Prof Ujjwal K Chowdhury

Indian PM Narendra Modi

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who landed in Assam’s Guwahati late last week amid black flag protests, tried to address people’s concerns about the vexed Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAB), saying his party is committed to protecting the culture and resources of the northeast. The Citizenship Bill, one of the key projects of the government, envisages a smoother and quicker grant of citizenship to illegal migrants from the minority communities of Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan after six years’ stay in India.

“The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016 is not for Assam or northeastern states. It is for the whole country. The Bill is a national commitment considering the plight of the persecuted minorities in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. The passage of the Bill will ensure that those who were left out during the Partition and who still love Maa Bharati more than their lives are accommodated in the country. It is the responsibility of India to accept those people,” he said.

But the issue is not that straight.

Political Repercussions:

The row over the Citizenship Bill is seen to be a growing hurdle for the BJP in the northeast, which has a crucial role in PM Modi’s “Look East policy” – the expansion of strategic ties across southeast Asia. From practically no footprint in the area, the BJP has managed to bring all seven states under its control over the last four years. But in the few months since the bill was introduced, unrest has been spreading among the BJP allies in the northeast.

Regional ally Asom Gana Parishad has ended its partnership with the BJP over the bill, which has already been passed by the Lok Sabha and could be tabled soon in the Rajya Sabha. Ten of its allies have decided to oppose the bill, indicating that if the Centre does not bend, they would walk out of the 13-party Northeast Democratic Alliance -the anti-Congress platform through which the BJP made inroads in the northeast. Even some of the BJP’s own leaders in the area have spoken against the bill. NDA ally Meghalaya CM Conrad Sangma convened a meet against the bill with his National People’s Party, AGP, JD(U), United Democratic Party, BJP’s Tripura ally Indigenous People Front of Tripura (IPFT), NDA ally Mizo National Front, etc, participated and resolved to fight the bill tooth and nail.

So has the BJP goofed up here? Apparently so looking at the Northeast. May not be so if you look at the national picture. BJP’s avowed objective is to polarise the electorate ahead of the polls, and the bill has the potential to appeal to the Hindus across India as it talks to allow citizenship to the persecuted Hindus from neighbouring nations.

Legal Implications:

The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 goes against the core principle of Article 14, which clearly states that people in India cannot be discriminated based on religion. This is one of the founding principles of the Indian Constitution. The bill seeks to change one of the basic clauses of the Assam Accord of 1985 that fixes the cut-off date for Indian citizenship in Assam to March 24, 1971.

Further, the National Register of Citizens (NRC) is being implemented in the state of Assam under the supervision of the Supreme Court of India on the basis of the Assam Accord. It sets March 24, 1971 as the cut-off date for applying for inclusion in the register. The bill will reduce the NRC process to a farcical exercise considering the fact that many people who did not find a place in the final draft of the register subject to inadequate documentation will make their way into Voters’ List through this bill. Thus, there will be a disconnect between the NRC and Voters’ List in Assam. There is surely a legal lacuna herein.

Given the political situation and the legal position, BJP may talk about it in rest of India, go slow in the Northeast, and never introduce in the Rajya Sabha before the next general elections thus effectively not making it a law (unlike the 10% reservation for the economically poor of the upper castes), and thereby quelling a rebellious situation on ground in the NE.

Hence, this is a pure electoral gimmick considering the fact that the bill has neither been introduced in the Rajya Sabha nor will it survive the constitutional test if the same is put in the Supreme Court of India. The bill is also a clever hoax, as it does not grant citizenship automatically. It merely reduces the time to apply for citizenship by registration to six years from the present 11 years.

Flawed Argument of Humanitarian Considerations:

One key argument from the BJP camp is that this Bill is on humanitarian grounds allowing citizenship to the persecuted on religious grounds in our neighbouring nations.

Persecution of minorities is indeed a serious problem across many of the countries in the greater Indian subcontinental region. However, assuming Muslims cannot be persecuted is a clear indication of the skewed perspective that the bill espouses. A case in point are the Rohingya people from Myanmar, who are persecuted on religious grounds, and they are mostly Muslims (and a few Rakhine refugees being Hindus as well). Also, the persecution in our neighbouring nations is also due to political reasons (like Ahmedi Muslims in Pakistan) and economic hardships (like the marginalized migrants from Bangladesh and Nepal).

Riot Potentials:

The bill is likely to fuel civil unrest in Assam, Tripura and the rest of North East, where demographic invasion is a major concern. In fact, Tripura has undergone a significant demographic change over the past half a century, where Bengali Hindus have taken over the Tripuri tribals’ home and power. Through the implementation of the Bill, even the bona fide Bengali Hindus in Assam and the rest of North East will be practically treated as illegal immigrants, who will be considered to have been given citizenship based on an arbitrary act, whereas many NE Bengalis are bona fide multi generation Indians. The bill will also fuel communal tension between Hindus and Muslims in many parts of the North East as the law will differ with the two groups differently. The problem of separatism might be rekindled subject to the arbitrariness of the act and the resultant mob anger.

Will this gimmick yield electoral dividend in rest of India much more than the offsetting possible losses in the Northeast? The jury is out on it yet.

The author is a known political commentator and media academic, currently being the Media Dean of Pearl Academy, Delhi and Mumbai, and earlier the Dean of Symbiosis and Amity Universities and Whistling Woods International.