How the contentious legislation will pan out in the long run for states with non-Hindu majority populations is something that should cause unease for the region
The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAB) with its multifarious implications for the tribes of Northeast India has resurfaced. It has begun to create tremors in Mizoram but surprisingly the state governments of the other six states, including Assam, have been silent now when earlier they had protested loudly against it with Meghalaya CM Conrad Sangma leading thme charge.
Union home Minister Amit Shah is now going around assuring the states that their interests would be taken care of, although how that would happen has not been spelt out. Mizoram has been promised double the state budget for its development. Now, to be fair to the BJP, this was not unexpected. The CAB was very much part of the BJP manifesto as much as the abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir was. So why did the BJP get voted in and formed governments in Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura, Assam, and coalitions in Meghalaya, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram?
The problem is the Northeastern states reliance on the central government for funding not just their development projects but even the salaries of government employees which is a big chunk of the respective state’s budgets. The states are unable to generate enough revenue to even match the central grants for various schemes. As a result, many of these schemes are badly implemented and have failed the people.
In Meghalaya, civil society groups are protesting against the CAB; so too are the people of Mizoram. We have not heard even a whimper from the other five states. So it’s difficult to gauge what the mood of the citizenry is at the moment. Despite the apparently benign nature of the CAB which intends to amend the existing Citizenship Bill by reducing the number of years of residence of a non-citizen in India besides other clauses, the problem lies in its exclusivist design. Unlike other countries that look at several aspects, but mainly humanitarian reasons before granting citizenship to people, the CAB is clear that only Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists (religious minorities in the Muslim dominated countries of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh who are ostensibly persecuted in those countries) would be eligible to become citizens of India.
Muslims cannot claim the same privilege. So whichever way we look at it, the CAB is a Bill that aims at consolidation of Hindus and ensuring a loyal Hindu vote bank. While it is true that hordes of Hindus have crossed over from East Pakistan and later Bangladesh, the fact is that large numbers of Muslims too are illegally settled in the Northeastern states. So, while CAB will give relief to Hindus in Assam who failed the National Register of Citizens’ (NRC) test, it will also reinforce the illegal status of anyone with a Muslim name, who is unable to produce the required documents.
In states like Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura there is already a lot of pressure on land and resources created by unabated influx from across the border, irrespective of religious affiliations. To imagine that people migrate to other countries only because they are persecuted for professing a particular religion is a fallacy. What about the Muslims who have crossed over from erstwhile East Pakistan and later Bangladesh? It’s a different matter that Bangladesh does not acknowledge this fact for obvious reasons.
The problem with such migration is that the government has not spelt out where and in which states of India, these refugees will be rehabilitated. Considering that Bangladesh borders Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura the refuge seekers would prefer these states since there is a familiarity about these spaces. Also many would have kith and kin in Bangladesh; it’s easier for them to build contacts from within this region than say from Mumbai or Delhi or Gurgaon, although there are large numbers of illegal migrants in these metros too.
There is a growing feeling among the natives of Assam and Meghalaya that the CAB is a leviathan that will turn them into minorities in their homeland. Assam also has to contend with the final phases of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) which has seen quite a good number of people with genuine citizenship claims, falling between the cracks because they cannot produce documents.
Interestingly, the BJP came to power in 2014 on the premise that illegal migrants from Bangladesh – an emotive issue that been at the centre of several controversies and even saw a mass movement in Assam in the 1980’s -- would be deported. This is easier said than done. How does a country identify aliens without papers? They may be Bangladeshis but it requires that Bangladesh also acknowledge this fact for the process of deportation to begin. And Sheikh Hasina has in her recent visit to India, pointed out to the problematic nature of the NRC and warned that is should not have consequences for her country.
