Citizenship (Amendment) Bill: Centre may take ordinance route if it is not passed during Parliament's Winter Session
The Congress proposed that North-eastern states should be kept out of the purview of the bill
In the case of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, the Narendra Modi-led government at the Centre has two options left now: either to try getting it passed before the current Lok Sabha is dissolved after completion of its term or allow the bill to lapse.
Divided opinions among the members of the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) on the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill have also triggered speculation in the political circle that Modi government may explore a third option of taking the ordinance route for granting citizenship to six non-Muslim communities – Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Christians, Buddhists and Parsis from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The term of the JPC is scheduled to come to an end on the first day of the last week of the Winter Session of the Parliament.
The JPC meeting held on 23 October remained inconclusive. The Congress proposed that North-eastern states should be kept out of the purview of the Bill, the Trinamool Congress proposed exclusion of Bangladesh while the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI-M) opposed the Bill. Two Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) members from Assam did not attend the meeting.
Caught between choices of domestic electoral politics and India’s foreign policy compulsions of maintaining a friendly relation with Bangladesh, BJP-led government at the Centre is faced with the toughest challenge of fine balancing its move.
For, its move on the proposed legislation will have a direct bearing on the ongoing Supreme Court-monitored process of updating the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam at a time when clamour for NRC is growing in other North-eastern states.
The apex court has also tagged a petition seeking compilation of NRC in Tripura with the NRC cases in Assam. If the Bill is passed in its present form, it would provide protection to post-1971 Hindu and other non-Muslim Bangladeshi migrants, who are to be excluded from the final updated list of the NRC in Assam. An act or an ordinance will make the updated NRC infructuous and render the Assam Accord ineffective.
The NRC in Assam has been updated by taking March 24, 1971 as the cut-off date which is also the cut-off date for identification and expulsion of illegal Bangladeshi migrants, irrespective of their religions, in the state. The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, however, seeks to remove the “illegal migrants” tag on Hindu and other non-Muslim minorities from Bangladesh so that they are eligible to apply for Indian citizenship.
Over 40 lakh applicants were excluded from the complete draft of the updated NRC in Assam who are awaiting approval of the standard operating procedure (SOP) for the process of claims and objections. Final NRC list will be published after disposal of all claims and objections, time frame for which will also be set by the apex court.
A sizeable section of those excluded from the complete NRC draft are reportedly being Hindu Bengalis, explains BJP’s political compulsion in pushing the Bill as the party hopes to project itself as the champion of the cause of Hindu Bengalis not just in its stronghold in the Barak valley in Assam and but also in Tripura and West Bengal as well.
Given the fact that the ruling BJP has put its rising popularity in India’s North-eastern states at stake in support of the Bill, the Modi government cannot be expected to go for the second option without exploring the first. Sarbananda Sonowal-led government tried, though in vain, to foil a 12-hour Assam bandh called by 60 organisations on 23 October to oppose the Bill is a testimonial of the desperation of the BJP to get the Bill passed.
The Sonowal government’s warnings of pay cut of its employees and cancellation of trade licenses did not have any impact on widespread support to the bandh called by 60 organisations led by the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) and the Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chatra Parishad (AJYCP) and its observance. The sponsors of the bandh also demanded that JPC should visit Assam again as promised to take more representations on the Bill in the state before finalising its report.
Besides, the national executive of the BJP as well as the Assam state executive of the party also decided to push the Bill.
BJP’s ally in Assam, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), took out a rally in Guwahati amidst the Assam bandh to reiterate its opposition to Bill. However, the pressure is also mounting on the AGP to quit the BJP-led government to which the regional party has been maintaining that it would quit the government the moment it is passed into an Act.
This position of the AGP has also triggered speculation in the political circles in Assam that the regional party might have been led by some quarters in the BJP to believe that Modi government may not risk snapping ties with the regional party in Assam and other North-eastern states by passing the Bill.
The BJP is expected to weigh its options not just between its electoral prospects in 25 Lok Sabha seats in North-eastern states and in 42 Lok Sabha seats in West Bengal and running the coalition governments in the North-eastern states smoothly where its coalition partners have opposed the Bill but also likely impact on it electoral prospects in rest of the country in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls if it is unable to pass the Bill.
In a telephonic interview after the JPC meeting, its chairman Rajendra Agrawal told Assamese television news channel News18 Assam and North East that the committee being mandated by the Lok Sabha, its term would automatically lapse when the current Lok Sabha is dissolved. Therefore, practically the Winter session of Parliament would be the last session for the JPC to submit its report.
Technically there will be one more session but that would be a pre-election session for completion of budget-related obligations. He also pointed out that the committee had already obtained six extensions and he would be happy not to seek another extension adding that the committee would try to submit its report in the Winter Session. He, however, ruled out the possibility of JPC visiting Assam again before finalisation of its report. Agrawal said that if the committee was unable to submit its report then it would reflect the committee had not done its mandated work.
CPI(M) member in the JPC Md Salim, on the other hand, told media persons after the meeting that committee should visit Assam to take submission again as promised by the chairman as it is a serious issue for the people of the state. He said that the study of the committee would remain incomplete if more visits were not undertaken to Assam, Tripura, West Bengal, Odusha and Jharkhand before finalisation of the report. However, there were indications that government wants to hurriedly bring the Bill in the forthcoming Winter Session, he alleged.
A Division Bench of the Supreme Court comprising Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Justice Rohinton Fali Nariman passed an order on 23 October directing ten stakeholders in the NRC case including the Centre and the Assam government to file their objections before 30, October to the stand taken by the NRC state coordinator Pratik Hajela that five of the 15 documents allowed during application process should not be allowed for filing claims and objections. Both the Centre and the Assam government objected to Hajela’s stand.
Other stakeholders allowed by the Supreme Court Bench to file objections include All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), All Assam Minorities Students’ Union, Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind, Assam Public Works, Assam Sanmilita Mahasangha, National Democratic Front of Boroland (Progressive), Indigenous Tribal Peoples Federation and Joint Action Committee for Bangali Refugees.
The five documents are – (i) Names in NRC, 1951; (ii) Names in Electoral Roll up to 24th March, 1971; (iii) Citizenship Certificate and Refugee Registration Certificate; (iv) Certified copies of pre-1971 electoral roll, particularly, those issued from the state of Tripura; and (v) Ration card. The apex court will take up the matter on 1, November.
Amidst the NRC exercise, Assam is poised to witness intensified movement for and against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill ahead and during the Winter Session of the Parliament. The KMSS, AJYPC and its allies which include the All Assam Minorities Students’ Union have threatened to intensify its agitation against the Bill.
The AASU and the AGP have also vowed to intensify stir against the Bill. The AASU have also warned BJP of a befitting reply in 2019 Lok Sabha polls if the Centre goes ahead to pass the Bill. The Left Democratic Mancha, a combination of 11 political parties, have decided to hold a demonstration in front of parliament during the Winter Session to press for its demand for withdrawal of the Bill.
The LDM has also decided to organise agitations across the state. On the other hand, Citizens’ Rights Protection Forum, an umbrella body of 24 Bengali organisations in Assam have decided to hold a rally in Guwahati in support of the Bill on 17 November.
Tensions has been built up in the state with opposition to this proposed rally which prompted the Assam government to rush and clarify that it would not allow such a rally. However, the orgnisations have not called off the rally even though it is yet to seek permission from the government.
The Modi government will be under pressure to factor in these political developments in Assam before it takes the final call on the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016.
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