The Northeast is on the boil. The passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019 in Lok Sabha has led to a new phase of turmoil in the sensitive region as manifested by the violence last week during the shutdown in Assam. Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), which was at the helm of affairs in Assam for two terms, has ended the alliance with the BJP in protest against the Bill. Other regional parties in Meghalaya, Nagaland and Mizoram, who have formed governments with the BJP support, have also raised strong objections over it. They fear that the Bill, which seeks to provide Indian citizenship to non-Muslim migrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan on the grounds that they fled to escape religious persecution, would legitimise the presence of Bengali Hindus and Buddhist Chakmas from Bangladesh in their States, fueling social tensions and alter demographic profile of the region in the long-run. The Congress and the Trinamool Congress have also opposed the Bill stating that citizenship cannot be determined by religion under the Indian Constitution. Both parties fear that this will cement the BJP’s position among Bengali Hindus in Bengal and the northeastern States, and would also hurt the interests of Muslims, especially of East Bengali origin, who make up substantial segments of the population. The BJP, on the other hand, is eyeing the support of indigenous communities by according Scheduled Tribe status to six Other Backward Classes (OBC) communities in Assam. This would increase the share of tribal communities to 54% in the State’s total population.
Besides, the Citizenship Bill is also expected to turn the Bengali Hindus into a loyal vote bank for the saffron party and reduce the Muslim community from the present perceived position of king-makers to docile subjects with no say in the political structure. In the Assam Accord, signed in 1985 after a prolonged and violent agitation, there was no mention of giving citizenship to victims of religious persecution fleeing from the neighbouring country. There was only a cutoff date of March 24, 1971, to determine citizenship. A wave of religious persecution happened in Bangladesh soon after Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was murdered in 1975. The BJP leadership is now harping on the plank of religious persecution against Hindus in Bangladesh. The critics of the legislation argue that it violates the Assam Accord and would eventually undermine the linguistic and cultural identities and political rights of the indigenous people of Assam. There are genuine concerns that Assamese would become minorities in their own homeland as the present amendments will confer citizenship on more and more illegal migrants. Assam has already suffered a lot during decades of violent agitations. The wounds of the past should not be raked up again.