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Divisive Citizenship

Divisive Citizenship

Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2019 (CAB) was passed in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha on December 9 and 11 respectively. In the former it was a 311-80 verdict while in the latter it was a closer 125-107 margin. Heated and polarised debate between the Treasury and the Opposition benches was witnessed in both houses. The Opposition termed the bill communal, exclusive, divisive, illegal and unconstitutional as it discriminates people on the basis of religion. It goes against the Preamble of the Constitution which clearly states that India is a secular state pledging equality to all. The bill violates articles 14 and 15 of the Constitution which guarantee equality before law and Prohibits discrimination o n grounds of religion, race, Caste, sex, or place of birth . Of course, Amit Shah, the main protagonist of the bill denied all charges.  

Pending ascend of the president, CAB will now become Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 ( CAA). It amends the Citizenship Act of 1955 that was also amended in 1986, 1992, 2003, 2005 and 2015. The Indian nationality law confers a person as a citizen based on Articles 5 to 11 (Part II) of the Indian Constitution. Besides other methods one can acquire Indian citizenship by Naturalization after a person has resided in India for 11/12 years.  

CAA relaxes the 11/12 year requirement to just 5 years for Hindu, Sikh, Buddhhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian illegal migrants who face ‘persecution’ in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. If implemented the minorities in the above countries will be beneficiaries. The cut-off date is December 31, 2014.

Following talks with different groups most states in the North East have been excluded from CAA, namely the states under Inner Line Permit (ILP) regime and the Sixth Scheduled areas. An offshoot of Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulations 1873, ILP is an official obligatory document permitting Indian citizens from other states to enter protected states. Sixth Scheduled of the Constitution deals with the administration of the tribal areas in some north eastern states.  Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland (except Dimapur city) have ILP in place. Manipur has just been declared a ILP state. Meghalaya (except Shillong and parts of Tura), the tribal belt of Tripura and Autonomous Council areas of Boroland, Karbi Anglong and Dima Asao of Assam are   Six Scheduled areas.

In spite of the above exemptions North East is up in arms . Ever since the bill was cleared by the Union Cabinet on December 4, 2019 the ‘Seven Sisters’ have been in protest. When it was actually re-introduced in Lok Sabha on December 9 and as debate was in progress protests raged and intensified. A day after the bill was passed in the Lower House an 11 hour bandh, marked with sporadic violence, paralysed life throughout the region. Post clearance of the bill in Rajya Sabha, Assam and Tripura were plunged into uncertainty as police were unable to contain angry protesters. Army has been deployed. Internet has been blocked.

Ignoring the consensus plea for exemption of the entire North East from CAA, the long neglected region is on the boil. University students, Student organisations, NGOs and civil society were up in arms in the streets condemning the introduction of bill and its passage. ‘War Cry’ protests, rallies, Torch light processions, mock funeral processions, hanging and torching of effigies of BJP leaders, confronting security personnel were means to put the message across.

The people of the North East have been pushed to the walls. Young people resorted to heckling and manhandling of pro-CAB politicians, vandalising and gherao of political parties’ offices as emotions run high. Some youth desperately shed their clothes. PM Narendra Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah, Assam CM Sarbananda Sonowal, Assam Minister and CAB staunch supporter Himanta Biswa Sarma and Assam Gana Parishad (AGP) chief Atul Bora faced the wrath and ire of protesters. They had to bear with ‘down down’, ‘murdabad’, ‘Amit Shah se Azadi’, ‘Sarbananda Sonowal se Azadi’, ‘Himanta Biswa Sarma se Azadi’, ‘RSS se Azadi’ slogans. Student leaders even warned of driving youths to militancy.

The story of Himangshu Gogoi hailed as Assam son, who reportedly quit his job in the Indian Air Force (IAF) to join the agitations, sums up the strong sentiments of the people of North East against the dangerous bill. A popular Assamese actor too resigned from the primary membership of the BJP for the sake of his state. A film awardee has returned his hard earned prize.  

Anger over the bill was particular strong in Assam and Tripura is with a reason. CAA violates the Assam Accord. To end violent anti foreigners agitations in Assam Indian government signed the accord with All Assam Students' Union (AASU) in 1983. Perhaps the most significant clause of the accord was that illegal immigrants, irrespective of religion who came to Assam after 1971 would be deported. CAA has rendered Assam Accord null and void. National Register of Citizens (NRC) identified more than 40 lakhs as foreigners. It is estimated that half that numbers are Hindus. Instead of deportation Indian citizenship is awarded to them.

