On December 9, when the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB), 2019, was introduced in the Lok Sabha, thousands of people from all walks of life thronged the streets at several places in Assam, in a spontaneous protest against what they believe is a design to destroy their land, language and identity. Two days later, when the bill was finally made into an Act by Parliament, Assam and parts of the Northeast were literally burning. Curfew was imposed, army was called in and internet services suspended. Meanwhile, the new amendment grabbed the national discourse as the contentious law has raised many questions about violations of constitutional provisions and India’s commitment to secularism.
The CAB’s main aim, ostensibly, is to grant citizenship to minority refugees from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan belonging to the Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian faiths. Refugees who qualify on the above criteria and who entered India on or before December 31, 2014, can apply for citizenship. Also, now any legal proceeding pending against such illegal immigrant’ applicants stands abated’.
An internal partition?
India has a long history of giving shelter to refugees who have faced atrocities elsewhere, but the CAB has attracted strong opposition as it singularly excludes Muslims from its ambit. “Not only is the bill discriminatory, it wreaks havoc on the very foundations of our Constitution,” Congress Legislature Party (CLP) leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury said in the Lok Sabha. “This is a step towards forming a Hindu rashtra’, as imagined by the RSS and BJP.”
The BJP, on its part, is trying to hardsell the bill as part of India’s moral obligation to provide shelter to non-Muslim minorities from the three Muslim-majority countries. Strangely enough, the bill does not say it is open only to refugees who have been persecuted on religious lines. This contradicts its argument that Muslims don’t need protection under the bill as they are unlikely to face religious persecution in these countries. The BJP-led NDA government’s response, backed by their numbers in the House, has been to brazen it out. Union home minister Amit Shah’s we-have-to-save-the-Hindus’ defence in the Lok Sabha has included harping on how the Congress agreed to Partition on religious lines in 1947 and to cite numbers to establish the apparently perilous decline of the Hindu population from 84 per cent in 1951 to 79 per cent now and the rise in the Muslim population from 9.8 per cent then to 14.23 per cent now, never mind what percentage of the population they are to begin with.
IN THE LEAD: Union Home Minister Amit Shah arrives in Parliament for the cab debate, December 9. (Pankaj Nangia/Mail Today)
Social scientists and experts working on refugee settlement are unconvinced about these arguments and have condemned the bill. “The CAB not only breaches the equality provisions of the Indian Constitution, it also runs afoul of secularism as a basic structure of the Constitution,” says Surya Deva, associate professor, School of Law, City University of Hong Kong, and an advisor to the UN Human Rights Council.
Shah also attempts to justify the CAB by making a distinction between illegal infiltrators’ and refugees’. Victims of religious persecution from the aforementioned six faiths will be treated as refugees while anyone else entering India illegally will be considered an infiltrator, a logic that has baffled many.
Questions are also being raised over the need for another specific bill on refugees from just these three countries. As per existing rules, refugees from neighbouring countries (barring Myanmar) can seek protection directly from the government and are issued documentation by the Foreigner Regional Registration Officers (FRROs). Non-neighbouring countries and Myanmar come under the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) mandate that assesses each individual asylum claim. The government currently allows refugees, including Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, with UNHCR IDs to apply for a long-term visa’, which the government issues on a case-by-case basis.
India is among the few countries in the world that neither has a national refugee protection framework nor an immigration policy. There are some laws that govern refugees, including the Registration of Foreigners Act, 1939; Foreigners Act, 1946, and the Passport Act, 1967. India is also not a signatory to any UN conventions, so it is under no obligation to provide rights set out by them. Essentially, it takes decisions on granting long-term visas to refugees on an ad hoc basis.
As per the latest UNHCR estimates (2017), India has 200,000 refugees, making it the 25th largest host country. India is home to a diverse mix-Tibet-ans who came in 1959; Bangladeshis in 1971; Chakmas in 1963 and again in the 1970s; Tamils from Sri Lanka in 1983 and 1989, and again in 1995; and Afghan refugees from the ’80s.
Political leaders from south India have been particularly critical of the CAB for not including refugees from Sri Lanka. “You are preoccupied with Pakistan, with Bangladesh, but you fail to realise that you are not the home minister only for the northern part of India,” said DMK’s Dayanidhi Maran.
Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims are also a sticking point. The Centre has refused them any relief, and several BJP leaders have gone on record to say that the Rohingya are a threat to national security. Even Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia are not allowing them in, they say. The government’s central contention in all this is: there are several countries Muslims can go to, but India is the only country for Hindus.
