Citizenship Bill: Why Should the Northeast Bear the Burden?
File photo of protests over the Citizenship Bill in Assam.
File photo of protests over the Citizenship Bill in Assam.(Source: PTI)

Citizenship Bill: Why Should the Northeast Bear the Burden?

As expected, the Narendra Modi Government has pushed through the amended Citizenship Bill 2019 in the Lok Sabha. Whether this bill will pass muster in the Rajya Sabha, where the BJP does not yet have a majority, remains to be seen.

Why Only Hindus from 3 Muslim Countries?

The Citizenship Bill 2019 seeks to give Indian citizenship to non-Muslims from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The question that bothers political observers is why religion should be the basis on which citizenship is granted to a person. Home Minister Rajnath Singh, while moving the motion for the bill said, Hindus, Jains, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Parsis from the above three countries would get Indian citizenship.

Why only the above three Muslim countries? It is of course clear to those reading the political tarot cards. The BJP wanted to return to power by appeasing Hindus, and consolidating the Hindu vote bank. It had done this in a very calculated manner in Assam, and won the last state assembly election.

That is how the Barak Valley (which is, in any case, physically and emotionally distant from the Brahmaputra Valley) is today completely divided, along not just ethnic lines, but now on religion too. For those who support the bill, the discourse today in Assam is that if the state has given sanctuary to Muslims for so long and continues to do so even today, then what’s the problem in legitimising the citizenship of large numbers of Hindus from Bangladesh who are persecuted for their religious beliefs.

Also Read : Citizenship (Amendment) Bill Introduced in Lok Sabha Amid Protests

Hindutva Vote Bank Politics

Not enough studies have been done as to whether Hindus in Bangladesh are indeed persecuted. Going by the number of Durga Puja ‘mandaps’ you would not think so, but yes, people cross over to India for mainly economic reasons.

The Trinamool Congress’s Saugata Roy has termed the Bill "divisive" and "insidious" and said that it goes against the basic tenets of the Constitution. The Bill does violate the secular nature of the Indian Constitution but the BJP would argue that the word “secular” was added to the Constitution only in 1976 (Constitution 42nd Amendment Act) by Indira Gandhi whose intention was neither noble nor visionary. The Constitution does not define the relationship between religion and state and this continues to be a grey area.

The naked protest outside Parliament on 7 December by members of the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) from Assam which is led by Akhil Gogoi, shows the desperation of people who see the looming threat of their living space being invaded by people from across the border.

It goes without saying that the maximum migration will be from Bangladesh and that the seven Northeastern states would bear the brunt of this migration. Clearly this is vote-bank politics which feeds on the Hindutva agenda of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) which defines the BJPs ideological moorings.

Also Read : Citizenship Bill biggest betrayal: former Meghalaya CM

Fear of Becoming a Minority In One’s Own Land

While most enlightened western nations provide sanctuary to citizens who are oppressed in their own countries or are afflicted by war and brutality, they do so purely on humanitarian grounds. No country has granted citizenship to any group on the basis of their religious affiliations.

The seven Northeastern states, particularly those inhabited by tribal minorities are naturally very agitated at passage of the Citizenship Bill, 2019 because at the back of their minds is the dreaded prospect of becoming minorities in their homelands in the long run.

And these fears are not misplaced. The tribes of Arunachal Pradesh are resisting the bill because they see a growing number of Chakmas entering the state and seeking citizenship. Mizoram has a problem with the Reangs and Burmese interlopers. Dimapur in Nagaland is being inundated by what they terms as ‘IBIs’ (Illegal Bangladeshi Immigrants) Manipur, Meghalaya and Assam see the influx as a very real threat to their demographic.

United By Anti-Citizenship Bill Sentiment

These tribes have always looked at Tripura as a classic example of a state that is now overrun by people of Bengali origin, and where the tribals are reduced to a pathetic minority of 30 percent. In 1901, Tripura's population was 1.73 lakh, with tribals numbering nearly 52.89 percent.

It is also to be noted that the protest on Tuesday saw tribal youth suffering gunshot wounds. 

In Meghalaya, the bandh sponsored by the North East Students’ Organisation came after a gap of four years. The Meghalaya High Court had in 2015 directed that newspapers should not carry news of a bandh, strike, hartal et al by any organisation. This time, the people across the seven states seem to have united on the need to show solidarity against the Citizenship Bill 2019 which threatens to derail turn their homeland into a Lebensraum, and one over which they would not have any control.

Carving Out Borders

In all of this however, is the role of history in the carving out of borders from hitherto borderless homelands, post 1947. Today those borders have hardened, and people of one ethnic origin, culture and language are citizens of two different nations. Across the globe, people have usually migrated to safer zones with better economic prospects. In this region too, this migration has continued since Partition.

And it bears mention that prior to the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971, the Hindus did suffer persecution in East Pakistan.

Many of them in fact were granted safe sanctuary in India. But this continued migration has a bearing especially on finite resources like land. It deprives genuine Indian citizens of their due. Besides, the fact of the matter is that the rest of India will not share this population of religious migrants. It is the Northeastern states that will have to carry the load... that is the sticking point.

(The writer is the Editor of The Shillong Times and former member of NSAB. She can be reached @meipat. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same)

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