CITIZENSHIP WORRIES

By Malladi Rama Rao
(The author is an old Northeast hand who covered Assam agitation and insurgency in Mizoram and Manipur)

Technically, Modi’s efforts to legalise infiltration of the favoured few without loudly harping on Hindutva were checkmated on Wednesday, Feb 13, 2019 as the Rajya Sabha could not even take up the Citizenship Amendment Bill before curtains came down on the 16th Lok Sabha, and the country formally slipped into election mode. Along with this law, the much hyped anti-triple talaq legislation – The Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill, 2018, as it is known, also lapsed.

“End to triple talaq” is one of the key talking points of the BJP, and so the Saffron Party will not like the Congress –led parliamentary logjam to stand in its way of garnering Muslim women votes. The government may therefore turn to the ordinance route to bring back the ‘talaq law’ on the statute book as it did once in the past year. So, will the Citizenship Amendment Law also have a re-birth? It may since the Modi government has set its eyes on the Mamata turf and is determined to walk the extra mile to neutralise her politics of minority appeasement, and garner the Hindu vote. This is the reason why the new law seeks to treat a Hindu fleeing persecution and certain death in Pakistan, Bangladesh or Afghanistan on par with a Muslim infiltrating into India in search of livelihood. Besides Hindus, immigrants Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians are welcome, the Modi law says.

Muslim infiltration is a big political issue in the North-east, particularly Assam. The region is also opposed to accept Hindus, and Chakma Buddhists. Arunachal Pradesh has not accepted with open arms the pre-1971 Chakmas, despite the best efforts of Indira Gandhi regime and its successors.

Mizoram has a sizable (one lakh) Chakma population of its own along the border with Bangladesh. The Mizo society has never taken to them kindly, asserting that there is no end to Chakma infiltration from across the border. Well, Barak Valley of Assam, which is home to the Bengalis, is not opposed to Modi’s law. BJP ruled Tripura should have no problem with the new citizenship law but is facing heat from the indigenous tribals, who fear becoming marginalised completely. Manipur, Nagaland, and Meghalaya are not happy either with the fear of being swamped by Hindu outsiders. North Eastern Students Organisation (NESO) sees the bill as a ” blatant attempt to Hindu-ise north-east India”, and adds: “We have a different identity. Our identity will be finished”.

No surprise, therefore, the entire North-East has been roiled by protests; people showed black flags to Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he visited the region in the first week of February to personally assure them that under his care their interests would always be protected. The Centre has since set up a high powered committee to implement Clause 6 of the Assam Accord. This Clause is the soul of Assam Accord signed by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1985 but it has remained unimplemented for the last 30 years. It reads: “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”. The committee will examine the effectiveness of actions taken since 1985 and look into awarding “reservations in employment under the government of Assam for the Assamese people”. This move should have bought some peace but it did not.

What prompted Modi and his advisors to come up with a bill which, according to its critics, “when clinically analysed, proves to be mediocre, logically untenable, historically challenged and morally suspect”. It is difficult to subscribe to the theory that Delhi and Nagpur were unaware of the groundswell of opposition in the North-east to infiltrators of any hues. RSS pracharaks have been working in Assam particularly Upper and Central Assam, which have been facing the brunt of infiltration since Independence. After the Chinese aggression in 1962, Assam became a sort of training ground for young RSS workers from various states, particularly Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh.

BJP leadership cannot deny that they have had no warning signals. Ally, Asom Gana Parishad, (AGP) upped the ante long before the Lok Sabha passed the Citizenship Amendment Bill on January 8; when the Union Home Minister, Rajnath Singh, the official pointsman for the region, rejected their demand for a roll back, the party walked out of the Sonowal ministry. Partner from the cow belt, Janta Dal (United) led by potential prime minister Nitish Kumar, sent a delegation to Assam on the eve of the Budget session, read the local pulse and announced that all its six MPs in the Rajya Sabha would vote against the Bill. The Shiv Sena made its opposition to the Bill clear following an “appeal” by AGP. The NPP, which heads the Meghalaya government, too has threatened to walk out of the NDA on the issue.

BJP contends that what it has done is no more than a ‘long overdue redressal of a historical wrong inflicted on a hapless section of a population of undivided India’. It has a point since Hindus, Sikhs and Christians left behind in the new Islamic Republic of Pakistan have been leading the life of second class citizens with the fear of forced conversions, forced abduction (of young girls), and above all forced migration haunting them day and night. Today the Hindus account for just 1.6% of Pakistan’s population (down from 23% in 1947). Their number in Bangladesh has dropped to 10% from 29%. As the Bangladesh war progressed, “Hindus, who account for three-fourths of the refugees and a majority of the dead, have borne the brunt of the Muslim military hatred”, said Times magazine, in a report “Pakistan: The Ravaging of Golden Bengal”.