BJP’s former ally Shiv Sena subscribes to this view too, but warns that “if this is about vote-bank politics under the garb of the CAB, then it is not in the interest of the country”. The Sena’s apprehension is shared by constitutional expert Subhash Kashyap, who points out that it is vote-bank politics that is driving support and opposition to the bill. “Both sides are veering to the politically beneficial view and not the legal one,” he says.
That said, the bill will in all likelihood be challenged in the Supreme Court. Kashyap says there are arguments both for and against it. “Article 14 stresses on equality before the law but there have been several Supreme Court judgments which say reasonable classification can be applied to this principle of equality. Indeed, all fundamental rights are subject to reasonable classification. Anyone can challenge the bill in the apex court…its future will depend on whether the court accepts the classification made within this bill as reasonable enough,” he says.
The Battle for Bengal
The BJP has both ideological and electoral reasons to push for the CAB. The RSS and BJP have long made public their commitment to give citizenship to Hindu immigrants. It was part of the 2014 and 2019 campaign rhetoric too. However, the short-term objective seems to be to win over the Hindu ‘refugee voters’ in West Bengal who exist in substantial numbers in nearly 70 of the state’s 294 assembly segments, and in Assam, where they play a decisive role in the Barak valley and in several constituencies in the Brahmaputra valley.
The recent BJP bypoll losses in three assembly constituencies in West Bengal after a superlative performance in the May Lok Sabha election, winning 18 out of 42 seats has been attributed to the apprehensions, especially among Bangladeshi immigrants, over the nationwide National Register of Citizens (NRC) proposed by the Union government. While the NRC is aimed at detecting illegal infiltrators, the Supreme Court-monitored NRC in neighbouring Assam where nearly 500,000 of those excluded from the list are suspected to be Hindu Bengalis, has caused panic among the community in West Bengal.
The BJP has already rejected the NRC in Assam. In fact, the CAB is now seen as the party’s attempt to assuage such fears among Hindu immigrants in the state, an important part of its vote base in 2019. In neighbouring Bengal, the state BJP has asked district units to start a door-to-door campaign to dispel fears on the CAB. The party’s MPs in the state have also been roped in for the task.
Gaurav Gogoi, the Congress MP from Assam, claims the CAB is nothing but an exercise to distract from the NRC’s failure in the state, where many of the 1.9 million people excluded are genuine Indians. AIMIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi, who tore up a copy of the bill in Parliament and is one of its fiercest critics, says it is aimed at making Muslims stateless. “Look at the CAB through the NRC lens. Of the 1.9 million left out of the Assam NRC, 540,000 are Bengali Hindus. After the CAB is passed, proceedings against them will be discontinued; they will continue only against the remaining Muslims,” says Owaisi.
The CAB certainly fulfils a long-standing demand of West Bengal’s Hindu refugees mostly from the Matua community who entered India from Bangladesh after 1971. In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the Matuas helped the saffron brigade secure 9-10 seats, which could translate into nearly 70 assembly segments. They were a major political force behind Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee in the 2011 assembly election when she ousted the state’s Left Front government after 34 years. Not surprising then that Prime Minister Narendra Modi kicked off his Lok Sabha campaign in West Bengal in the Matua stronghold of Thakurnagar, 70 km north of Kolkata. The CAB also helps the BJP in consolidating the Hindu immigrant vote, as they are protected from the proposed NRC. Assam finance minister Himanta Biswa Sarma made no attempt to hide the BJP’s strategy at the India Today East Conclave in Kolkata. “You can take the NRC and CAB as a combo package for West Bengal and Assam,” he said.
Himanta Biswa Sarma, Assam finance minister: “You can take the NRC and the CAB as a combo package for West Bengal and Assam”
The TMC is also working out its strategy. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has already declared that she will not allow the NRC or the CAB in the state. TMC leaders feel this stand will help the party in 120 seats which have a significant minority and refugee population. “The NRC is a lollipop and the CAB is a bigger one. This bill is anti-India and anti-Bengali. It will rip apart the soul of Bengal, for it discriminates between people who have the same culture, speak the same language,” TMC MP Abhishek Banerjee said in the Lok Sabha.
Why Assam is burning
While the Bengalis fear being divided on religious lines, in the Northeast people are protesting because they suspect the bill will lead to Bengali hegemony in the region. Though the bill covers refugees from three nations, in the Northeast it boils down to illegal Bengali Hindu migrants from Bangladesh who have settled in large numbers across the region. The entire region had erupted in protest when the bill was first introduced in the Lok Sabha in 2016 (the first Modi government could not get the Bill passed in the Rajya Sabha and it lapsed).
