Opinion DC Comment 15 May 2018 Citizenship Bill is ...

Citizenship Bill is bad in spirit, withdraw it

DECCAN CHRONICLE. | DECCAN CHRONICLE
Published May 15, 2018, 12:43 am IST
Updated May 15, 2018, 12:43 am IST
Conrad Sangma
 Conrad Sangma

In July 2016, the BJP-led government at the Centre had introduced the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill to supersede the Citizenship Act 1955 with a partisan objective. It has come back to haunt the ruling party, specially in Assam (and elsewhere in the Northeast), and can lead to testing times politically. The bill sought to give Indian citizenship to Hindus (and some smaller religious groups, like Sikhs, Christians and Parsis) from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan who had already arrived in the country illegally anytime after Partition in 1947. This formal aspect of the exercise seemed a cover essentially to permit Bangladeshi Hindus to become Indian nationals — treating them as refugees — even if they came long after the 1985 Assam Accord, which permitted all Bangladeshi settlers in India (Hindu or Muslim) to stay if they had arrived by the March 1971 cutoff date. Muslim refugees were to be kept out. The notion of alien Muslims and “our own Hindus” was heavily played up by Narendra Modi in the 2014 Lok Sabha campaign. Subsequently, the communal theme got traction in the Assam Assembly polls in which the BJP badly beat the Congress. But now, in Assam, there’s a problem, even a backlash of sorts.

The Hindu Assamese-speaker doesn’t wish to be swamped by the Hindu Bengali-speaker from Bangladesh. Echoes of this were found in next-door Meghalaya as well, where BJP-backed CM Conrad Sangma declared his public rejection of the bill. In Assam, intense protests engulfed the state since the JPC headed by a BJP MP began public hearings on the bill a week ago. Around 100 organisations, including the All Assam Students’ Union and Asom Gana Parishad, are out on the streets. An unnerved chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal declared Sunday there was no point in his remaining CM if he couldn’t safeguard the interests of the state’s people. The contours of an agitation that can spiral out of control are visible here unless the Narendra Modi government moves quickly to douse the flames. Assam has a history of huge mass mobilisation over the “foreigner” issue. The prolonged “anti-foreigners agitation” of 1983 is still fresh in the minds of people there. It was expressly against Bengali-speaking Muslim settlers from Bangladesh, but on a daily basis Bengali-speaking Hindu sections of the population had also been at the receiving end. It was at this point that the BJP first began to establish itself in the state on a serious basis by supporting the anti-foreigners agitation. This was convenient as the Congress was the ruling party. But that has changed. The BJP is now in charge in both New Delhi and Guwahati. The bill that was promoted is bad in spirit and should be withdrawn.

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