This fortnight, Assam once again saw the stewing of its citizenship soup. The master chef, of course, was the BJP-led government at the Centre which touched raw nerves when the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) lent its approval to the draft Citizenship Amendment Bill 2016 without any changes, after having rejected amendments proposed by the Opposition members who were a part of the committee. After the due push by the BJP-majority JPC, Union home minister Rajnath Singh moved the bill in the Lok Sabha on Tuesday, and it was passed the same day after some hasty discussions that saw Opposition members stage walkouts. The bill, that is about to become law, would empower the government to provide Indian citizenship to Hindu migrants from Bangladesh as well as other allegedly persecuted non-Muslims from Pakistan and Afghanistan. Then, waking up from its slumber, the nearly five-year-old Narendra Modi government decided at a Cabinet meeting to take a fresh look at the 35-year-old Assam Accord. Now, the decision taken was to set up a high-level committee to look into the existing recommendations on implementation of Clause 6 of the accord that provided for “constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards to the Assamese people”.
What is the linkage between the two — the passage of the bill in the Lok Sabha and its subsequent transformation into a law, and the Cabinet decision to set up a committee to look at the issue of implementation of Clause 6 of the Assam Accord? And why is the timing of the two moves so significant? The JPC nod was a demonstration of the Modi government’s intent to have the Citizenship Bill passed so that Hindu migrants from Bangladesh and elsewhere can be conferred with Indian citizenship. This, obviously, is a sticky point for the BJP-led government in Assam as the same people who gave the party a huge mandate in the 2016 Assembly elections are vehemently opposed to the move to amend the Citizenship Act. Mass organisations like the All Assam Students Union (AASU), the protagonists of the six-year Assam agitation against illegal Bangladeshi migration of the 1980s, don’t want any illegal Bangladeshi to stay in the state, irrespective of religion. The BJP at the Centre and the state has been bent on facilitating stay rights for Hindu migrants who fled countries like Bangladesh and elsewhere, claiming that India is the natural refuge for such people.
The BJP was aware of the sentiments of the people in Assam and elsewhere in the Northeast and decided to push the process of granting “constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards to the Assamese people” with perhaps the hope that it would neutralise the anger over the move to bring the new citizenship law. AASU is not amused at the timing of the Union Cabinet’s move to set up the committee to look into Clause 6 of the Assam Accord. The student group has since rejected the high-level committee headed by a former IAS officer, M.P. Bezbaruah, and raised a serious question articulated by AASU leader Samujjal Bhattacharya thus: “When you seek to violate Clause 5 of the Assam Accord that provides for detection and expulsion of illegal migrants from Bangladesh, why are you talking about implementation of Clause 6 for safeguards to the Assamese people. If the illegal migrants are deported, the interests of the indigenous people would be automatically served and further safeguards can come later.” The question is also being asked as to why the Modi government did not choose to look into the Assam Accord earlier in its tenure. The term of the committee, for instance, has been fixed at six months, and by then the Lok Sabha polls would have been over and a new government installed!
Again, many see a clear contradiction in the Centre’s move of granting citizenship to Hindu migrants from Bangladesh (those who had come over till December 31, 2014) and its mega Rs 1,500-crore exercise to update the National Register of Citizens (NRC). The draft NRC had left out the names of over 40 lakh people from among those who had applied to have their names in this list. More than 30 lakh of them have since filed claims for inclusion of their names in the final NRC. The process will take time, but many say Hindu Bangladeshis who had migrated illegally to India comprise the bulk of those whose names did not figure in the final draft NRC. Therefore, organisations like AASU argue that it is the BJP-led government at the Centre and in Assam which are engaged in a deliberate move to protect a section of illegal Bangladeshi migrants, and the Citizenship Bill or the new law that is coming contradicts the provision of the Assam Accord as well as negates the very purpose of having an updated NRC.
The immediate political fallout of the BJP’s move to enact this new citizenship law is the exit of the regional Asom Gana Parishad from the coalition in Assam. The AGP’s position as a coalition partner of the BJP in Assam and the continuance of its three ministers, including party chief Atul Bora, in the Sarbananda Sonowal Cabinet became untenable as the Narendra Modi government wanted the Citizenship Bill to become a law at any cost. The AGP had come to power with the promise of freeing Assam of illegal Bangladeshi migrants, and therefore the party couldn’t stay with the BJP that wanted to confer citizenship to Hindu migrants from Bangladesh.
The Sonowal government does not face any danger as the BJP has 60 seats of its own in the 126-member Assam Assembly, besides enjoying the support of the 12-member Bodoland People’s Front (BPF). The AGP does not enjoy its past popularity, but the fact that the BJP decided to go for a pre-poll alliance with the regional party ahead of the 2016 state elections indicated the latter’s hold in certain pockets. Now the BJP will not have the AGP’s backing in 2019 and will have to go it alone in the Brahmaputra Valley except, of course, with the BPF by its side. The agitation has only begun with the 11-hour shutdown in Assam and the rest of the Northeast on Tuesday. The murky politics over citizenship will unfold in its ever-expanding avatars in the days ahead....