Can religion decide Indian citizenship? | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, December 04, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:45 PM, December 04, 2018

Can religion decide Indian citizenship?

The determination of the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to push through the controversial constitution amendment Bill in the coming winter session of parliament beginning on December 11, which would give citizenship to “persecuted” religious minorities in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan is creating fresh unrest in Assam and straining the alliance between the Bharatiya Janata Party and its ally Asom Gono Parishad (AGP).

The government has stepped up its efforts to evolve a political consensus on the Bill and convened two meetings of the 30-member Joint Parliamentary Committee that is studying the proposed legislation drawn up two years ago. The JPC, comprising 20 lawmakers of the BJP and its allies and the rest drawn from the opposition parties, met in New Delhi—on November 20 and 27—in a desperate bid to hammer out the elusive consensus on the Bill. The winter session of parliament could be the last chance for the BJP to table the JPC report and the Bill during the five-year tenure of the current parliament before the general elections.

The November 27 meeting of the JPC, headed by BJP lawmaker Rajendra Agarwal, was substantive and lasted for three hours but a consensus remained as elusive as ever. The meeting saw the opposition lawmakers moving clause-by-clause amendments with members of the Congress, the Trinamool Congress and CPI(M) questioning the very idea of the Bill saying India is a secular country and its citizenship should not be granted on the basis of religion as it is a constitutional issue.

One lawmaker opined that citizenship for Hindus from Bangladesh be taken out of the purview of the Bill, according to another member who attended the meeting on condition that he be not identified. A Congress member of the JPC said if all the proposed amendments come into force, then the Indian government has to nullify the Assam Accord of 1985 under which anyone entering the state illegally after March 24, 1971 should be declared foreigner and deported. Agarwal went on record to say that the suggestions and amendments put forward by the JPC members relating to the Bill on November 27 will be taken up at the Committee's next meeting. He made it clear that the amendments have to be passed by the committee through consensus but if that doesn't happen then voting may be resorted to.

The November 20 meeting of the JPC was stormy with strong protests from the opposition members on a host of procedural matters and various provisions of the Bill. Such was the ruckus in the meeting that there was no time for the foreign secretary, home secretary and law secretary, who were waiting to brief the members on different aspects of the Bill to the JPC members do to so. Ahead of the meeting, a delegation of the AGP, which is not a member of the JPC because the party does not have a member in parliament, had met Agarwal and reiterated its strident resistance to the Bill. Agarwal sought to mollify the AGP by saying that he will take notes from all 30 members of the JPC before finalising its report on the Bill. The Biju Janata Dal, which rules eastern state of Odisha, wants the exclusion of Bangladesh from the purview of the Bill, said its lawmaker Bhartruhari Mahtab, a JPC member.

Reflecting the anxiety over the Bill, protests had erupted in Guwahati, Assam, on November 19 with the North Eastern Students Organization (NESO), an umbrella organisation of students' outfits in the seven north eastern states, holding a street protest against the Bill. That was the first in a series of protests the NESO has decided to organise weeks running up to the winter session of parliament. One is planned in the capital cities of all the seven north eastern states on November 30 and another around December 11 in Delhi, in an indication of the groundswell of opposition to the Bill in the last two months. Assam had witnessed a state-wide 12-hour general strike called by 60 organisations in Assam on October 23 protesting the Bill. Besides the AASU, the Khasi Students' Union (KSU), Naga Students' Federation, Mizo Zirlai Pawl, Twipra (Tripura) Students' Federation, All Manipur Students' Union, Garo Students' Union and All Arunachal Pradesh Students' Union were part of the NESO protest.

The JPC had visited Assam in May in both Bangla-speaking majority Barak valley and Ahom-dominant Brahmaputra valley areas of the state to elicit the views of a cross-section of people. Soon after the visit, the governments in Meghalaya and Mizoram adopted resolutions against the Bill. The BJP-led government in Assam has not taken any official stand so far but the AGP, which is part of the ruling coalition, has threatened to withdraw from the government if the Bill is passed.

The Bill has once again brought to the fore the identity politics prevalent in the north eastern states. This was summed up by Sinam Prakash, Secretary General of the NESO chapter of Manipur when he said “it's not just the issue of Assam but an issue of the entire Northeast—we are not the dumping ground for illegal immigrants. Our identities, languages and cultures have been threatened.” The remark by Tripura Students Federation General Secretary Sunil Debbarma read: “Tripura is a state which was never ruled by the British but it is under the rule of 'illegal immigrants',” an apparent reference to the huge number of Bangla-speaking people who migrated to what is now geographically Tripura from the then east Pakistan and later Bangladesh at different points in time. Similar was the refrain of Lambok S Marngar President of Khasi Student Union and Tobom Dai, head of All Arunachal Pradesh Students' Union.

The BJP finds itself in a bind over the future course of the Bill. The party has vigorously supported the National Register of Citizens exercise in Assam to keep out “illegal migrants” but fears it may not go down well in areas of the state with majority of Bangla-speaking Hindu people. Hence, its attempt to push forward the Citizenship Bill in support of its Hindutva agenda in the coming parliamentary elections in India. The AGP, on the other hand, feels the NRC exercise will be diluted considerably by the Citizenship Bill. Secondly, the BJP is conscious of the possible implications of the Bill, if passed by parliament, in the run up to the parliamentary polls in Bangladesh. The thinking in a section of the BJP leadership is that the Bill's passage may not be helpful to the “friendly” Sheikh Hasina government and it is better to postpone its tabling till the last week of the winter session (in January) of parliament after the polls in Bangladesh.

Evidently, the cocktail of ethnic, linguistic and religious divides created by the NRC and the Citizenship Bill poses a major challenge for many Indian political parties with a pan-India outlook.

Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent at The Daily Star.

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