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Citizenship on a divisive agenda

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The BJP has factored in the realpolitik in Assam where it has to go for a grand consolidation of the Hindu votes across linguistic divides and ethnic identities

Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh introduced the >Citizenship (Amendment) Bill , 2016, in the Lok Sabha during the last monsoon session to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955. The Bill, since sent to a 30-member joint House panel on August 11 for a “thorough examination”, contains proposals for bringing in changes to sections 2 and 7, and the Third Schedule of the principal Act.

The Bill states that persons belonging to the minority communities in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh who entered India with or without valid documents would now onwards >cease to be treated as “illegal migrants” and be eligible to apply for Indian citizenship under the provision of naturalisation.

Even as the Bill covers the whole of India — citizenship being a Union subject — its implication is expected to be far more pronounced in Assam, a State with a unique social matrix. Already the Bill has evoked sharp reaction from the votaries of Assamese nationalism as they see in the proposed legislation a design of the Central government not only to dilute the Assam Accord of 1985 but also put the ‘indigenous language and culture’ at peril. Post-accord, due to the insertion of Section 6A in the Citizenship Act, 1955, the cut-off date for citizenship in Assam is March 25, 1971. The proposed piece of new legislation seeks to extend this to December 31, 2014, rendering Section 6A infructuous.

The political subtext

A significant section of Assamese intellectuals, regional vernacular press and various outfits is clearly peeved at the Centre’s manoeuvring of the sensitive issue of foreigners. In fact, the call for reprising an ‘80s-like-agitation’ is renting the air. The All Assam Students’ Union has already declared a State-wide agitation programme against the Bill from October 18. For Assamese chauvinist forces, all Bengali-speaking people, irrespective of religious affiliation, are suspected Bangladeshi nationals.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government has clearly two reasons at work behind mooting the idea of offering citizenship to the religious minorities in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. One, it is simply catering to the Sangh Parivar’s long-running agenda of making India a ‘Hindu state’, and, as an immediate sub-plot of that larger agenda, of treating this country as the ‘natural home’ to Hindus all over the world. Second — and this is of more urgent consideration — the BJP is trying to further consolidate its Hindu constituency by wedging the religious divide in a very subtle way in the diverse demography of Assam. Even a cursory look at the Bill would tell us that it straightaway sends the Muslim immigrants of the post-1971 stream to a stateless state while giving a safe passage to their Hindu counterparts.

The BJP has factored in the realpolitik in Assam where it has to go for a grand consolidation of the Hindu votes across linguistic divides and ethnic identities. Such social engineering proved successful in the last Assembly elections, but to sustain it the party needs to complete the process of ‘othering’ the Muslims sooner rather than later. Both the Chief Minister and Finance Minister of Assam are now busy convincing the Assamese constituency how embracing the Bengali Hindu would save the State from the economic and political aggression unleashed by the Muslim Bengalis who are in a majority in nine out of the 30-plus districts.

In this political theatre, the most passive actors are the Partition-hit Bengali Hindus who are the only likely beneficiaries of the Bill. In the absence of any State-wide organisation or leadership of their own, this section, which numbers more than five million, has always preferred to be with the power that be. No surprise then that Bengali Hindus in Assam have become a steady support base for the BJP.

Legal scrutiny

Even as Assam heads for another spell of intra-community tension, doubts loom large over the fate of the very Bill that is the bone of contention. Noted constitutional experts such as Subhash C. Kashyap have raised serious questions over the legal tenability of the Bill in its present form. As the House panel takes it up, its members need to take a hard look at both the legal nuances and the political niceties or otherwise of this rather communal intention in awarding of citizenship. India can ill-afford to offer naturalised citizenship on the basis of religious identity of migrants.

Apart from the fact that the proposed amendments in the Citizenship Act, 1955, are likely to collide with the Section 6A therein, they violate Article 14 of the Constitution guaranteeing equality before the law.

Most significantly, however, this Bill does not actually give citizenship to anybody. It only proposes to enable the post-1971 stream of non-Muslim migrants to apply for Indian citizenship via the route of naturalisation; they are proposed to be decriminalised by lifting the prefix ‘illegal’ before ‘migrants’. The Bill, even if enacted, shall remain just an enabling piece of legislation. Future governments may very well take shelter under Section 14 of the Citizenship Act to refuse what the present government is seemingly granting — the much-coveted citizenship.

It only brings out the starker truth that the BJP might lack sincerity in finding a permanent solution to the long-drawn-out issue of citizenship for the displaced Hindu Bengali settled in Assam, but has proved to be politically expedient in garnering its electoral catch in the troubled waters.

Joydeep Biswas, an Associate Professor of Economics at Cachar College, Silchar, is a scholar with the Department of Political Science, Assam University

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Printable version | Dec 13, 2019 5:11:38 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/Citizenship-on-a-divisive-agenda/article16435733.ece

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