Some of the most backward districts of Assam are the ones inhabited by the Bengali Muslims. So far they were fighting this battle of recognition in the state along with the Hindu Bengalis. But once this Bill is passed they would be left completely on their own. Since the language, food and culture of the Bengali Muslims are similar to that of Bangladeshis, even those who have been voting since 1950s, feel persecuted.