The Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2016, reactions in Assam and the way ahead

Burst of immigration hysteria

Prasenjit Biswas

citizenship

Courtesy The Statesman

A caucus of noted Assam intellectuals representing those concerned about the granting of citizenship to hundreds of thousands of immigrant Bangladeshi Hindus has expressed concern over the Centre’s bulldozing public opinion, through a parliamentary standing committee, to propose amendments to the Citizenship Act, 1955. 

It has noted that, if an estimated three million Bengali Hindus who entered Assam after the 1971 civil war from erstwhile East Pakistan  are granted citizenship, it will jeopardise the very existence of Axomiya as a linguistic community and will  permanently alter Assam’s land holding, employment and demography.

The groups is also concerned that indigenous peoples’ lives and identity will be endangered by further legitimising Bengali Hindu immigrants. Also that this will merely complicate the matter caused by an already alarming presence of Muslims in Assam. From the point of view of the indigenous activists, dominance of  any plainsman over hill communities is looked upon as a marginalising factor.

Writing in the late 1960s, noted social scientist Roderick A. Church pointed out that “separatism” of the tribals in Assam and North-east is a potent factor to destabilise any dominant community’s hold over the state power.

The present Citizenship Amendment Bill controversy raises the fear of the Axomiya and the tribal communities together, albeit in very different ways and thereby adding up to the concerns of land alienation and demographic marginalisation.

What turns out to be a queer outcome of the BJP’s victory in Assam is its pre-poll commitment to grant citizenship to Hindus displaced from former East Pakistan and present Bangladesh due to religious persecution. Indeed, this pre-poll promise won them most of the nearly  6.5 million Bengali Hindu votes, making them and their allies win big in this year’s assembly election.

Prior to the election, the Centre, by a circular from the Union home ministry,  regularised the entry and stay of religious minorities from Pakistan and Bangladesh if they had entered India by 31 December 2014.

Indeed, such a circular, based on relevant provisions of rules and orders made under the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920 and the Foreigners’ Act, 1946, has created jubilation among Bengali Hindus and other Hindu minorities such as Koch Rajbongshis, Hajongs, Moghs, Chakmas and such other late and persecuted refugee migrants, as they see in it a humanitarian response from the government of India in treating them with compassion and fairness.

In continuation to this circular, the Centre has proposed amendments to the Citizenship Act of 1955, especially section 6A, that presently limits the grant of citizenship to a cut-off date of 25 March 1971. In its proposal, the Centre suggested the cut-off date up to 31 December 2014, for persecuted religious minorities that include every religious group except Muslims, who migrated to India from neighbouring Bangladesh and Pakistan.

The exclusion of Muslims from the ambit of the amendment and inclusion of Hindus and others have made the proposed amendment seem painted with a religious brush that alters the secular basis of citizenship within the Constitution to the basis of religious persecution. One can understand the BJP’s political compulsions to keep its Hindu vote bank consolidated for future election that made them parry important constitutional questions.

Concerns raised in Assam about a possible fallout on land and demography is also not backed up with hard evidence and correct statistical facts. Vani Kanta Boorooah, a social scientist with the University of Ulster, UK, in a richly-documented paper entitled “The Killing Fields of Assam: Myth and Reality of Its Muslim Immigration” published in the Economic and Political Weekly, 26 January 2013, demonstrated with much statistical elan that  “between 1971 and 2011, the net migration into Assam was virtually zero: 730,000 persons entered Assam in the 20 years between 1971 and 1991 (502,000 Muslims and 228,000 non-Muslims) but there was a net outflow of 452,000 between 1991 and 2001 (209,000 Muslims and 243,000 non-Muslims) and a further net outflow of 283,000 between 2001 and 2011 (168,000 Muslims and 115,000 non-Muslims), leaving a net outflow between 1971 and 2011 of just 5,000.”

Imaginary statistics and numbers are regularly floated to build up a picture of native and indigenous population losing land to immigrants, be it Bengali, Hindu or Muslim, and an entire Muslim community is particularly dubbed  “illegal” by a motley combination of ethno-nationalists and indigenous activist groups.