Pakistani text books have no mention of Hindu rulers or Sikh history. In fact the Pakistani elite and Muslim clergy consider the Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s rule from Lahore over what is today’s Pakistan, Afghanistan and beyond as bad. Pakistani Sikhs are hurt naturally. More so the Nanakpanthi Sindhis, who are largely based in the Sindh province, and follow the teachings of the first Sikh Guru Nanak Dev.

This digression for a historical perspective brings up not one but two questions.

One: why should we, the present generation, pay for the sins of our forefathers? Whoever had remained in Pakistan (or Bangladesh) and did not board the train to India in August 1947, were not unaware of the future that awaited them in the land of the pure.

Two: Is it fair to treat a Hindu /Sikh /Buddhist / Christian/Jain/Parsi escaping persecution on par with the illegal Muslim immigrants to India?

This question pops up two equally loaded questions: One: Where will they, the Hindus et al, go if not to India, which is the land of their forefathers? Two: Why should Muslim immigrants be treated as aliens when they were part and parcel of British India, and became foreigners because of a historical wrong.

There are no ready answers to any of these questions. Nor is there any one recalling today the way India treated Ugandan Indians and Burmese Indians, when they were booted out of their homes by whimsical leaders?

Prime Minister Modi has not helped his cause by not fielding these questions. Both he and his party President Amit Shah were harsh on the illegal immigrants in the run up to the 2014 election; while Shah termed them termites, Modi had promised to throw them out of Assam. Neither the two nor any of their colleagues in Delhi or Guwahati has bothered to allay the apprehensions of northeastern people, who have been witness to a steady demographic change in several pockets, courtesy local Congress politicians, who cultivated a captive vote bank.

Today in a telling commentary on vote politics, the Congress and TMC are in the forefront of the anti-Citizenship bill movement. The GOP is silent on its failure, as a ruling party in Delhi and Guwahati, to implement the Assam Accord, which had provided for identification and deportation of illegal immigrants. But for this failure, Ahoms and indigenous tribes would not have become a minority in nine districts of Assam out of 27 in the state.

BJP may have done its electoral homework but it did not put in place a strategy that has the potential to facilitate a quick march to the goal post. Otherwise it would not have landed in the political quicksand that the Citizenship issue has become.

The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill was introduced in 2016. It has sought to amend the Citizenship Act of 1955. A joint parliamentary committee (JPC) examined the bill. Its visit to Assam from May 7 to 10, 2018 to elicit public opinion saw the entire north-east rise as one man opposing the bill.

Yet, the BJP made no effort to ‘educate’ the people that the bill is not North-east centric but provides relief to persecuted migrants who have come through western borders of the country to states like Gujarat, Rajasthan, Delhi, and Madhya Pradesh. Instead, its leaders have gone to the town with the rhetoric that it is natural for harassed Hindus to seek shelter in India. And that the Modi sarkar is completing the unfinished business of Partition”.

Prime Minister Modi himself played up this theme on January 4 at Silchar (Barak Valley) when he described the new Citizenship law as an “atonement” for mistakes committed during Partition. BJP general secretary Ram Madhav too cited Partition as a justification. But Assam and rest of Northeast see a local context. More so since some eight to nine lakh Bengali Hindus, who had migrated before 2014 are likely to be left out of the National Register of Citizens, (NRC) Assam is updating these days. Assam’s strongman Himanta Biswa Sarma literally gave away the BJP game when he told a TV channel that “if the Citizenship bill is not passed, 17 Assamese seats, which elect Assamese people, will go the Jinnah way.”

Result is numerous signs that said, for instance, “Hello China, Bye Bye India” in Christian majority Mizoram that was once rocked by China- Pakistan backed insurgency.

Now, who should set about cooling the frayed tempers? Undoubtedly it is the responsibility of the BJP and its extended Parivar. Short term pursuits always herald an early requiem as the Shah Bano case has proved beyond doubt in the Rajiv era. Well, BJP and its allies have still time to put their act together in order to bridge the trust deficit vis-à-vis the northeast. But the million dollar question is: Will they? Your guess is as good as mine.

( This article appeared in the March issue of Power Politics)

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