The CAB has managed to divide people since religion is an emotive issue. Large sections of people in Assam, mainly those in the Barak Valley are in sync with the CAB, the ‘indigenous’ Assamese do not want to be burdened with Bengali Hindus from Bangladesh as much as they want the Bangladeshi Muslim to be sent back. A migrant is a migrant they say and should never be treated at par with genuine Indian citizens or threaten their future. All this started with BJP’s divisive politics which is reopening past wounds. Now the society is completely fragmented into Assamese and Bengalis – Hindus and Muslims and of course exacerbating the divide between the Assamese dominated Brahmaputra Valley and the Bengali populated Barak Valley. On its part, the BJP has chosen to brush aside the secular nature of the Indian Constitution and to now create a divide on the basis of religion.
In Meghalaya, the National Peoples’ Party (NPP)-led government with two BJP legislators on board had been very vocal last year in opposing the CAB. Other states like Nagaland, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Tripura had also joined in the protest. Assam finds it difficult to defy the Modi-Shah juggernaut. Meanwhile, the Congress High Command has instructed the state Congress to oppose the Bill. This is surprising for a party that had allowed unabated influx into Assam from across the border for its vote bank politics. Besides, who cares for a disintegrated Congress today?
Meanwhile strong voices of dissent have emerged from the dominant Assamese community. Their contention is that Para 5.3 of the historic Assam Accord signed in August 15, 1985, between the Indian Government led by Rajiv Gandhi and the All Assam Students Union (AASU) and All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP) says that foreigners that came to Assam after January 1st 1966 up to 24th March 1971, shall be detected in accordance with the provisions of the Foreigners Act, 1946, and the Foreigners (Tribunals) Order, 1964.” The Accord does not identify an illegal migrant on the basis of religion. Hence the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016 completely dilutes the Assam Accord.
In Assam, memories of bloodshed during the infamous Assam Movement from the mid-1970s and early 80s which sought to push out illegal Bangladeshi migrants are still fresh. Today there are simmering tensions between the Assamese and Bengali speaking population in the two major river valleys. It has taken a while for the two communities to be civil with each other. The controversial CAB will once again drive a wedge between the two communities. As it is, the NRC is a huge bone of contention with 19 lakh people being left out of the final register.
It has been traumatic for those excluded from the NRC to establish their citizenship for want of documents. Bengali Hindus who are victims of Nehru’s decision to cede Sylhet to East Pakistan and who fled to India thereafter and then in 1971 because of the genocide are in full support of the Bill. The BJP believes it can neutralise the Muslim population growth by countering it with imported Bangladeshi Hindus. It is a Bill fraught with inconsistencies with only one design -- to win votes. As of today, the Bengali Hindus outnumber the Muslims in the Barak Valley by a mere two per cent according to the 2011 Census.
In Assam, with BJP stalwarts like Himanta Biswa Sarma to protect the interests of the Party the CAB will find necessary support that has already been drummed up for the last several months. In fact, Himanta Biswa Sarma even made a statement that is overtly anti-Muslim. He said the Bangladeshi Hindus will be allowed citizenship in Assam in order to counter the Bangladeshi Muslims in numbers. If politics is all about religion and consolidation of Hindu votes which are the twin objectives of the BJP, then the North East is in serious danger of being subsumed by new settlers. The tribal states fear a demographic change since people from Bangladesh would want to settle in familiar terrain close to the country of their birth. Already there are existing fears of too many illegal immigrants taking up the commercial spaces of Dimapur, Shillong, Imphal, Agartala, et al. And this is no empty threat.
Today, the silence of the seven states barring muted protests in Mizoram is troubling. CAB is set to become a long-term strategy for the BJP’s continued hold over this country. For the first time, we see a Hindu majority country where Hindus themselves feel insecure and are willing to lend all support to the BJP to ensure that their interests are protected. How the CAB will pan out in the long run for states with non-Hindu majority populations is something that should cause unease for the Northeast.
(Patricia Mukhim is a social activist, writer, journalist and the editor of The Shillong Times. Recipient of various honours of national and international repute, she was also bestowed with the Padma Shri in 2000 by the government of India. She tweets at @meipat. Views expressed above are her own)