To complicate matters further, there is an existing legal mechanism of identifying “suspected illegal immigrants” by tagging them “doubtful” beside their names in the voters’ list and by subjecting them to a legally tortuous process of proving their bona fides and, in the process, many have died in detention camps.

Retired chief justice of the Supreme Court of India Altamas Kabir once pointed out that suspected “D” voters’  human rights were violated in Assam as they were kept with criminals and were deprived of access to legal assistance. The Hindu legal cell of Assam has filed a petition before the National Human Rights Commission against the Assam government’s policy of keeping suspected foreigners in ordinary jails with common criminals.

The BJP is at an interesting crossroad in dealing with the situation. Its chief spokesman, Himanta Biswa Sarma, now minister in the Assam BJP cabinet, mooted the idea of 1951 as the cut-off date for deciding citizenship in Assam during his election speeches, which apparently garnered a huge chunk of caste Hindu Assamese votes to the BJP combine’s accounts.

Right now he argues that granting citizenship to Bengali Hindus of the post-1971 period will ensure a Hindu majority in Assam, which will be a combine of Assamese Hindu and Bengali Hindu that would keep Assam safe from being turned into a Muslim majority state.

Intellectuals, social activists and civil society in the Brahmaputra valley have found this argument flawed as they feel it is divisive and throws  Assam’s plural society into a vertical division between Hindus and Muslims.

In the Barak Valley, Bengali Hindus expect big bonus from the BJP by granting citizenship to all Bengali Hindus, and by particularly checking their regular harassment by the state administration to prove their citizenship and being often pushed into a detention camp or prison.

Noted civil rights activists Hafiz Rasheed Choudhury, who hails from the Barak Valley and heads the Citizens Rights Protection Committee, sees a double danger in proposing religious identity as the basis for amendment to the  Citizenship Act, 1955, as it will not grant citizenship to hundreds of thousands of refugee Hindus but endanger the status of Muslim citizens as “suspects”, or illegal trespassers into India. Citizens, in the Barak Valley, being concerned at this diabolic situation, remain clueless about the fate of the proposed amendment, but they remain divided along religious lines. Large segments of Bengali Hindus still pin their hopes on the BJP to establish the rights of Hindus in India, while they are silent about the plight of Bengali Muslims.

The situation is extremely fluid and uncertain as the parliamentary standing committee is yet to make its stand clear on whether it is ready to grant citizenship to displaced people from neighbouring countries on the basis of religion or whether the matter needs to be viewed in a larger humanitarian perspective that does not discriminate on religious lines. Concerns in the Brahmaputra valley about illegal immigration that is then politicised in the name of religious minorities prevent an easy solution to the controversy over citizenship to persecuted religious minorities.

Multiple political colours and positions attributed to this very important Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2016, make it extremely relevant to facilitate an end to dilemmas of a democratic and inclusive notion of citizenship that is above the dichotomies of native versus migrant, legal versus illegal, etc, that are the remnants of  the 1980s anti-immigrant agitation.

In this context, some of Assam’s intellectuals hailing the BJP’s coming to power as a victory of Assamese regionalism over Hindutva can be seen as the conceit of self-deception, as much of the Asomiya intellectuals are worried at the prospect of the BJP’s Hindutva agenda of granting only Hindus citizenship at the moment.

It is also ironical that the preservation of local and indigenous languages and culture clashes with a notion of democratic citizenship are seen as a source of crisis in land, employment and livelihood. Seemingly, there is a perception trap that has created a quagmire for all of Assam and its various segments of people, as it is not able to come to terms with the presence of others who are different. This also marks a regressive hardening of linguistic and cultural boundaries that imply greater ethnic and religious distrust and conflict over authenticity, which is not good for a democratic polity based on the principle of peaceful co-existence and communal harmony.

The writer is associate professor at the North Eastern Hill University, Shillong and vice chairperson of Barak Human Rights Protection Committe, Silchar.

Originally published in The Statesman at is availaable at http://www.thestatesman.com/news/north-east-page/burst-of-immigration-hysteria/171231.html#guTR9QqqC6d0O6hC.99

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