The apprehension to accept ‘illegal immigrants’ from Bangladesh has forced thousands of Assamese people to protest against the CAB. The wave of protests has affected many parts of the Brahmaputra valley, while the Barak valley — a region predominantly inhabited by Bengalis — is celebrating.
The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAB) 2019, which has generated huge controversy, was passed in the Lok Sabha on December 9 and the Rajya Sabha on December 11. The Bill declares that citizenship will be granted to undocumented Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, Christians and Parsis immigrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. Distinctly Muslims and atheists have been omitted. The Bill became a law when President Ram Nath Kovind signed it on December 12.
The CAB, surprisingly, excludes India’s immediate neighbours such as Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Nepal and Bhutan. The Bill, as argued by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), finds its base on the “religious persecutions” of the minorities in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, but excludes the Rohingiyas who have been persecuted in Myanmar — a Buddhist majority state. It also excludes the Hazaras, Lankan Tamils and Shias, among others.
At a pan-Indian level the Bill is criticised by many and at some places protested too, on the ground that it is unconstitutional and unsecular. However, in Assam, the Bill is unflinchingly protested by thousands for reasons that are quite different.
The debate of the CAB surfaced with the debate on the people excluded from the National Register of Citizens (NRC). The NRC excluded almost two million people in Assam, and it is estimated that at least a quarter of them are Hindus. Many, especially from the Opposition, allege that the CAB has been passed in Parliament to protect Hindus from an impending danger of statelessness, while pushing the Muslims into the deep trench of the same. It is noteworthy to mention that the danger of this statelessness of the Hindus was created by the current government itself through its NRC efforts.
The current government’s definition of a refugee varies from that of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) definition. The BJP argues that any non-Muslim persecuted for religious reasons from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan are refugees. On the other hand, these ‘refugees’ are viewed as ‘illegal immigrants’ by the mainstream Assamese people. Asomiya people feel that if these ‘illegal immigrants’ if allowed in the state will be a threat to their language, tradition and culture. Thus the CAB threatens the Asomiya people, a small linguistic group in a hugely diverse country such as India.
The apprehension to accept the ‘illegal immigrants’ from Bangladesh, has brought tens of thousands of Assamese people out of their homes to plunge into protests against the Bill. The wave of protests has affected many parts of the Brahmaputra valley, while the Barak valley — a region predominantly inhabited by Bengalis — is celebrating.
Internet services have been suspended in 10 districts of Assam. Curfew has been imposed in numerous places including Guwahati — the epicentre of the protests. Transport services have come under a complete halt. Train services have faced disruption and many of the flights to Dibrugarh and Guwahati stand cancelled. In many places the protests turned violent, and these have inspired the police to open fire and resort to lathi-charge. At least two individuals have died in police firing so far. Students too from various universities in the state are staging protests.
The CAB has been vehemently opposed in many states across the Northeast. The government, however, has consented to exempt its implementation in some Northeastern states with Inner Line Permits (ILP) and in areas under the sixth schedule. Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Mizoram have ILPs while most of the Meghalaya is under the sixth schedule. This leaves only Assam and Tripura under the CAB. This could be a reason why protests in these two states have intensified.
As per the government’s claim, the CAB will help all the persecuted Hindu ‘refugees’ in India in getting citizenship. This implies that the Hindu Bengalis in Assam, who until the other day were claiming to be Indian and submitted their legacy papers to get included in the NRC, will have to now say that they are now Bangladeshis and have illegally immigrated to India. Thus, through CAB, has the government put the tens of thousands of Hindu Bengalis in a predicament where they will have to issue statements that are false and counterfactual?
In Parliament, Home Minister Amit Shah reiterated that the CAB was not against Muslims. Yet, when the nationwide NRC is conducted, and along with the CAB, it is expected to single out the Muslims. This gives the impression that the CAB-NRC combine is an anti-Muslim instrument. This is why many people view the Bill, which has now become a law, as a blow to India’s democratic values.
Nazimuddin Siddique is an Assam-based independent researcher. Views are personal.