Assam is in the throes of violence yet again over citizenship. In the past couple of days, life in the northeastern state has come to a standstill as the BJP-led government at the Centre brought in an amendment that will, effectively, grant citizenship to Hindu migrants from Bangladesh.
Citizenship has been the biggest pain point of Assam's political and social life during the past several decades. Last year, the first draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) kicked up a storm as over 3 million people were said to have been left out of the roster.
Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019
The Bill seeks to facilitate acquisition of citizenship by six identified minority communities namely Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Christians and Parsis from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh who came to India before December 31,, 2014.
Migrants from these communities were earlier given protection against legal action in the years 2015 & 2016 and long term visa provision was made for them.
Citizenship will be given to them only after due scrutiny and recommendation of district authorities and the State Government.
The minimum residency period for citizenship is being reduced from existing 12 years under the present law to 7 years.
The law will not be confined to the state of Assam but will also provide relief to persecuted migrants who have come through western borders of the country to states like Gujarat, Rajasthan, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh.
The beneficiaries of Citizenship Amendment Bill can reside in any state of the country and the burden of those persecuted migrants will be shared by the whole country.
National Register of Citizens
In 1978-79, several local leaders spotted a rapid increase in the number of Muslims in electoral rolls. A six year long agitation followed against illegal migrants from Bangladesh, which culminated with the signing of an agreement called the Assam Accord.
The Assam Accord mandated that those who settled in the state after the cut off date of March 24, 1971 would be weeded out and stripped of citizenship rights.
Over the next few decades the NRC was remained stalled until the Supreme Court intervened. The apex court ordered the state government to update the NRC by a deadline and monitored its progress. Subsequently, the first draft of the roster was published on 30 July, 2018.
Bone of contention
The general sentiment in Assam with respect to the bill has been that it will defeat the purpose of the NRC.
The Sentinel, a leading local daily, noted in its editorial on January 5 what the Assamese people think of the citizenship bill: The perverse decision of the Centre to ram through the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 against the wishes of the people of Assam will result in the migration of millions of Bangladeshi Hindus to Assam.
AGP (Asom Gana Parishad), which was formed by leaders of the Assam Agitation, walked out of the BJP-led government in Assam after the Cabinet green-lighted the amendment.
According to Samujjal Bhattacharya, a leader at the forefront of the fight against illegal migration, the Centre is adopting double standards with respect to its pre-poll promise of making "Bangladeshis pack their bags and leave.". He told the Shillong Times, "The bill violates the Assam Accord" and is "anti-indigenous people legislation".
Clause 6 of the Assam Accord reads as follows:
Constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards, as may be appropriate shall be provided to protect, preserve and promote the culture, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people.
In order to cool tempers ruffled by the bill, the Centre has set up a panel to implement the clause and constitutionalise it.
The committee will examine the effectiveness of actions taken since 1985 to implement Clause 6 of the Assam Accord and look into awarding "reservations in employment under the government of Assam for the Assamese people".
But, who are the Assamese people?
The panel could find itself walking on a mine-field as soon they would have to answer this question. According to an Indian Express report, most stakeholders agree that the NRC of 1951 should be taken as the cutoff for defining “Assamese people” eligible for the proposed safeguards. Those who came in between 1951 and 1971 are Indian citizens, but not indigenous people.
Himanta Biswa Sarma, a top BJP leader in Assam, said "Today, if we do not have Citizenship Bill, 17 seats that elect Assamese people will go the Jinaah way...I am meaning Jinnah, I am not meaning any community."
A day after stoking controversy with his "Jinnah's legacy" comment, the Assam Finance Minister said Hindus in the state will become minority within five years if the Citizenship Bill is not passed.
Again, Sarma tweeted on Tuesday that the bill will help Assam against a "demographic invasion."