Taking note of the protests, the revised version of the bill has exempted certain areas in the region. The bill will not apply to tribal areas of Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram or Tripura as included in the Sixth Schedule to the Constitution and the area covered under the Inner Line Permit (ILP) provision notified under the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation, 1873. So, in effect, the bill excludes Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Mizoram, almost the whole of Meghalaya, and parts of Assam and Tripura. Shah has announced that ILP will be introduced in Manipur, so this state will be out of the CAB too.
While these exemptions have eased tensions in other areas of the Northeast, Assam, especially the Brahmaputra valley, is still on the boil. In Assam, the Bodoland Territorial Area Districts, Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao, have been exempted, while the Bengali-dominated Barak valley has welcomed the CAB. In the Brahmaputra valley, the BJP is pitching it as a strategy to protect the state’s Hindu identity. “By including Hindu migrants as citizens, we can end the dominance of immigrant Muslim voters in 17 seats,” says Sarma.
But in this narrative, the BJP has failed to take into account the enduring perception among the Assamese of the threat of the Hindu Bengali cultural hegemony. The Assamese have not forgotten how the then British administration imposed Bengali as the state language between 1826 and 1872 at the insistence of government workers from West Bengal. There is even now fear that if Bengali-speaking illegal immigrants are granted citizenship, they may outnumber the locals. This has already happened in Tripura where Bengali-Hindu immigrants from East Bengal now dominate the political sphere, pushing the local tribal population to the margins. It is why the BJP’s ally in the state, the IPFT (Indigenous Peoples Front of Tripura), has been protesting against the bill. Even former Congress leader and royal scion of Tripura, Pradyot Manikya Debbarma, who represents the tribals and has been a strong advocate of the NRC, has voiced his resentment against the CAB amendments.
The linguistic data from Census 2011 has also widened the already existing fault lines. According to it, in Assam, the percentage of people speaking Assamese decreased from 58 per cent in 1991 to 48 in 2011, while Bengali speakers saw an upswing, from 22 per cent to 30 per cent. In the Barak valley, Assamese is not even accepted as the state language.
What has added to the chaos are campaigns such as ‘Miyah Poetry’ and ‘Chalo Paltai (Let’s Change)’. A section of educated second-generation Muslims of immigrant origin who speak a Bengali dialect, Miyah, among themselves, have started writing poetry in it. These poems, talking about the pain of living as a suspect in the place where they were born, have taken the immigrant imagination by storm. And if Miyah poets were not enough, Garga Chatterjee, TMC sympathiser and assistant professor at the Kolkata-based Indian Statistical Institute, has apparently launched a paltai campaign, asking all Bengali-speaking people in Assam to write their mother tongue as Bengali in the next Census, so that together they can overturn Assamese dominance in Assam.
To allay fears of a Bengali uprising’, Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal has made claims that less than 200,000 Hindu immigrants in Assam are eligible to apply for citizenship. Nearly 150,000 of them are in the three districts of Barak valley Cachar, Karimganj and Hailakandi.
Sarbananda Sonowal, Chief Minister, Assam: “It’s just rumour, less than 200,000 Bengali Hindu migrants are eligible for citizenship under the CAB”
His assertions leave critics of the bill unconvinced. Even AASU (All Assam Students’ Union), the very student organisation Sonowal once headed, has shown him the black flag. What may convince the chief minister to ignore the protests is the fact that the BJP increased its tally in Assam in the recent assembly byelection, winning three of the four seats. BJP leaders such as Sarma use the results to dismiss the massive street protests as the handiwork of vested interest groups. But Assam has a history of mass movements to protect language, culture and identity. This may be the beginning of another one.
Changes the new amendment will bring to the Citizenship Act, 1955
1. The Citizenship Amendment Bill 2019 aims at providing citizenship to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian refugees from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. A person belonging to these faiths who came to India on or before December 31, 2014 can apply for citizenship.
2. With the CAB now a law, any legal proceeding pending against an ‘eligible’ illegal immigrant stands ‘abated’. They cannot be barred from applying for citizenship on grounds that proceedings are pending against them.
3. Though the act of applying for citizenship under this provision indicates the person entered India illegally, he/ she will not be deprived of rights/ privileges enjoyed till then.
4. Applicants who qualify are eligible for citizenship by naturalisation if they can establish residency in India for five years, instead of the current 11 years.
5. The new provision will not apply to the tribal areas of Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram or Tripura, as included in the Sixth Schedule to the Constitution and states with the Inner Line Permit (ILP) provision. In effect, the Act excludes Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur, almost the whole of Meghalaya, and parts of Assam and Tripura.
6. Presently, there is no specific provision to cancel the registration of an Overseas Citizen of India cardholder who violates provisions of the Act or any other law. The new Act empowers the Centre to do so.
7. Overseas Citizen of India cardholders will be given sufficient opportunity to argue their case before any decision to cancel their registration is taken.