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Protestors opposing the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in Aizawl, Mizoram
OPINION

Citizenship Bill’s buried for now; but who gains and who loses?

While the mood among a section of the people, mostly made up of pressure groups and opposition parties is understandable, it remains to be seen whether anyone has actually won this battle

The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill’s passage through the Rajya Sabha ended without the passing of the Bill on Wednesday. The Bill, which was passed in the Lok Sabha, is set to lapse on June 3, when the present term of the Lower House comes to an end.

News of the Bill’s premature burial was welcomed with bursting of crackers on the streets of Guwahati and other cities of Assam by those that were opposed to the proposed amendment. While the mood among a section of the people, mostly made up of pressure groups and opposing political parties is understandable -- it being regarded as “a victory” of sorts -- it remains to be seen whether anyone has actually won this battle.

Arguably, the Bill was seen as striking at the very heart of the immigrant’s issue and counter thesis to the Assam Accord (the March 25, 1971) and cut-off date set under the agreement. Many have argued endlessly against the Bill on the pretext that it defeats the very purpose of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and also negates the Assam andolan (movement) of the 80s set off by the detection of suspected “foreigners” in the electoral rolls in 1978 in the Mangaldoi Lok Sabha Constituency.

Now that the CAB has been stalled, the protesters are claiming that their opposition led the government to buckle and not go against the wishes of the people, as that would have come at a great cost. There is no denying that had the government pushed ahead with the bill in the Rajya Sabha then chances of a communal riot breaking out in Assam and parts of Northeast was high and even the BJP’s chances of retaining its recently found foothold in Northeast India would be difficult. So, it is perhaps legitimate for the protesters to bask in the glory of the moment, however misplaced the belied maybe when it comes to the actual situation.

Let’s revisit the original and the proposed bill and what’s in store for the future. The Citizenship Act, 1955 which has been in force until now, will continue as before and a person who enters India from the three countries that is Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan even as of today will be able to apply for citizenship on the ground of religious persecution in these countries. Only that the person has to wait for 11 years before being granted citizenship. The CAB had in fact introduced a cut off year in 2014 for accepting refugees that claim religious persecution in the three countries mentioned above.

The CAB had proposed to facilitate six category of migrants (mostly refugees) that is Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians that came to India from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan by 2014, eligible for citizenship. In addition to that the Bill also relaxes the 11-year requirement to six years for the six identified groups for acquiring citizenship besides cancellation of registration of Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) cardholders should they be found to have violated any law.

So, in a number of ways we are back to where we were which is actually not too bad for those that want to seek asylum in India from these countries. Now there is no cut-off year and cases of religious discrimination and persecution brought up by refugees will be heard on a continuous basis. The CAB had proposed to reduce the timeline from 11 to six years. But in reality, that would not make much of a difference as the process of verification before a person is granted citizenship is extremely rigorous and may even exceed the current timeline. A case in point is that of 101-year old Jamuna Mai a Pakistani Hindu who was given Indian citizenship a month ago after more than 12 years of wait. But six of her other family members who had come over to India with her escape persecution, especially after the Babri Masjid demolition in India are yet to get Indian citizenship.

Their stay in India has not been easy. Soheb Khan writes in his article “After 12-year wait, ‘oldest’ Pak-Hindu becomes Indian Citizen in Jodhpur,” in The Times of India, that “they faced rigourous rounds of questioning from the law enforcement agencies, which even forced them to think if returning to Pakistan.”

The above is one of the many examples of how difficult it’s been for the refugees to be granted citizenship under the original bill. But the positives also point to the possibility of getting citizenship in India. This is true as would be evident from the continuous process of settlement of refugees in the western parts of the country as citizens and this feature is also applicable to other parts of the country including Assam.

The indisputable fact is that Assam has a history of flow of people from various communities before the colonial period and the colonial history before and after partition that have often times led to the mixing of up the legal and the “illegal” and the result is for us to see.

New Delhi-based rights activist Suhas Chakma perhaps puts it simply and with a lot of clarity. He argued in a recent talk to Guwahati journalists that the CAB “neither changes status quo on ground nor does it ally long standing concerns over the issue of refugees.” Chakma believes that in the absence of the CAB, a person (read refugee) who entered India by 2012, will get to apply for citizenship in 2023 instead of now and the “process will continue”.

At the end of the day it looks like the BJP which move the CAB in 2014 after coming to power has played its cards well. Passing the Bill in the Lok Sabha and creating the pandemonium and not pushing for its passage in the Rajya Sabha, barring the show of aggression outside was perhaps part of the plan. The now too familiar politics of polarisation is what the party thrives on and even if it does not get the votes of those that empathize with the party owing to their inability to make it to the final NRC list, it would have ensured that a large majority of the Hindu and perhaps even votes of the other religious groups comes its way.

If the confidence displayed by BJP’s kingmaker in Assam and the Northeast and Assam’s finance minister Himanta Biswa Sarma during a television broadcast on January 12 that his party will win at least 19 to a maximum 21 seats in the ensuing Lok Sabha polls, is any indication of things to come then it would not be wrong to speculate that the saffron party had done its math and a practical assessment of the fallout had the CAB sailed through the upper house today. (EOM)

(The author is a senior journalist who has spent most of his time working in Northeast India since 1990s and in South East Asia where he spent considerable time working and researching and writing on developmental politics, human rights and democratic transitions. He is currently pursuing his doctoral studies at the Institute of Human Rights and Peace Studies in Thailand. He can be reached at bidhayak.d@gmail.com)