The Parliament passed the controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2019 this week. The Bill amends the Citizenship Act, 1955 to provide citizenship to ‘persecuted’ illegal migrants who are from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, who are of Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian extraction. It specifically leaves out Muslims. Further, it reduces the requirement to obtain citizenship by naturalisation from 11 years of continuous stay in the country to 6 years.
The bill is despicable as it seeks to further the Hindutva utopia of a Hindu rashtra. It seeks to further a colourable objective i.e., provide a fast-track citizenship based on religion on dodgy assertions of persecution of unquantified numbers of minorities in these three countries, and therefore is blatantly unconstitutional. This will surely be tested before the Supreme Court in the coming days.
While this is playing out in the national discourse, the North East India, particularly Assam and Tripura, has erupted in huge mass protests in opposition to the bill. Army has been called out. The internet is barred. These developments are reminiscent of protests during 1979-85 after a long uneasy peace since the Assam Accord in 1985.
Why the anger
Many outside the region are mystified as to why the Assamese are so violently opposed to the CAB. Attempts are also being made to paint us as xenophobic. Let me explain.
This earlier attempts at pushing the bill in early 2019 were thwarted because of protests by the chief ministers of BJP or BJP-supported north-eastern states. This time the central government has made concessions to obtain the votes of these regional parties.
The areas where Inner-line-Permit (ILP) apply — Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Nagaland and now Manipur (announced) — and where the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution apply — Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura — have been kept out of the purview of the Bill.
The Assamese had voted overwhelmingly for the BJP in 2014, 2016 and 2019 on the promise that illegal immigrants will be detected and deported. They are crestfallen that they have been let down.
Their anger is directed both to the central government as well as the
BJP-AGP-led state government whose leaders rode to power backed on an anti-immigrant platform. It is also being perceived that unlike in the other states whose leaders made exemptions a condition of support, in Assam, the exemption translates to only three areas being outside the scope — Karbi Anglong, Dima Hasao and Bodoland Territorial Areas District (BTAD). The CAB will apply to the rest of the Assam and most importantly in the most populous 21 districts of the Brahmaputra valley.
A cultural cauldron
Assam is home to a large number of indigenous peoples with linguistic and cultural diversity – Bodos, Mishings, Karbis and Dimasas are the largest. The unity in diversity and the assimilation into a larger Assamese culture and language developed and prospered under the Koch king Naranarayan and the 600-year-old Ahom rule.
The British annexed Assam after the Treaty of Yandbo in 1826 and with the British came an influx of people from the rest of India, particularly from the province of undivided Bengal. Assam also saw a significant flood of refugees from the then East Bengal in 1947 and later in 1971 when Bangladesh was liberated.
The moot issue in Assam has always been protection and preservation of the linguistic, cultural and ethnic uniqueness. The Assam Agitation (1979-85) was a mass political movement that called for deportation of illegal immigrants, irrespective of their religion.
A key provision of the 1985 Assam Accord is that foreigners who came to Assam on or after March 25, 1971 shall be detected, deleted and expelled in accordance with the law. The people are angry that despite agreeing to accept the illegal migrants who have come prior to this cut-off date, the bill seeks to legitimise additional illegal immigrants through to December 31, 2014.
The people of the state feel that the bill by providing a fast-track citizenship to the Bengali speaking foreigners from Bangladesh, the identity and ‘astitva’ of the indigenous people of the state is in peril. According to the 2011 census, the population of Assam is around 3 crore, of which Assamese speakers are about 48 percent, Bengali speakers are about 29 percent and there is a significant number of Nepali speakers as well. Bodo with about 2 percent speakers is a scheduled language apart from Assamese.
In December 2014, the Supreme Court (in 2015 (3) SCC 1, Assam Sanmilita Mahasangha & Ors vs Union of India & Ors.,) directed that the National Register of Citizens (NRC) be updated on the basis of 1971 as the cut-off date in Assam. It also referred two important questions of law to a Constitution Bench i.e., whether the cut-off date for Assam should be 1951 like in the rest of the country and whether citizenship can be granted to children of illegal immigrants born in India.
The NRC is the register that purports to identify and list names of all Indian citizens who are residents of the state of Assam. The only time that an NRC was prepared was in 1951 and that too only for Assam.
The SC monitored and forced NRC was published on August 31, 2019, which left out about 19 lakh people out of the 3.24 crore people who applied. From the beginning, the process was flawed requiring applicants (mostly poor and illiterate) to provide multiple documents to prove citizenship. Though no verifiable numbers are available in the public domain, it is widely believed that most of the persons left out are Hindus.
The other vital question is whether the exemptions are meaningful and effective as neither the ILP nor the Sixth Schedule protections can stymie movement and settlement of these newly minted citizens in these exempted areas. Except for BTAD, in most areas land cannot be bought by outsiders.
The attempt to communalise this issue by the BJP for narrow electoral gains could be gleaned when during the 2016 assembly elections, a wrongly placed metaphor of the last battle of Saraighat — how the ‘Hindu’ Ahoms defeated the Muslim Mughals was used quite effectively. However, it is important to note that hitherto the Northeast and Assam were never communal. This import from mainland India is a very sad and worrying development.
Krishna Sarma is managing partner at Corporate Law Group, a boutique law firm based out of New Delhi. Krishna hails from Assam. The views are personal.
First Published: IST