By Barun Das Gupta


Even as Home Minister Amit Shah introduced the Citizenship (Amendment)  Bill (CAB) in the Lok Sabha on Monday, the entire North-East erupted in anger, indignation and a sense of betrayal. Betrayal, because the Assam Accord of 1985, signed by the then Prime Minister of India, Rajeev Gandhi, himself had fixed the “cut-off” date for granting citizenship to immigrants from East Pakistan/Bangladesh as March 24, 1971. The CAB advances the date to December 31. 2014. In other words, all those who migrated from Bangladesh to Assam and the North-Eastern States during the last 44 years will be accorded citizenship. The fear in these States is that their demographic pattern will change as most of these migrants are living in this area. Passing of the CAB will make them citizens.


If an accord signed by one government is disowned by a subsequent government in so cavalier a manner, what remains of the sacrosanctity of such accords, they are asking


The North-East Students’ Union (NESO), the umbrella organization of sixteen major students’ bodies of the region, has given a “bandh” call on Tuesday against the Bill. Three major mass organizations, the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), the Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuva Chhatra Santha (AJYCP) and the Krishsak Mukti Sangram Samity (KMSS) have joined hands together to build up a mass movement against the Bill. The Bill, they think, is also unconstitutional as it makes a discrimination against the Muslims by agreeing to confer citizenship to those Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists and Parsis who are supposed to have been victims of communal persecution in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The only exceptions are the Muslims. They will be denied citizenship. This is against the secular Constitution of India, they maintain.


The Assam Gana Parishad (AGP) which has been opposing the Bill all along has, in a sudden volte face, come round to support the Bill. AGP is a partner in the coalition government led by the BJP which is in power and AGP president Atul Bora is a minister of the cabinet headed by BJP Chief Minister Sarbanand Sonowal. Ironically, Sonowal was once the president of the AASU which sspearheaded an anti-foreigner movement in Assam from 1979 to 1985. The movement ended with the signing of the Assam Accord. Today, Sonowal finds himself on the other side of the barricade, ranged against the very same students’ body he himself had led from 1992 to 1999. His adversary is his own former alter ego, Samujjwal Bhattacharjee. Togther, the duo had led the AASU for years. Bhattacharjee is now “adviser” to the AASU.


The AGP’s volte face is likely to prove costly to the party. Sunday saw hordes of angry students vandalize the party’s Dibrugarh office for its support to the CAB. Unable to face the protesters, party functionaries present at the office at the time fled in fear. Nitya Bora, Editor of Asomiya Pratidin, the widely circulated Assamese daily, said the BJP would be wiped off Assam in the next elections because of the CAB.  The BJP would meet its Waterloo in Assam, he said.


What has surprised observers is the wave of anger sweeping through the tribal areas of the north-eastern States. The CAB has exempted from its purview the areas under the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation (BEFR), 1873, as well as the tribal areas in the 6th Schedule of the Constitution in Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura. The Bill states that “Nothing in this section shall apply to tribal areas of Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram or Tripura . . . and the area covered under the inner line notified under the BEFR, 1873.” Obviously, the tribal people of the region do not feel assured by this provision.


Their fear is well-founded. Take Nagaland, for example. No non-Naga can start a business in this State. But the legal hurdle is easily obviated. A non-Naga takes a  Naga as his business partner and starts a business in the latter’s name. The name is a fig leaf. The Naga licensee is paid a sum every month but the business is controlled and run by the non-Naga businessman. This becomes more easy if a non-Naga marries a Naga woman.


Coming back to the CAB, there was no difficulty for the ruling party to get the Bill passed in Lok Sabha. Whether they are able to clear the Bill through the Rajya Sabha also, remains to be seen. But even if the Bill is passed by both Houses of Parliament, there will still be another parliament which is the most supreme body in a democracy – the Parliament of the People. Facing the people and making them approve the Bill will be the ultimate litmus test for the BJP.


The BJP has alienated the people of the North-East on the issue of the CAB, while it has antagonized the Bengali-speaking Hindus and Muslims of Assam over the National Register of Citizens (NRC). And this is happening at a time when the people in general all over India are feeling more and more the pinch of the economic slowdown and getting disillusioned of Modinomics. The compound effect of these two does not augur well for the BJP in the North-East which Narendra Modi and  Amit Shah are treating like their fief.


The BJP may well bulldoze the opposition and get the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill passed in both Houses of the Parliament with its brute majority, but it will not be so easy to deal with the groundswell of opposition, anger and resistance that has gripped the entire North-East .and is growing. Statesmanship demands that the sentiments of the people of the North-East be understood and their fear allayed. And it is here that the question arises: Can the present leadership of the BJP show that maturity and statesmanship?


The passing of the law in the dead of night is not the end but the beginning of a tumultuous phase of resistance against it in the North-East. (IPA Service)

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