Reams have been written about the proposed Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 during the last two years, mostly opposing this disturbingly discriminatory development. With this bill, the BJP-led NDA government unabashedly made its intent clear that winning elections is more important than upholding constitutional principles in order to underpin their grand design of replacing the enchanting diversity of the country with a muscular brand of religious majoritarianism. The guiding spirit and ethos of the republic have been adroitly relegated to the background thereby challenging one of the most basic features of our constitution – secularism.
In this political backdrop, the bill, introduced in the Lok Sabha on 19 July, 2016 seeks to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955 to give citizenship to six religious communities – Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from the three neighbouring countries of Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. For those identified illegal immigrants, the bill also aims to reduce the requirement of 11 years of continuous stay in the country to six years to obtain citizenship by naturalization.
Unlike some other rules or statutes, the Citizenship Act, 1955 is very clear on the issue of illegal immigrants. Any person entering India without a valid passport or with forged documents or staying beyond the visa period is considered an illegal immigrant. The whole idea of including five other religious communities along with the Hindus in the bill is geared towards refurbishing the ‘liberal credentials’ of the party. But that fig leaf has been proved to be profoundly inadequate even to safeguard a semblance of fair play and justice. The bill is not only premised on a flawed understanding and analysis of a grave constitutional issue but altogether on a broken fulcrum that is broken and creaking at several places. We would restrict ourselves to mainly two main arguments.
The first argument is from the constitutional standpoint. Article 14 of the Indian Constitution permits only those laws to differentiate between certain groups of people if there is a reasonable rationale buttressing that position. This bill, however, has stopped short of explaining the rationale behind differentiating between illegal migrants on the basis of their religion. As per the bill, other religious groups like Muslims and Jews are not eligible to take the benefit just because of their professed religion.
Moreover, if religious persecution is the sole criteria for showing kindness to certain sections of the people, then how come the Shias and Ahmediyas—the people who have been facing the severest form of persecution in Pakistan for many decades—have been left out?
Unearthing the actual truth in this respect is however no rocket science. A cursory glance over BJP’s election manifesto in 2014 clearly highlights the fact.
Although the next Assembly election in West Bengal is not due in the immediate future, the ruling party at the Centre wants to counter the formidable challenge posed by Mamata Banerjee’s All India Trinamool Congress. The BJP feels it would be able to make electoral inroads by pandering to a major section of the Bengali voters by invoking sentiments of Bengali linguistic nationalism especially in respect of those Hindu ‘refugees’ likely to enter India from Bangladesh.
On the other hand, lakhs of people in the Brahmaputra valley in Assam have been vehemently protesting against this proposed bill since May 2017 as they fear that passage of this bill would accentuate the process of rapidly vanishing homeland of Assam’s indigenous people. A glance into Assam’s history from the mid-19th century from the perspective of the indigenes would make one thing crystal clear, of how a massive number of people from erstwhile East Bengal started coming to Assam mainly for their better economic future as huge swaths of agricultural land, mainly in the riverine sandbars remained unutilised. Initially, the indigenes did not raise their voice against this, but gradually, with rising political awareness, they started protesting against this much before India’s Independence. Census Commissioner of Assam CS Mullan’s famous prediction about the possibility of indigenous people becoming a minority in many districts is a testimony to that fact. This dangerous trend continued more or less unabated and in the post-Independence period, immigration turned into infiltration initially from East Pakistan and then from Bangladesh.
The Assam Agitation (1979-85) started as a reaction to this development and culminated in the signing of the Assam Accord, which, unfortunately, has proved to be grotesquely insufficient in addressing the growing concern of the indigenes who showed magnanimity and reasonableness by accepting all people coming from other regions/countries up to 24 March, 1971. For the rest of country the cut-off date is 19 July, 1948. Barring one truncated term of Janata Party and two AGP-led governments, the Congress was mostly in power in Assam in the post-independence period which indulged in unabashed vote-bank politics centring around immigrant Muslims. In this backdrop, the BJP came to power in Assam in 2016 for the first time. Their main slogan was to uphold and implement the Assam Accord (as per which any person entering Assam after the cut-off date is liable to be expelled) and to preserve the ‘jati, mati aru bheti’ (community, land and hearth) of the indigenous people.
But immediately after grabbing power, the state BJP leaders also started singing the same song of the great need of giving shelter to the Hindu ‘refugees’ from Bangladesh as proposed by the Citizenship Bill, 2016. The indigenes feel this bill would sound their death-knell as lakhs of Hindu Bengalis may eventually come and settle overwhelming them in every respect. For a community, when their inalienable right to exist with honour in their original homeland is sought to be diluted, derided and dismissed by the ruling party only for furthering their agenda of religious majoritarianism, it is not the soul of Assam, but that of the whole country that stands irreparably corroded. The fight against the bill doesn’t merely embody a sense of retaliation for upending the pre-election promise by the BJP. It also strives to preserve the soul of India.
The writer is an author and a social commentator.
Updated Date: Dec 24, 2018 13:37:13 IST