The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 has kept the state of Assam on edge for the past two years. The Bill seeks to grant citizenship to the persecuted non-Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, who migrated to India till 31st December, 2014.
While the government has time and again justified this Bill in the name of humanitarian intervention, the opposition have pointed out the inbuilt religious bias. For the people of Assam, this Bill is nothing but sort of a license of settling Hindu Bangladeshi immigrants in Assam.
This becomes an added burden for the state which has already accepted migrants till 24th March, 1971. It also undermines the NRC which is being updated keeping in mind the promises of the historic Assam Accord. The Accord clearly stated that all those, who migrated to the state after the cut off date and irrespective of faith, are to be detected and deported.
The locals fear that if the Bill is passed, it will not only grant citizenship to those migrants who are already in India but also pave the way for the migration of a large number of Hindus from Bangladesh.
The row around the citizenship Bill has succeeded in drawing newer faultlines in the state. On one hand are people who fear that Assamese language and culture will be reduced to a minority if this Bill is passed, on the other hand there are those who believe that India should be a safe haven for the persecuted religious minorities of the neighbouring countries.
In Assam it has pitted Bengalis against Axomiyas so much so that the decision of a proposed meeting of a number of organisations rallying in favour of the Bill to be held on 17th November has further divided the state. While the peaceful assembly of any organisation cannot be stalled in a democracy, the law and order situation of the state has made the government decide to not give permission for the meeting.
The row has also seen politicians busy at mud-slinging. While many in the ruling party are opposed to the Bill, BJP MLA Shiladitya Deb has been vocally supporting it. He also happens to be one who has time and again raised doubt about the NRC citing that a large number of Hindu Bengalis have been left out.
On 23rd October, around 46 organisations in Assam declared a 12-hour state-wide shut down against the citizenship Bill. While even the ruling party’s ally Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) extended ‘moral support’ to the bandh and had a protest rally and a meeting, only the ruling party and the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) stayed away from the bandh. AGP further threatened that if the legislation is passed, they will walk out of the government.
The bandh saw the entire state come to a standstill. While some people did complain of few problems, most came ahead in support of the bandh as they felt strongly about the issue. Protestors created blockades in different places including train stations. More than 100 protestors were detained.
Interestingly some news were doing the rounds which stated that if government officials failed to attend their duty on the day of bandh, strict action will be taken against them. Also those shops which remain closed, their trade license will be cancelled. While government later clarified that no such formal order was passed, it is seen as a pressure tactic. Such tactics didn’t dampen the bandh but it did lead to much criticism of the government.
Many opposed the bandh citing a High Court judgement which declared bandh illegal. But those who called this shutdown stated that it was a need of the hour as it was a question of Assam’s identity. The citizenship Bill has been critiqued for its cherry picking of religious communities facing persecution.
It has overlooked sects in Islam, like the Shias and Ahmediyas who also face persecution. It has also conveniently overlooked other groups like atheists who face persecution for their ideology. Persecution is not always exclusively on the basis of the religion but the proposed bill tends to promote such a thought.
While the Bengali organisations have every right to demand that Bengali Hindus who have lived in Assam for ages should not be harassed as D voters and illegal immigrants, their demand for granting citizenship for fresh Bangladeshi Hindus should be taken with a pinch of salt. Nirod Kumar Das, a lawyer, committed suicide because he was excluded from NRC.
One 102-year-old Chakradhar Das is a suspected foreigner and has to attend court hearings. These are genuine issues which the Bengali organisations should have taken up. But in their support for the amendment Bill, these humanitarian issues are put on the backburner. The issue is progressively taking an Assamese versus Bengali tone which is unhealthy for Assam’s syncretic culture.
India is yet to get proper legislation to deal with refugees–be it Tibetans, Chakmas, Chin Burmese, Hajongs etc. In such a scenario, a bill which threatens the very identity of the people of Assam should have been shelved. Instead the government aims to go ahead with the legislation irrespective of the strong opposition of the people.
A democratically elected government cannot stop listening to the people after coming to power. They should be continuously held accountable. The proposed Bill if passed will undermine the six-year long Assam Movement, the sacrifice of the martyrs who laid down their lives, and the Assam Accord. The government should for once put the concern of the people above its narrow political interests.
Parvin Sultana is an assistant professor in Pramathesh Barua College, Gauripur. She can be reached at: [email protected]