By Albert Thyrniang
Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2019 (CAB) was passed in the Lok Sabha at mid night of December 9 with a 311-80 verdict after more than 7 hours of heated and polarised debate between the Treasury and the Opposition benches. The Opposition charged the Bill to be communal, exclusive, divisive, illegal and unconstitutional as it discriminates against people on the basis of religion. It goes against the Preamble of the Constitution which clearly states that India is a secular country pledging equality to all citizens. The Bill violates articles 14 and 15 of the Constitution which guarantee equality before law and prohibits discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, or place of birth. Of course, Amit Shah, the main protagonist of the Bill denied all charges.
The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2019 seeks to amend the Citizenship Act of 1955. Amended in 1986, 1992, 2003, 2005 and 2015 the Indian nationality law confers citizenship to a person based on Articles 5 to 11 (Part II) of the Indian Constitution. As well as other methods one can acquire Indian citizenship through Citizenship by Naturalization. A foreigner who is ordinarily resident in India for 11/12 years can acquire Indian citizenship provided conditions are fulfilled.
CAB 2019 relaxes the 11/12 year requirement to just 5 years for Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians illegal migrants who face ‘persecution’ in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. If the Bill is passed in Rajya Sabha and becomes a law the minorities in the above countries will be beneficiaries. The cut-off date is December 31, 2014.
Following talks with groups from the North East most states in the North East have been excluded from CAB 2019, namely the states under ILP regimes and the Sixth Scheduled areas. Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland (except Dimapur city) have ILP in place. Manipur will be a ILP state soon. Meghalaya (except Shillong and parts of Tura), the tribal belt of Tripura and Autonomous Council areas of Boroland, Karbi Anglong and Dimasao of Assam are Six Schedule areas.
In spite of the above exemptions North East is up in arms. Ever since the Bill was cleared by the Union Cabinet on December 4, 2019 the ‘Seven Sisters’ have been in protest. When it was actually re-introduced in Parliament on December 9 and as debate was in progress protests raged and intensified. A day after the Bill was passed a 11 hour bandh paralysed life throughout the region. Ignoring the consensus opinion that the entire North East should be exempted from CAB more large scale protests could rock territory long neglected by Delhi. University students, Students unions, organisations, NGOs and civil society were in unison in the streets condemning the introduction of the Bill and its passage in Parliament. ‘War Cries’ protests, torch light processions, mock funeral processions, hanging and torching of effigies of BJP leaders were organised to put the message across.
The Bill has pushed the people of the North East to the wall. Young people resorted to heckling and manhandling of pro-CAB politicians, vandalising and gherao of political party offices. Some youth desperately stripped themselves nude. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister, Amit Shah, Assam Chief Minister, Sarbananda Sonowal, Assam Minister and CAB staunch supporter, Himanta Biswa Sarma and Assam Gana Parishad chief, Atul Bora faced the wrath and ire of protesters. They had to bear with ‘down down’, ‘murdabad’, ‘Amit Shah se Azadi’, ‘Sarbananda Sonowal se Azadi’, ‘Himanta Biswa Sarma se Azadi’, ‘RSS se Azadi’ slogans. Student leaders even warned of driving youths to militancy.
The story of Himangshu Gogoi, hailed as Assam’s son who reportedly quit his job in the Indian Air Force (IAF) to join the agitation sums up the strong sentiments of the people of North East against the dangerous Bill. A popular Assamese actor too resigned from the primary membership of the BJP for the sake of his state. A film awardee has returned his hard earned prize.
Anger over the Bill was particularly strong in Assam and Tripura for a reason. CAB violates the Assam Accord. To end violent anti foreigners agitations in Assam the government of India signed the accord with All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) in 1983. Perhaps the most significant clause of the accord was that illegal immigrants, irrespective of religion who came to Assam after 1971 would be deported. CAB has rendered Assam Accord null and void. National Register of Citizens (NRC) identified more than 40 lakhs foreigners. It is estimated that half that number are Hindus. Instead of deportation Indian citizenship is awarded to them.
