As I write this article, there is a sense of foreboding in the north eastern states that the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill will be tabled in the Upper House (Rajya Sabha) by the BJP and its allies today (February 12, 2019). Interestingly, Tej Hazarika, the son of Bhupen Hazarika, has also announced on social media that he and his family are not going to accept the Bharat Ratna conferred posthumously on his late father, Dr Bhupen Hazarika, the doyen of music and poetry of Assam. To be fair to Prime Minister Narendra Modi he is only pushing through an agenda he had announced while campaigning for the elections in Assam in 2016. So there was no hidden intent. What is curious is why the people of the Northeast kept a stoic silence and only protested after the Bill was passed in the Lok Sabha this year.
Today the people of the Northeast await with bated breath the outcome of the Rajya Sabha proceedings. Will the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAB) 2016 be passed or checkmated. Currently, in the House of 245 members, the BJP and its allies in the NDA which comprise the Shiromani Akali Dal, Janata Dal(U) and other smaller parties has 86 MPs, after the Shiv Sena with 3 MPs broke off ties with the NDA. The other political parties including the Congress with 50 MPs and others with smaller numbers that have formed the Mahagatbandhan to fight the BJP has a total of 159 MPs in the Rajya Sabha. So clearly if these 159 MPs stand united there is no way the CAB will be passed. But during the passage of many contentious Bills there have been slips between the cup and the lip.
The BJP is very keen to pass the CAB which would give citizenship to Hindus, Sikhs, Parsis, Christians and Buddhists who are persecuted in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Those against the CAB contest it on the basis of India’s secular credentials and wonder why citizenship should be granted on the basis of religion when the architects of this country’s Constitution had envisaged a nation that would be secular and not be defined by any religion.
What is evident is the vote-bank politics of the BJP and its Hindutva agenda of turning the country into a Hindustan or the land of the Hindus. Apologists for the CAB point to the fact that many Hindus were left behind in Pakistan, Afghanistan and former East Pakistan, now Bangladesh and that the BJP owes it to them to grant them entry into the country of their faith, more so because they are persecuted for being Hindus in these countries. The counter argument is that while Afghanistan and Pakistan may be Islamic nations, Bangladesh is a secular Muslim majority country. There are about 17 million Hindus in Bangladesh with close kin in Assam, Meghalaya et al. The population of the northeastern states is just 45 million (4.5 crore). If the 17 million are given citizenship in India over a period of time they will overwhelm the local tribal population of which Tripura is a case in point. Hence the stiff opposition to CAB! It remains to be seen if the united opposition can defeat the NDA.
Indeed the question that bothers political observers is why religion should be the basis on which citizenship is granted to a person. Home minister Rajnath Singh while moving the motion for the Bill said Hindus, Jains, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Parsis from the above three countries will get Indian citizenship. Why only the above three Muslim countries should be mentioned is of course clear to those reading the political tarot cards. The BJP wanted to return to power by appeasing Hindus and consolidating the Hindu vote bank. It had done this in a very calculated manner in Assam and won the last state assembly election. That is how the Barak Valley which is anyways physically and emotionally distant from the Brahmaputra Valley is today completely divided along not just on ethnic lines but now on religion too. For those who support the Bill, the discourse today in Assam is that if the state has given sanctuary to Muslims for so long and continues to do so even today then what’s the problem in legitimising the citizenship of large numbers of Hindus from Bangladesh who are persecuted for their religious beliefs. Not enough studies have been done as to whether Hindus in Bangladesh are indeed persecuted. Going by the number of Durga Puja mandaps you would not think so but yes people cross over to India for economic reasons than on any other consideration.
The Trinamool Congress’s Saugata Roy has termed the Bill “divisive” and “insidious” and said that it goes against the basic tenets of the Constitution. The Bill does violate the secular nature of the Indian Constitution but the BJP would argue that the word “secular” was added to the Constitution only in 1976 (Constitution 42nd Amendment Act) by Indira Gandhi whose intention was neither noble nor visionary. The Constitution does not define the relationship between religion and state and this continues to be a grey area.
