Centre's riders to citizenship bill have few takers in Assam; civil society groups wary of threat to Assamese identity

Protesting groups in Assam are rejecting the new riders in the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 added by the Centre in a bid to allay fears among indigenous people that passing of the legislation would turn them into a minority in their homeland. Like the bill, the new riders too face severe criticism, which is making it difficult for the ruling BJP to create a conducive atmosphere within which to get it passed in Rajya Sabha before the Lok Sabha polls. The fate of the party's electoral politics in West Bengal depends largely on the passage of the bill.

Significantly, the Ministry of Home Affairs on Tuesday announced two riders in the proposed legislation in a purported bid to limit the number of illegal immigrants availing citizenship in the North East through the proposed legislation.

The Indian Express reported that as per newly amendments, incentives would be given to illegal immigrants living in the north eastern states to settle anywhere else in India. Moreover consent of the state government will be required to grant citizenship under the new amendment. As it stands, the riders added to pacify anger over the bill have hardly any takers in Assam. Rather protesters see them as moves to divert attention from the main issue of illegal immigration from Bangladesh, which according to them, is posing an existential threat to Assamese identity.

Centres riders to citizenship bill have few takers in Assam; civil society groups wary of threat to Assamese identity

File image of activists staging a protest rally against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019, in Guwahati. PTI

"Giving incentives to illegal immigrants to settle out of the North East is a laughable proposition. A huge section of the people who have illegally migrated to India and settled in the North East are unlikely to be willing to resettle anywhere else in India," says Junmoni Devi Khaund, a leader in the alliance of 70 civil society organisations opposing the bill. She also said that lakhs of people who have settled in Assam and other parts of the region enjoy all the benefits meant for any native and the cost of resettling would be much more higher than that of staying back.

"Does the government want us to believe that millions of foreigners who have settled in the region would migrate to other parts of India just for the sake of a fistful of incentives and that too leaving a life of certainty behind?" she asks. Although there are no official figures regarding the number of illegal immigrants who would be eligible to avail citizenship under the provisions laid by the new amendment, Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma puts the figure at around eight lakh.

To the contrary, Akhil Gogoi, a leader of the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samitee — a civil society group, claims that the number of illegal immigrants living in Assam, who would benefit from the bill would be nearly 20 lakh. The new rider that mandates consent of the state government before granting citizenship to any illegal immigrant also draws flak.

"As per the new rider added by the Centre to the bill, only after the state government's consent can a person be granted citizenship. But why would the state government not consent?" asks Palash Changmai, a leader among the protesting 70 organisationsHe adds that the present state government has passed the resolution to accept the Citizenship Amendment Bill. Hence, he notes that there is no reason why the state government would oppose granting new citizenship. "Time and again, state governments in Assam have betrayed the cause of the Assamese people, who are being made a minority in their own state. We have no trust in the state government," he says.

The All-Assam Students' Union, one of the most powerful civil society groups, dubs these two new riders as unscientific and impracticable.

Khaund says that efforts are on to ensure that the bill does not receive the Rajya Sabha's assent. The bill was passed in the Lok Sabha in the Winter Session of Parliament. The Opposition did not allow the tabling of the bill in the Rajya Sabha where it has the majority, but it is expected that it will be tabled in the Upper House again in the upcoming Interim Budget Session. Facing a severe backlash in the North East, the Centre added the above-mentioned riders to the proposed law.

In the meantime, a number of civil society groups from the North East are meeting Opposition leaders in Delhi with the request to ensure that the bill is not passed in the Rajya Sabha. The Citizenship Amendment Bill aims to grant citizenship to Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Parsis, Buddhist and Christians who have fled from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh facing religious persecution.

Although the bill has caused tremors in the north eastern region, the BJP aims at scoring high in West Bengal in the upcoming election by playing up the issue of Hindu Bangladeshi immigrants.
It's little wonder then that BJP president Amit Shah, at a rally in West Bengal's Malda, assured, "I want to assure you that all Bengali refugees will be given citizenship under the citizenship bill. The TMC government has done nothing for the refugees, but we will give them citizenship."

It may be recalled that West Bengal accounts for 42 Lok Sabha seats, while the North East collectively has only 25.

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Updated Date: Jan 24, 2019 13:26:14 IST

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