With most of the hill states exempted from CAB thanks to ILP and Six Schedule provisions, Assam will bear the brunt. Barak valley is already a Bengali Hindu dominated area. Lower Assam is in the ‘hands’ of Bengali Muslims. The indigenous Ahoms and other tribes will struggle to keep hold of Upper Assam like Jorhat, Dibrugarh, Golaghat, Majuli, Sivasagar and Tinsukia. The fury in Assam is no secret.
Tripura is a sad case. 70 per cent of its population are from Bangladesh. The indigenous tribes have lost political power. Others states in the North East fear that CAB will turn them into another Tripura. They might be swamped, overrun and overwhelmed by Bangladeshis as all the North Eastern states share boundaries with Bangladesh.
The six north eastern states that got a relief from CAB need not rejoice because if the Assam plain (non-scheduled) is not excluded the hill states (ILP and Six Scheduled areas) will also be affected due to the unmanned shared borders. If Assam is overcrowded withfreshly acquired Indian citizensthe effect will extend to all other states. ILP and Sixth Scheduled mechanisms won’t be effective to drive unwelcome guests away. Therefore, a total ban of CAB in the entire North East is a must.
While the rest of India argues over Hindus versus Muslims, for North Eastern states CAB is not about religion. In Assam the Ahoms are mainly Hindus. Even many of the tribes in the plains and in the hills identify themselves are Hindus. But they do not want more Hindus from other countries in their areas. For the hundreds of microscopic groups of varied languages and cultures, customs and traditions it is a question of numbers. It is about economics. It is about limited space and resources. It is a question of threat to their identity and uniqueness. It is a question of existence and survival.
Supporters and opponents were on expected lines. But the shocker came from Agatha Sangma, the Tura NPP MP. She supported the Bill in Parliament and voted for it. Just before the tabling of the bill NPP chief, Conrad Sangma indicated NPP’s opposition to it. On December 8 news appeared that the lone NPP MP would oppose the anti-North East Bill. What suddenly changed? Mildly requesting the Home Minister to exempt the entire northeast from CAB she reasoned that the concerns of North Eastern states have been incorporated in CAB 2019.
NPP’s nexus with the BJP is well known. However, she was still expected to oppose the Bill because the people of the state and Garo Hills are against the Bill. Conrad had earlier stated that if the Bill is passed in Parliament his party would snap ties with BJP. Today he is a part of the passage of the notorious Bill. Is NPP’s action a betrayal of the people of Garo Hills and Meghalaya? Is it doublespeak? The mask of the NPP if off as it is partnering the BJP and right wing parivar’s sinister agenda. Even as this essay is being written pictures of backlash against the Tura MP have emerged on Facebook. She and the NPP leadership might have to face further embarrassment.
NPP leads the MDA government. Coalition partners like the UDP, PDF are still unhappy due to non-exclusion of non-scheduled areas. Was the decision of Agatha taken in consultation with UDP, PDF and others?Was it unilateral? It will be interesting to see the reaction of regional partners. Will they approve of NPP’s decision? Will they take objection to their partner’s shocking decision? Will they part ways with the NPP? Will there be new political realignments in the state?If they tread the NPP line will there will be backlash from the citizens of Meghalaya?
Another supporter of the Bill from Meghalaya is its Governor, Tathagata Roy. In Kolkata he stated that CAB should have been passed much earlier. Political parties and NGOs expressed displeasure with the Governor. Some even demanded his resignation for hurting the sentiments of the people of the State. Later he termed the opposition to CAB an absurdity. The Governor has displayed himself a politician rather than a neutral figure. He is likely to earn discomfiting statements for his insensitive views on the Bill.
CAB is as traumatising as demonetisation, abrogation of article 370 and the generally vitiated atmosphere in the country. They should never have been there. And now save us from nation-wide NRC!