The naked protest outside Parliament on December 7 by members of the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) from Assam which is led by Akhil Gogoi shows the desperation of people who see the looming threat of their living space being invaded by people from across the border. It goes without saying that the maximum migration will be from Bangladesh and that the seven north eastern states would bear the brunt of this migration. Clearly this is vote-bank politics which feeds on the Hindutva agenda of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) which defines the BJPs ideological moorings.
While most enlightened western nations provide sanctuary to citizens who are oppressed in their own country or are afflicted by wars and brutality, they do so purely on humanitarian grounds. No country has granted citizenship to any group on the basis of their religious affiliations. The seven northeastern states, particularly those inhabited by tribal minorities are aghast at the prospects of the CAB being passed today. At the back of their minds is the dreaded prospect of becoming minorities in their homelands in the long run. And these fears are not misplaced.
The tribes of Arunachal Pradesh are resisting the Bill because they see a growing number of Chakmas entering the state and seeking citizenship. Mizoram has a problem with the Brus and Burmese interlopers. Dimapur in Nagaland is being inundated by what is loosely termed as Illegal Bangladeshi Immigrants (IBIs). Manipur, Meghalaya and Assam see the influx as a very real threat to their demography. For these tribes Tripura has been the classic example of a state that is now overrun by people of Bengali origin and where the tribals are reduced to a pathetic minority of 30%. In 1901 Tripura’s population was 1.73 lakh, with tribals numbering nearly 52.89 %. It is also educative that the protest on Tuesday was saw tribal youth suffering gunshot wounds.
In Meghalaya, the bandh sponsored by the North East Students’ Organisation (NESO) came after a gap of four years. The Meghalaya High Court had in 2015 directed that newspapers should not carry news of a bandh, strike, hartal et al by any organisation. This time the people across the seven states seem to have converged on the need to show solidarity against the Citizenship Bill 2019 which threatens to turn their homeland into a Lebensraum and one over which they would not have any control.
In all of this, however is the role of history in the carving out of borders from hitherto borderless homelands, post 1947. Today those borders have hardened and people of one ethnic origin, culture and language are citizens of two different nations. Across the globe people have usually migrated to safer zones with better economic prospects. In this region too this migration has continued since the Partition in 1947. And it bears mention that prior to the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971, the Hindus did suffer persecution in East Pakistan. Many of them in fact were granted safe sanctuary in India. But this continued migration has a bearing especially on finite resources like land. It deprives genuine Indian citizens of their due. Besides, the fact of the matter is that the rest of India will not share this population of religious migrants. It is the northeastern states that will have to carry the load. That is the sticking point.
Also what is contentious about the CAB-2016 today is that it has hardened the stances of pressure groups in Meghalaya and Manipur who now make a strident demand for the Inner Line Permit (ILP). Ironically, states like Nagaland, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh which already have ILP are today claiming that it has become a meaningless piece of regulation because ‘aliens’ from Bangladesh Myanmar continue to enter due to poor implementation of this regulation. The ILP is a colonial legislation that flows from the Eastern Bengal Frontier Regulation Act of 1873 which the British used to keep mainland Indians away from some of the present northeastern states. Today, all Indians who are not residents of these states should get an entry permit before entering any of the three states. There are check gates where these permits are registered so that a tab is kept on the visitors and they are asked to leave after their permits expire. This has been an ongoing demand by different groups in the past but this time they will have a raison d’etre for doing so with greater vehemence. This is bound to disrupt tourism and easy movement of passengers and goods especially for a transit state like Meghalaya.
It remains to be seen who wins the day today…
Cut & Thrust, a special column by Patricia Mukhim.
(Patricia Mukhim is a social activist, writer, journalist and the editor of Shillong Times. Recipient of various honours of national and international repute, she was also honored with Padma Shri in 2000 by the Government of India. She tweets at @meipat. The views expressed above are the author’s own. EastMojo neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)