With most of the hills states exempted from CAA, thanks to ILP and Six Scheduled provisions, Assam will bear the brunt. Barak valley is already a Bengali Hindu dominated area. Lower Assam is in the ‘hands’ of Bengali Muslims. The indigenous Ahoms and other tribes will struggle to keep hold of Upper Assam like Jorhat, Dibrugarh, Golaghat, Majuli, Sivasagar and Tinsukia. They could become minority soon. Therefore, t he fury in Assam is no secret.

Tripura is a sad case. 70 per cent of its population are from Bangladesh. The indigenous tribes have lost political powers. This is the reason Tripura is burning the most. Others states in the North East fear that CAA will turn them into another Tripura. They might be swamped, overrun and overwhelmed by Bangladeshis as every North Eastern state shares boundary with Bangladesh.

The other six north eastern states got a relief from CAA have not rejoiced. Groups rejected CAB. If the Assam plain (non-scheduled) is not excluded the tribal (ILP and Sixed Scheduled areas) will also be impacted due to the unmanned shared borders. If Assam is overcrowded with freshly acquired Indian citizens the effect will extend to all other states. ILP and Scheduled Mechanisms won’t be effective to drive unwelcome guests away. Therefore, a total ban of CAB in the entire North East was sought but dejectedly rejected

While the rest of India argues over Hindus versus Muslims, for North Eastern states CAA is not about religion. In Assam the Ahoms are mainly Hindus. Even many of the tribes in the plains and in the hills identify themselves are Hindus. But they do not want more Hindus from other countries in their areas. Similarly Christian tribals! For the hundreds of microscopic groups of varied languages and cultures, customs and traditions it is a question of number. It is about economics. It is about limited space and resources. It is a question of threat to their identity and uniqueness. It is a question of existence and survival. It is really the danger of complete demographic alteration in the region. Therefore, the resistance!

Supporters and opponents were on expected lines. But the shocker came from Agatha Sangma, the Tura Nationalist Peoples’ Party (NPP) MP. She supported the bill in parliament and voted for it. Just before the tabling of the bill NPP chief, Conrad Sangma indicated NPP’s opposition to it. On December 8 news appeared that the lone NPP MP would oppose the anti-North East bill. What suddenly changed? M ildly requesting the Home Minister to exempt the entire northeast from CAB, she reasoned that the concerns of North Eastern states were incorporated in the bill.

NPP’s nexus with the BJP is well known. However, she was still to oppose the bill because the people of the state and Garo Hills rejected the bill. Conrad had earlier stated that if the bill was passed in Parliament his party would snap ties with BJP. Today he is a party to making the notorious bill into a law. Is NPP’s action a betrayal of the people of Garo Hills and Meghalaya? Is it doublespeak? Is the mask of NPP’s off thus partnering the BJP and right wing parivar’s sinister agenda? The Tura MP has faced backlash in her home constituency. Upset voters burned her effigy besides sloganeering.  

NPP leads the Meghalaya Democratic Alliance government in the state.   Coalition partners like the United Democratic Party (UDP), People Democratic Front (PDF) were still unhappy due to non-exclusion of non-scheduled areas. Was the decision of Agatha taken in consultation with UDP, PDF and others? Was it unilateral? It will be interesting to see the reaction of regional partners. Will they approve of NPP’s decision? Will they take exception to its partner’s shocking decision? Will they part ways with the NPP? Will there be new political realignments in the state? If they tread the NPP line will there will voters tolerate it?

Another supporter of the bill is Meghalaya governor, Tathagata Roy. In Kolkata he stated that CAB should have been passed much earlier. Political parties and NGOs expressed displeasure with the governor. Some even demanded his resignation for hurting the sentiments the sentiments of people of the state. Later he termed the opposition to CAB ‘heights of absurdity’. The governor has displayed himself a politician rather than a neutral figure. He is likely to earn discomfort statements for his insensitive view.

CAB is traumatising like demonetisation, abrogation of article 370 and the general vitiated atmosphere in the country. Wished they were never there. Save us from nation-wide NRC!

(Published on 16th December 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 51)