The widespread protests across Northeast region over the Citizenship Amendment Bill must serve as a warning signal for the NDA government, which appears to be bent upon pushing through the controversial legislation in the ongoing winter session of Parliament. The government needs to address the legitimate concerns of the people of the border region as the Bill is widely seen as divisive with a potential to repeat the bitterness of the partition era. The legislation will pave the way for granting Indian citizenship to Hindus, Jains, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Parsis from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan after six years of residence in India. The ostensible reason is that the permitted religions are minorities who have faced religious persecution in neighbouring countries and India should take them in on humanitarian grounds. However, the exclusion of Muslims militates against the basic tenets of secularism as enshrined in the Constitution, particularly Articles 14 and 15 that guarantee equality before the law and forbid discrimination on the grounds of religion. The calculation in the BJP camp appears to be that bringing back the persecuted Hindus from polarised border nations would help enhance the cushion of returnee Hindu votes in future elections. However, it must be pointed out that such a discriminatory citizenship policy is fraught with cataclysmic implications for the demography of the region. Several political parties and social organisations argue that the legislation poses a threat to the identity, language and culture of the indigenous people. Already, the move has created a rupture among the NDA constituents in the sensitive region.
The issue of religious persecution can be determined only on a case-by-case basis but should not be made into a general rule. For instance, it is entirely possible that a Hindu migrant from Bangladesh may have been an economic migrant while a Shia migrant from Pakistan could have fled Pakistan due to religious persecution. The distinction must be made between various grounds for migration. The Citizenship Amendment Bill stems from the National Register of Citizens (NRC), a Supreme Court-mandated mammoth exercise of citizenship identification in Assam that has triggered deep-seated social tensions in the region which has a blood-soaked history and a complex set of social identities in conflict with each other. In the end, about 19.6 lakh people were excluded from the NRC of which, around 12 lakh were Hindus. This has created a piquant situation for the saffron party. If the Centre pushes through the legislation, unmindful of the widespread opposition across the Northeast, it runs the risk of alienating the region it had sought to nurture through development. Any refugee, irrespective of religious affiliation, would swamp the identity and the rights of the indigenous people over their land, opportunities and resources.