Joint Parliamentary Committee
AATASU activists burning effigies of State and Central governments in Lakhimpur. Photo credit: UB Photos

Assam suddenly turned into a political war-zone as the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) on the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016 undertook a four-day visit of Assam and Meghalaya.

Hundreds of social and political organizations in the Brahmaputra Valley vehemently opposed the contentious bill, whereas the scenario was exactly the opposite in the Bengali-dominated Barak Valley of Assam. The Barak Valley was in favour of granting citizenship to the Bengali Hindus from Bangladesh.

The standoff between the two politically polarized valleys has created an intricate situation in Assam, and adoption of the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Bill has become extremely difficult. And, slightest of mistake at this juncture may seriously disturb the insurgency-ravaged state’s peace and tranquility.

The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016 seeks to grant Indian citizenship to the “illegal migrants” from minority communities in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. It seeks to grant citizenship to the “persecuted” Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian illegal migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

The bill also proposed that the minimum years of residency in India to apply for citizenship be lessened from 11 to six years for such migrants. The Bill, however, does not extend to illegal Muslim migrants. It also does not talk about other minority communities like Jews and Bahais.

While social and political forces are strongly campaigning against the controversial bill, most of the people in Assam are still not aware of the exact size of the Hindu Bengali migrants from Bangladesh. Neither the Sonowal-led government in the state, nor the Centre has specified the exact number.

How will the government assess the exact number of illegal migrants or foreigners? Will it be based on the updated National Register of Citizens (NRC)? Or, will the government have some other mechanism to identify the foreigners or illegal migrants?

Amidst the ambiguity, the protest against the controversial bill has turned out to be a serious political issue in Assam. Caste Hindu Assamese started to shout that amendment of the Citizenship Act would undermine the clauses of the Assam Accord of 1985, which clearly states that illegal migrants from Bangladesh after March 25, 1971 would be deported.

While the social organizations and opposition political parties are making hullabaloo against the controversial bill, even the AGP, which is an ally of BJP in Assam, has threatened to pull out of the coalition if the bill was passed in the Parliament.

Some of the senior BJP leaders of Assam too are now suddenly getting vocal against the Centre’s move. Initially, the BJP has been campaigning for the bill claiming that it was a pre-election “commitment”. BJP MP from Guwahati, Bijoya Chakrabarty on May 10 opposed the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, and said Assam has taken the burden of foreigners till 1971.

The former Union Minister said Assam cannot take any more burdens of “foreigners”. She said if Hindu Bangladeshis are to be given shelter and granted citizenship, other states, and not Assam, should now shoulder the burden.

Chakraborty was the second senior BJP leader of Assam to oppose the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. On May 9, Atul Bora, BJP legislator from Dispur requested Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal to oppose the bill and save Assam from a “dangerous demographic shift”.

It is obvious that the BJP leaders in Assam will be worried with the move. They know if the Centre tries to push the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in Assam, BJP’s electoral prospect during the run up to the 2019 Lok Sabha election is sure to suffer a major setback. The party which secured seven out of the 14 seats in the 2014 election may not be able to get more than two seats in 2019.

If the BJP leaders in Assam are worried that the controversial bill may dent the electoral mathematics of the party in the 2019 Lok Sabha and Panchayat election in the state, why are they not able to convince the Central leadership?

Surprisingly, Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal, who was a president of the All Assam Students Union (AASU) before joining politics, also could not convince the BJP leadership in New Delhi that pushing the controversial bill too far will not only dent the electoral prospect and may be a big political blunder and disturb peace in Assam.

Sonowal’s silence on the issue is sad. People of Assam, especially the caste-Hindu Assamese, had a lot of expectations from Sonowal, and always thought that his government would go one mile extra to protect their political interests. The Citizenship Act, if amended, shall undoubtedly encourage immigration.

It is natural for the indigenous people of Assam to be annoyed with Sonwal and his government. They always looked at Sonowal as the protagonist of scrapping the controversial IMDT Act. The IMDT Act, which was always believed to be main hurdle for identification and deportation of foreigners in Assam, was scrapped after Sonowal had moved a case in the Supreme Court.

It is surprising. Why is Sonowal, who has always been so vocal against illegal migration, has suddenly gone silent on the Citizenship Amendment) Bill issue? Are Sonowal and the other BJP leaders of the state under some kind of a pressure?

Why is the BJP Central leadership trying so hard to push for the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill? Is it a part of the Sangh Parivar’s larger game plan to establish India as a new Hindu nation after the fall of Nepal as the world’s last Hindu kingdom?

A lot of people, especially the intellectuals in Assam have now started analyzing the reasons for NDA government’s intentions to push for the bill. Why will people of Assam allow the BJP-led government at Centre to play with their political sentiments?

What will people of Assam gain from the Sangh Parivar’s Hindutva cause? People of Assam have always stayed away from RSS’s Hindutva ideology. Moreover, the definition of Hinduism in Assam is quite different from the cow-belt, and the state has always been known as the secular land of Srimanta Sankardeva and Azan Fakir.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi should also not forget that granting special category citizenship to a particular community, on the basis of religion, will definitely be a big blot on India’s “secular identity”. After all, favoring a particular religious community shall amount to violation of Article 14 of the Indian Constitution.

The constitution prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth. If citizenship is granted only to Hindu illegal migrants from Bangladesh, will the government deport the Muslim illegal migrants?

Such a “communal blot” on India, at the time when it is seeking permanent membership of the Security Council may be embarrassing for Modi in the global theatre.

Anirban Roy

Anirban Roy is Editor-in-Chief of Northeast Now. He can be reached at: editor@nenow.in