The passing of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019 in the Lok Sabha on Tuesday by a voice vote is a crucial step closer to making religion the basis for identification of "illegal Bangladeshi migrants" in Assam, in violation of the Assam Accord, resulting in the creation of two classes of Indian citizens in the state. The bill seeks to make six minority communities of Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan " Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, Parsis, Buddhists and Christians " who came to India till 31 December, 2014 without valid travel documents eligible to apply for Indian citizenship and not be treated as illegal migrants.
The cut-off date for determination of Indian citizenship of one class will be 24 March, 1971 while the cut-off date for the other class will be 31 December, 2014. Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh tabled the redrafted Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, in the Lok Sabha amidst protests by Opposition parties that described the bill as "divisive" and anti-Assam Accord. Congress and Trinamool Congress members demanded sending the bill to the Select Committee and staged a walkout in protest during the debate.
The extension of the Rajya Sabha session by a day indicates that the Narendra Modi-led government is determined to push the bill into an Act, taking to the ordinance route, if required, ahead of 2019 Lok Sabha polls in the event the bill is not passed by the Upper House. The All Assam Students' Union (AASU) dubbed the Centre's move of "imposing" the bill as violation of the Assam Accord and claimed it was "aimed at derailing the National Register of Citizens (NRC)" currently being updated in the state under the supervision of Supreme Court.
The NRC in Assam is currently being updated by taking 24 March, 1971 as the cut-off date for determination of Indian citizenship in accordance with the Assam Accord. Verification of claims of over 31 lakh applicants left out of the complete draft and over 2.65 lakh objections is scheduled to start on 15 February. On the other hand, all post-1971 Hindu Bangladeshi and other non-Muslim minority migrants from the neighbouring country who came to Assam without valid travel documents till 31 December, 2014 will be eligible to apply for Indian citizenship under the amended citizenship laws, if the bill is passed in Rajya Sabha or if an ordinance is issued.
The report of the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 tabled on the floors in both Houses of Parliament on Monday 7 reveals that opinions on the cut-off date were divided within the Ministry of Law and Justice. The Department of Legal Affairs opined that "the proposal to legalise the minority migrants who entered Assam till 31 December, 2014 without valid travel documents as proposed in the bill, appears contrary to the Assam Accord".
The Legislative Department, however, has clarified, the report states that "Section 6A of the Principal Act only deals with foreigners who entered India, from Bangladesh into Assam between 1 January, 1966 and 24 March, 1971. It does not provide for any form of detection, deletion or expulsion of foreigners beyond the said date. The proposed proviso to exempt persons belonging to certain minority communities coming from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan has general application beyond the Assam Accord and is intended to apply to the whole of India. The Legislative Department have emphasised that there appears to be no conflict in the application of the proposed proviso regarding exemption of minority communities coming from Bangladesh to Assam between 1 January, 1966 and 24 March, 1971, as per the Assam Accord."
The amendment in the citizenship laws, if the bill is passed in both the Houses of Parliament or if the Modi government takes the ordinance route, implies that henceforth, only the post-1971 Muslim Bangladeshi migrants will now be treated as illegal migrants in Assam when it comes to identification, deletion of names from voters' list and expulsion of illegal Bangladeshi migrants. Clause 5 of the Assam Accord, however, makes no distinction of "illegal Bangladeshi migrants" on the basis of religion and requires identification, deletion of names of voters list and expulsion of all those migrants, irrespective of their religion, from the neighbouring country who came to Assam without valid travel documents after March 24, 1971 and living illegally in the state.
A total shut-down and angry protests in Assam and other North East states on Tuesday coinciding with the Centre pushing the citizenship bill in Parliament on the last day of the current session of Lok Sabha indicated that the region is likely to have turbulent days ahead. North East Students' Organisation (NESO) called for a North East bandh while the AASU and other NESO constituents also called for bandhs in their respective states demanding withdrawal of the bill. Apart from Assam, the BJP runs coalition governments in Nagaland, Tripura, Manipur, shares power in Meghalaya, while the saffron party is in power in Arunachal Pradesh.
