The Citizenship Bill : Assamese Concerns

Presenting, The Current Coffee Podcast, hosted by Aditya Narayan.


Assam is in the throes of violence yet again over citizenship. In the past couple of days, life in the northeastern state has come to a standstill as the BJP-led government at the Centre brought in an amendment that will, effectively, grant citizenship to Hindu migrants from Bangladesh.

Citizenship has been the biggest pain point of Assam's political and social life during the past several decades. Last year, the first draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) kicked up a storm as over 3 million people were said to have been left out of the roster. The Citizenship bill and NRC are not one and the same thing. Much of the discourse has been seen to have confused one with the other. Here, we take a look at the two and how they overlap.

Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019

This Bill seeks to facilitate the acquisition of citizenship by six identified minority communities namely Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Christians and Parsis from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh who came to India before December 31, 2014. Migrants from these communities were earlier given protection against legal action in the years 2015 & 2016 and long term visa provision was made for them. Citizenship will be given to them only after due scrutiny and recommendation of district authorities and the State Government. The minimum residency period for citizenship is being reduced from the existing 12 years under the present law to 7 years.

The law will not be confined to the state of Assam but will also provide relief to persecuted migrants who have come through western borders of the country to states like Gujarat, Rajasthan, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh. The beneficiaries of Citizenship Amendment Bill can reside in any state of the country and the burden of those persecuted migrants will be shared by the whole country.

National Register of Citizens

NRC is a roster of all those who settled in Assam up to the midnight of March 24, 1971.  In 1978-79, several local leaders spotted a rapid increase in the number of Muslims in electoral rolls. A six-year long agitation followed against illegal migrants from Bangladesh, which culminated with the signing of an agreement called the Assam Accord.

The Assam Accord mandated that those who settled in the state after the cut off date of March 24, 1971, would be weeded out and stripped of citizenship rights. Over the next few decades, the NRC remained stalled until the Supreme Court intervened. The apex court ordered the state government to update the NRC by a deadline and monitored its progress. Subsequently, the first draft of the roster was published on 30 July 2018.

The general sentiment in Assam with respect to the bill has been that it will defeat the purpose of the NRC. The Sentinel, a leading local daily, noted in its editorial on January 5 what the Assamese people think of the citizenship bill: The perverse decision of the Centre to ram through the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 against the wishes of the people of Assam will result in the migration of millions of Bangladeshi Hindus to Assam.

AGP (Asom Gana Parishad), which was formed by leaders of the Assam Agitation, walked out of the BJP-led government in Assam after the Cabinet green-lighted the amendment. According to Samujjal Bhattacharya, a leader at the forefront of the fight against illegal migration, the Centre is adopting double standards with respect to its pre-poll promise of making "Bangladeshis pack their bags and leave.". He told the Shillong Times, "The bill violates the Assam Accord" and is an "anti-indigenous people legislation".

Clause 6 of the Assam Accord
Constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards, as may be appropriate shall be provided to protect, preserve and promote the culture, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people. In order to cool tempers ruffled by the bill, the Centre has set up a panel to implement the clause and constitutionalise it. The committee will examine the effectiveness of actions taken since 1985 to implement Clause 6 of the Assam Accord and look into awarding "reservations in employment under the government of Assam for the Assamese people".

Why has the citizenship bill led to protests?
Protesters have expressed fears that the prospect of citizenship bill will encourage migration from Bangladesh. They have cited several grounds for opposing this:
  1. Demography will change across northeastern states, protesters say, as has already been happening in Assam and Tripura over decades of migration. This can be clearly seen from the census data. In 1991 the Assamese population was 58% while the Bengali population was 22%. In 2001 the Assamese population became 49% and the Bengali population 28 per cent while in 2011 the Assamese population stands at 48 per cent and the Bengali population stands at 29 per cent; clearly showing a depletion in the size of the Assamese population and a rise in the population of the Bengali speaking people.
  2. It negates the NRC protesters say. The bill goes against the Assam Accord and negates the ongoing update of the National Register of citizens. The Accord and the NRC said March 25, 1971, as a cutoff for citizenship irrespective of religion to be included as citizens. Applicants needed to prove that they were present in Assam before that date. Samujjal Bhattacharya an activist Tarun Gogoi told a newspaper that the bill proposes to protect illegal Bangladeshis who have come after 1971.
  3. Religious discrimination. While the Assam movement did not discriminate between Hindu and Muslim immigrants, the bill proposes to grant citizenship on the basis of religion conveniently avoiding the Muslim minority community. It shows a clear violation of article 14 of the Indian Constitution which proposes equality even to non-citizens of the land The protesters call it unconstitutional and rightfully so.

But will the citizenship bill not effect demography? 

There is no specific report on whether the refugee migrant population from Bangladesh is causing unexpected demographic changes of certain northeastern states. The Home Ministry told a joint parliamentary committee(JPC) that it had examined the bill. The JPC quoted this in its report but disagreed, in fact, demographic changes have been indicated in successive censuses. But the illegal migrants claim that they are original residents and citizens of India. On another aspect, the JPC agreed with the home ministry. In the committee's opinion, the cutoff date of 31st December 2014 assumes greater significance as it has been intended to determine eligibility and prevent further influx into India negating thereby the possible mala fide design of the vested interest in the neighbouring countries. 

But does that not contradict the 1971 cutoff? 
The Home Ministry told the JPC that according to the Ministry of Law and Justice, the proposed amendment appeared to be contrary to the Assam Accord the department of Legal Affairs inter alia apprised the committee that proposed amendments appeared to be contrary to the Assam Accord. The JPC report said, however, the law ministry's legislative department noted that the proposed provision to exempt people 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.

But who are these Assamese people?
The panel could find itself walking on a mine-field as soon they would have to answer this question. According to an Indian Express report, most stakeholders agree that the NRC of 1951 should be taken as the cutoff for defining “Assamese people” eligible for the proposed safeguards. Those who came in between 1951 and 1971 are Indian citizens, but not indigenous people.
While on one hand is a central government bringing out the citizenship amendment bill to avoid demographic invasion by a particular community in the northeast and on the other are the genuine fears of the people of Assam over negating the Assam Accord and the possible demographic invasion of the Bengali population from Bangladesh. As of now the citizenship bill stands passed in the Lok Sabha and is waiting to be tabled in the Rajya Sabha and outside the parliament the political game over the bill intensifies day after day.

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