OPINION | Citizenship Amendment Bill : Boon or Bane for the Central party?

OPINION | Citizenship Amendment Bill : Boon or Bane for the Central party?

By SHILAJIT KAR BHOWMIK | May 10, 2018

Assam has become a tinderbox as the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill would contingently explode the state any moment. Granting citizenship to a particular community on the basis of religion would be a faux pas, to say the least. Since the days of yore, immigration to Assam from neighbouring countries has undergone an osmosis. The NRC update would do well to function as a palliative. However, matters are getting convoluted owing to the efforts for amending the Citizenship Act. It goes without saying that the aforesaid bill has become the apple of discord in Assam. The state would be encumbered by the burden of population growth.

Besides, favouring a particular religious community by the Central Government shall amount to violation of Article 14 of the Indian Constitution which states, “The State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India.” It also prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth.

However, the incumbent government has perhaps chosen to do otherwise for reason best closeted in its knowledge.

On the other hand, it wouldn’t be unfair to state that Assam’s incumbent Chief Minister fought tooth and nail to get the IMDT Act scrapped by the Supreme Court in 2005 as an AGP leader. There is thus, no doubting his anti-immigrant credentials. However, the Citizenship Bill, if amended shall undoubtedly encourage immigration.

Immigration is rife. It is rampant. Way back in 1978, a prescient forecast on this festering problem was made by India’s then Election Commissioner, Sham Lal Shakdher. In a conference of election commissioners across India, he observed, “In one state [Assam], the population in 1971 recorded an increase as high as 34.98 per cent over the 1961 figures and this increase was attributed to the influx of a very large number of persons from the neighbouring countries. This influx has become a regular feature. I think it may not be a wrong assessment to make, on the basis of the increase of 34.98 per cent between the two censuses, the increase that is likely to be recorded in the 1991 census would be more than 100 per cent over the 1961 census. In other words, a stage would be reached when the state would have to reckon with the foreign nationals who may probably constitute a sizeable percentage, if not the majority of the population, of the state.”

Whatever Shakdher predicted in the manner of Nostradamus took the shape of reality when the population of Assam stepped up to 22.3 million or about 120 per cent over the 1961 figure.

But why is Assam encountering such an imbroglio? And what has formed its genesis?

This burning conundrum traces its origin to the pre-independent days of 19th century Assam when British officials like Sivsagar Deputy Commissioner, George Campbell encouraged inviting dexterous cultivators from then East Pakistan of what is now Bangladesh. The reason behind this intent was those cultivators were dab hands at their job. Campbell sought cultivation by those immigrants in Assam’s wastelands. Thus, they were rehabilitated in the British province of Assam.

The indigenous Assamese initially ventilated no objection. But as soon as the Bengali population was burgeoning, the Assamese were cowering in fear for diminution to minority status in terms of its population. By the end of the First World War, districts like Barpeta, Dhubri and Goalpara fell under the preponderance of the Bengali populace. Naturally, disquiet took over.

And it was furthered with the re-ascendancy of Syed Mohammad Sadullah as the premier of Assam in 1942. According to veteran journalist, Sanjoy Hazarika in ‘Strangers of the Mist’, “In a bid to strengthen his tenuous hold on Assam’s politics, he (Sadullah) openly encouraged immigration from East Bengal, helping Jinnah when he sought to claim Assam for East Pakistan.”

The amendment of the Citizenship Bill would have broader ramifications for an ethnically-sensitive region like North-East. If minorities following persecution in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan are granted citizenship in India, so would these countries have to enact laws for according citizenship to Indian minorities lest they seek asylum for the same reason.

Needless to say, BJP’s hold over the Northeast might be enfeebled if the Citizenship Act undergoes an amendment. And it would augur ill for the party in the light of the ensuing General elections.

Besides, Assam is now divided over this issue as Brahmaputra Valley wants the bill not be enacted, while Barak Valley wills otherwise. It is undeniable that these contradictory stances bode ill for communal harmony in a state which has a dark history of ethnic riots.

Therefore, isn’t the BJP driving the first nail into its coffin?


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