Rhetoric will not undo suspicion on citizenship bill

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Sudeep Chakravarti

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As momentum builds for the reintroduction of the citizenship amendment bill, or CAB, in Parliament, there is a ratcheting up of nationalistic rhetoric. Indeed, the CEO of a Sangh Parivar think tank, the New Delhi-based Indraprastha Vishwa Samvad Kendra, used the phrase “the figment of someone’s imagination” in an opinion piece in a national daily earlier this week. He downplayed concerns over CAB in north-east India—in Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya protests against the proposed bill have been frequent and strikes total.

The Kendra, like other institutions that seek to impress a nationalist agenda as a national one, may be missing the beat. Concerns over CAB haven’t changed from the time the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government attempted to push through a proposed bill in early 2019. Indeed, railroading the bill has the potential to severely upset the balance in north-east India and further the reputation of the BJP as a superstructure that chooses exclusivist religion over inclusive respect.

The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2019 was passed by the Lok Sabha in January. This proposed amendment to the Citizenship Act 1955 stated that “persons belonging to minority communities, namely, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan… shall not be treated as illegal migrants… and such person shall be eligible to apply for naturalization… .” The citizenship bill sought to reduce residency requirements of “…persons belonging to minority communities, namely, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan” from an aggregate of “not less than eleven years” to “not less than six years”.

The 2019 bill lapsed with the end of term of the previous Lok Sabha; the bill wasn’t introduced in the Rajya Sabha for its necessary approval on account of great criticism and unfavourable numbers. NDA’s victory in the general elections in mid-2019 and subsequent gains in the Rajya Sabha has prompted a re-run of the bill.

It isn’t surprising that NDA’s lead constituent BJP would attempt legislation to bolster its credentials by excluding Muslims from CAB’s equation—which continues to pose a constitutional issue of inequality on grounds of religion. But in north-east India, where migration has remained an explosive issue for several decades, concern over CAB over-rides frequent assurances by elements of the BJP, Sangh and NDA that local provisions protect tribal-indigenous rights over land.

Indeed, even in Assam, which has a BJP-led government, and has taken to the contentious exercise of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) with gusto, there is wariness that CAB will legitimize the presence of migrants who have been caught in the NRC net. At present, 1.9 million, a vast number Hindu, are snagged in Assam. They have until January 2020 to seek review from difficult-to-reach, knee-jerk tribunals.

There is already the danger of an expanding humanitarian crisis. Last week, Assam’s parliamentary affairs minister informed the assembly of several dozen deaths from illnesses in detention centres across the state. There are now six such centres.

Assam’s government has requested central aid to set up more centres to contain NRC detainees. The crisis can only grow, as there is no indication whatsoever that Bangladesh, from where most immigrants and illegal immigrants to India arrive, will ever take back those who fail NRC scrutiny, and who will pack detention centres.

In Tripura, which also has a BJP-led government (and a Bengali-led society on account of great migration from former East Pakistan and, now, Bangladesh), has a significant not-Bengali, not-Hindu, not-Muslim indigenous, and a swamped Tripuri minority wary of a legislation that seeks to provide legitimacy to migrants.

As in Assam, in Tripura and elsewhere in north-east India, there is now a distrust factor that majoritarian ‘Mainland’ interests either don’t acknowledge or don’t wish to acknowledge.

That, in the aftermath of the abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution in Jammu and Kashmir along with Article 35A—which guaranteed special rights to locals—any assurance by the NDA government and its appendages on localized constitutional guarantees is now suspect. This feeling is buttressed by the security and communication clampdown in Kashmir since August.

Rhetoric won’t undo suspicion; it’s a point majoritarian interests would do well to heed. Else, there will be a continuation of the state of affairs that Assamese academic Sanjib Baruah once aptly described as “durable disorder”—a disorder ordered by agencies of state.

This column focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights and runs on Thursdays. Read Sudeep Chakravarti’s earlier columns at livemint.com/rootcause



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