The first political casualty of pushing the citizenship bill is the breakdown of the coalition between the BJP and the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP). AGP president Atul Bora declared in New Delhi that the regional party would be snapping ties with the BJP and withdrawing support to the Sarbananda Sonowal government to protest the saffron party's decision to pass the bill. The regional party came under flak for not severing ties even after the announcement by Modi at a rally in Silchar in Bengali-dominated Barak Valley in Assam on 4 January 4 that the bill is "atonement for the past mistakes of Partition" and expressed hope that the bill would soon be passed in the Parliament.
However, the AGP pulling out of the BJP-led coalition is not going to pose any threat to the Sonowal government as the other ally of the saffron Bodoland People's Front (BPF) announced that it will continue in the government. In the 126-member Assam Assembly, the BJP has 61 members, BPF has 12 members and AGP has 14 members.
The Modi cabinet on Monday approved the redrafted the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill on the day that a dozen supporters representing a conglomerate of 70 organisations led by the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti and Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chatra Partishad (AJYCP) staged a nude protest in front of Parliament in New Delhi demanding the withdrawal of the bill. Thousands also took to the streets across the state on the day waving black flags and shouting slogans to press for withdrawal of the bill with the AASU and 29 organisations representing ethnic communities. The Left-Democratic Manch, Assam of Left and democratic parties, and intellectuals, writers, literary and cultural workers took to the streets under the banner of the "Save Assam Movement" separately calling for the observance of a Black Day.
The Congress joined the protests and lent support to the bandh with its leaders joining the agitation programmes against the bill.
The Cabinet decision quickly follows the tabling of the report by the Joint Parliamentary Committee on the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 in both Houses of Parliament. BJP members in the JPC voted down the opposition to the bill provisions and amendments given by Opposition members. The committee defended the cut off date of 31 December, 2014 in respect of Hindu Bangladeshis and other minority migrants from the neighbouring country.
"As regards the cut-off date of 25 March, 1971, as spelt out in the Assam Accord and 31 December, 2014, as proposed in the bill, the Committee feels that the intent of the government is to protect the interest of those migrants of Indian origin who are subjected to unfair treatment for no fault of theirs. Display of such supportive and humanitarian approach on the part of the government towards the minorities who fled the three countries, including Bangladesh, due to religious persecution is quite appreciable. In fact, as the notification of the new cut-off date implies that no more migrants would be legally allowed into India after 31 December, 2014, it should motivate every stakeholder including the Central and state governments to work in unison to ensure putting in place foolproof measures to prevent illegal migrants from entering the country, especially Assam that has borne the maximum impact of influx from Bangladesh. The Committee, therefore, while agreeing with the cut-off date of 31 December, 2014, impresses upon the government to engage and mobilise all the resources at its command for implementing effective border fencing and technology deployment in a time bound manner to detect and stop further influx of illegal migrants," states the report of the Joint Committee on the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016.
The report also states that taking into account the apprehension by organisations and individuals from the North East, especially Assam raised apprehensions that the proposed amendments, if passed, would adversely impact the demography and socio-economic culture of the North East Region, the Committee sought the views of the government. In response, the Ministry of Home Affairs deposed before the committee as under: "There is no specific report on whether the refugee migrant population from Bangladesh is causing unexpected demographic changes of certain North Eastern States. The amendments are applicable to specific class and these people have been living in these areas since long. Further a cut-off date of 31 December, 2014 has been decided for determination of eligibility and to prevent the possibilities of vested interests in the neighbouring countries taking advantage of this provision for further influx into India".
Anticipating the protests, the Modi Cabinet decided to constitute a high-powered committee to assess levels of reservation of Assembly seats and in local bodies for Assamese and indigenous people in accordance with the Clause 6 of the Assam Accord and also rushed to constitute a committee in a bid to counter-balance the protests against the bill. However, the AASU rejected the constitution of the committee saying that after dilution of the Clause 5 of the accord by passing the the Citizenship Amendment Bill, any safeguard under Clause 6 will be only a meaningless exercise.
The BJP faces the daunting task of holding onto its support base in Assam in the face of raging protests over the amendment in citizenship laws while the vexed problem of identification of "illegal Bangladeshi migrants" is poised to become more complicated than ever.