Members of North East Women's Front, a pressure group based in North East India, have launched a protest in Delhi against the Centre's move to pass the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, which will make illegal migrants who are Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, eligible for citizenship in India.
The protest is seen as an extension to the ongoing movement across the Brahmaputra valley of Assam and other parts of North East India against the proposed amendment.
A vast majority of tribal bodies and ethnic groups across Assam have registered their opposition against the bill in the hearing of the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) that was recently held in the state. "Apart from raising our voice against the citizenship amendment bill, we are also collecting signatures from people in Delhi. We will finally submit the signatures to the JPC," said Sumitra Hazarika, a women's rights activist from Assam.
The protest on Parliament Street attracted large crowds, with many saying they will sign up to register their complaint against the bill. Gauhati High Court advocate and Assamese filmmaker Junmoni Devi Khound, who participated in the protest, told Firstpost that the new amendment proposed in the Citizenship Act, 1955, is in violation of the secular nature of the Indian Constitution.
"The Constitution declares India as a secular country. Discrimination on the basis of religion is essentially against the Constitution. But this amendment in the Citizenship Act aims at providing citizenship on the basis of religion," she said.
"Persons belonging to minority communities " that is Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, Budhhists, Parsis and Christians " from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan shall not be treated as illegal immigrants," a report in EPW Engage quoted the bill as proposing.
If this proposal becomes a reality, it would change the demographic pattern of Assam and North East India, as it is suspected that millions of Hindus who have illegally migrated from Bangladesh would now avail of citizenship. "Assam and many other states of North East have porous borders with Bangladesh, and there is a serious doubt that millions of people have crossed the border illegally and settled in the region. We have been demanding that the illegal settlers be identified and sent back to Bangladesh, irrespective of their caste, creed and religion. Selectively accepting the Hindus among them as Indians would mean annihilation of Assamese identity, as this new provision will allow illegal migrants to become the majority," she said.
Illegal migration from Bangladesh has been a major political issue in Assam since the late 1970s. The six-year-long historic Assam movement, which culminated with signing of the Assam Accord in 1985, agreed to provide citizenship to all migrants from Bangladesh who moved to Assam before 25 March, 1971.
But the proposed bill clashes against the accord through its provision that grants citizenship even to people who moved to Assam beyond the time period originally stipulated in the agreement. "Provided that for the persons belonging to minority communities " namely, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians " from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, the aggregate period of residence or service of a Government in India as required under this clause shall be read as 'not less than six years' in place of 'not less than 11 years'," the bill added.
Jun Moni Devi Khound fears that if the bill is passed as is, the burden of migrant population in Assam would increase to such a precarious extent that it would put tremendous pressure on the scant resources of the state. "We all know that Assam has seen an abnormal increase in population in the last few decades, and much of it was attributed to illegal migration. This has resulted in illegal settlements across the state including vast tracts of tribal land. The riots that broke out in Kokrajhar district of the state in 2012 and continued till 2014 were a vivid manifestation of the gravity of the problem," she said.
Significantly, encroachment in the tribal belt and blocks of Assam is seen as a major problem in the state. As per data released by the Bodoland Territorial Council, 3,49,505 bighas of land in the tribal belt and block were encroached by the year 2014.
Khound also raises concern that the amendment to the citizenship bill would only aggravate the problem. Lamenting that the Assam government has not taken any step to support the people's movement against the bill, she said the government can take a leaf from the neighboring state of Meghalaya, which has taken a Cabinet decision against the bill. "The Meghalaya government has recently decided that it will take a stand against the bill. Why cant the Assam government take a stand for its own people?" she asked.
Interestingly, Meghalaya is protected from any kind of influx by the sixth schedule of the Constitution of India, which imposes strict restrictions in purchase of land in the state by anyone who is not a permanent resident of the state. The bill, even if it were to become a law, is unlikely to bring about any major demographic change in Meghalaya.
"Meghalaya is well-protected from any kind of influx, but the Cabinet decision to oppose the bill is more to show solidarity with the people of Assam who are protesting it. They are our brothers," an official from the Meghalaya government said.
But despite the neutral stand taken by Assam government, there is an ongoing rift in the state BJP, with a section of the party opposing the bill. "It seems there is a split in the Assam BJP regarding the bill, as senior leaders like Atul Bora and Mira Borthakur have opposed it," she said.
Mira Borthakur, a state executive member of the Assam BJP, participated in the protest at Parliament Street, although she declined to comment on the bill when approached by Firstpost. Recently, BJP leader Atul Bora also wrote a letter to Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal urging him to follow the Meghalaya government and take a stand against bill.
In the emotional fervor against the new bill, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been vehemently criticised for pushing the bill. "The prime minister assured us that Bangladeshis have to go back once a BJP government is elected in Assam. But now he has taken such a U-turn that he is going to give citizenship to Bangladeshis," she said.
Even as the bill faces tremendous opposition from many tribal bodies and ethnic groups in the northeastern region, it is welcomed by many in the areas where Bengali speaking population is a majority.
The Barak valley, for instance, is a cluster of three districts in Assam along the India-Bangladesh border that saw many people welcoming the bill. Here they believe that it would end the alienation of Bengali Hindus in the country.