Citizenship (Amendment) Bill
AJYCP activists staging a protest against amendment of the Citizenship Bill in Guwahati. (File photo)

The issue of granting citizenship to religious minorities from Bangladesh on the one hand and deporting illegal (Muslim) immigrants from Bangladesh on the other figured very prominently in the Assembly polls campaigns of BJP in Assam.

While the party did achieve electoral benefits based on its stand on the question of migration, their latest step towards allowing religious minorities from Bangladesh without any documents and further allowing them to apply for citizenship by registration have not gone down well with the Assamese population. The justification that BJP came up with is the religious persecution that these minorities face in countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan which often swings to governments run by radical elements.

While the BJP rode on the popular wave of opposition to illegal immigration and successfully came to power in the state for the first time, on the issue of citizenship for Bangladeshi Hindus, it diverged from the regional party. AGP wanted anyone entering the country after March, 1971 to be deported irrespective of their religion, whereas the notification of the present government said that religious minorities which entered the country till December 31st, 2014 will be allowed to stay even without relevant documents. This is nothing short of communalizing a humanitarian issue.

The amended bill will impact the entire country but its impact will vary from state to state. In case of Assam there is a fear that if Hindu Bangladeshis are granted citizenship, then it will tilt the balance in favour of Bengali speakers and Assamese speakers will turn into a linguistic minority in their own state.

In no other state the newly immigrated population will subvert the dominant linguistic or cultural group. In Bengal the new entrants will become a part of the Bengali nation and the larger number of people can be tackled with a financial package. However in case of Assam, the threat will be to the very identity of Assamese people. Assamese speakers are present only in Assam in a substantial number and their minoritization might weaken the very foundation of their identity.

Moreover other tribal communities of the state are equally wary of the proposed amendment. They fear that this will further marginalize them.  The Joint Parliamentary Committee on the proposed Citizenship (Amendment) Bill is visiting the state on 7th May to listen to the various views on the amendment. We hope that the JPC will render much required importance to the concerns of the stakeholders.

While religious persecution may be a solid ground for taking in refugees and giving them benefits like citizenship, the Hindus from Bangladesh are not the only persecuted lot. Also every year during Durga Puja live telecast of celebration from across the border has become commonplace.

In such a scenario large scale violence targeting mainly Muslims seems more manufactured than real. Islamic fundamentalism and radicalization is a fact. But it has not impacted only Hindus. In fact it has led to violence against atheist bloggers and rationalist thinkers and writers – both Hindus and Muslims. In such a scenario, an improvement in the overall law and order situation in the country can lessen the insecurity of Hindu Bangladeshis.

India has no specific policy framework for solving the refugee problem and neither is it a signatory of the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol. In such a scenario, the newfound love for religious minorities from Bangladesh points something more sinister than mere humanitarian concerns.

This notification has very rightly met stiff opposition from the people of Assam. The state saw massive protests and strikes led by groups like KMSS, AASU, AJYCP etc. For them while most parties have never put an effort to implement the Assam Accord, this notification of BJP amounts to completely subvert the accord. The Assam Accord did not differentiate immigrants on the basis of religion. This move by BJP seems like an attempt to consolidate the Hindu vote bank with an eye on the upcoming state elections.

Also the government which claimed to strengthen relationships with neighbouring countries didn’t take into account the repercussion of such a statement in Bangladesh. The Awami League government which is trying very hard to strengthen its secular credentials, is worried that such an announcement will encourage more Hindus to leave the country. This is a bad news as this will weaken the base of secular parties in the country.

In such a situation where a large number of refugees continue to face hardships on a day to day basis in India, the government of the day seems more interested in scoring brownie points by differentiating between refugees on the basis of religion. If citizenship is to be extended on humanitarian grounds to persecuted communities, it cannot be denied to Rohingiyas, Chakmas, Tibetans etc.

India being a secular country cannot be assumed to be a natural homeland of a particular religion. Also a state which is already reeling under excessive pressure on resources and ethnic clashes are usually a frequent outcome of such contestations, the state must act carefully. The Assamese community has often feared being turn into culturally a minority in its own state.

While most Muslims of East Bengal origin assimilated to the Assamese culture, the same may not be in case of Hindu Bangladeshis who might be more comfortable in continuing with their Bengali language and culture. In such a backdrop, the present government’s act of granting citizens to a community based solely on religious identity might further complicate the situation rather than solving it.

Parvin Sultana

Parvin Sultana is an assistant professor in Pramathesh Barua College, Gauripur. She can be reached at: parvin.jnu@gmail.com

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