‘While fear of North-easterners over CAB is understandable, they should remember constitutional safeguard or agitations alone cannot secure their future’
The Northeast is once again on the edge, at least most parts of it. With the Bharatiya Janata Party-led NDA government at the Centre intent upon push through the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 (CAB) at the winter session of parliament and indigenous groups of the region reiterating their dogged determination to oppose it, the battle lines have clearly been drawn.
And even as various groups over-arching state boundaries like the North East Students’ Organisation (NESO) and North East Forum for Indigenous People (NEFIP) have sharpened their claws to intensify their stir, the BJP too isn’t backing off either with its mentor Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) reportedly having dispersed its foot soldiers across the length and breadth of the region to try and reach out to the people at the grassroots and mould public opinion in favour of CAB.
Thus, with neither side showing any sign to back off, a major showdown appears imminent and it remains to be seen how the issue pans out in the days to come.
But, what can be said for certain is that the Northeast will be once again on the brink, and the worst sufferer will be ordinary citizens, especially students as most school exams in this part of the country are held in November-December. Civil unrest has already engulfed the many North-eastern States with protest rallies and meets being organised at regular intervals to coincide with the ongoing Winter Session of Parliament.
It’s a well-documented fact that India, since ancient times, had been giving shelter to the persecuted from across the world irrespective of their ethnicity, faith, language, race, etc. Reasons why there’s more diversity of ethnicity, race, language and religion in this country than any other on the planet. Hence, by bringing in this amendment to the Citizenship Act, 1955 to make illegal immigrants belonging to Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, Jainism, Christianity and Parsi community from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan eligible for Indian citizenship, the ruling NDA will not only go against the secular principles of Indian constitution, but also against the very spirit of universal humanism followed in this country since times immemorial.
No wonder, indigenous groups of the Northeast are up in arms, fearing they will be swamped by hordes of illegal Bangladeshi Hindus and making them minority in their own land – overburdened as they feel they already are with scores of unaccounted illegal immigrants from the neighbouring country. NESO and NEFIP have already petitioned Prime Minister Narendra Modi not to introduce the Bill in Parliament on the ground that it will threaten the very existence of indigenous people in the Northeast.
But equally pertinent is the question whether India can really shrug off its moral responsibility towards the people (Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Christians, etc), who were once part of this great nation and abandoned for no fault of theirs, while agreeing to the new political boundaries drawn in 1947 and making them “foreigners”. These people had never explicitly stated their desire to become Pakistanis (or Bangladeshis) but were forced to become so as new political maps were drawn overnight, dividing homes and families forever. For instance, the predominantly Buddhist tribes like the Chakmas, Marmas, Tripuris, Tanchangyas, etc, in Chittagong Hill Tracts became East Pakistanis (now Bangladeshis) overnight as were the Adivasi Hindus working in various tea gardens of Sylhet district, which was once part of Assam, and the Hajongs, Garos, Khasis, Rabhas, etc.
The proposed Bill seeks to relax the norm of minimum 11 years of continuous stay in India for such people to claim citizenship after illegally entering the country to six years. While CAB was passed in Lok Sabha on January 8 this year where the BJP-led NDA had a majority, it lapsed subsequently as it could not be introduced in Rajya Sabha by June.
However, as the BJP was determined to push the CAB in Parliament, evident in it being part of the party’s manifesto during the recent Lok Sabha polls, prudent would have been on the part of the party to engage with various stakeholders of the region and take them into confidence, instead of trying to shove it down the throats of unwilling masses now. Instead of jumping into the battle of nerves, it should have proactively engaged with those opposed to it.
So now, amidst the growing public anger and opposition to the Bill, BJP chief and Union Home Minister Amit Shah has embarked on a tour of the region to try and talk to various stakeholders and assuage their feelings. Having visited Mizoram, he is now likely to tour Meghalaya too. The Centre has also of late indicated that CAB would not be applicable to ILP States of the region, though the agitating groups aren’t convinced and have trashed it. They point out that making it applicable in one State and not in another will make no sense as States of the region are contiguous and there will be spillover effects.
Interestingly, most Bengali Hindus in the Northeast, who are apparently the target of BJP, too aren’t pleased with the Bill as their primary concern of being mostly viewed as Bangladeshis remains unaddressed, evident in many being lodged in detention camps in Assam and scores categorised as “D” voters. Also, interesting will be to see how ruling coalition governments in the North-eastern States in which the BJP is a partner calibrate their response to the fast-changing political dynamics. But MPs from the region are yet to speak up in one voice, thus indicating lack of unanimity among them. Further, the anti-CAB stir in Assam has remained confined so far to the Brahmaputra Valley, minus the Barak Valley, the twin hill districts and Bodo Territorial Council areas. This indicates that those leading the movement haven’t been able to convince people beyond their traditional spheres of influence.
Meanwhile, while the fear of the North-easterners over CAB is understandable, they should also bear in mind that constitutional safeguards or agitations alone aren’t enough to secure their future unless they give up their general abhorrence towards hard labour. Unless the “locals” are ready to toil, they won’t be insulated from “outsiders” for long as the latter will invariably be imported to compensate lack of workforce at home. The inevitable will happen unless a genuine change of mindset is brought about among the people towards hard labour, in which civil society organisations can play an active role.
(The writer is an independent journalist based in Guwahati. Views expressed are his own)