Whether the ruling party factored in the response of its allies and others now on the streets in Assam and elsewhere in the North-East is not known, but their reaction shows that whatever homework was done before pushing through the Citizenship Amendment Bill in the Lok Sabha was not adequate. The passage of the controversial bill on Wednesday coincided with protests and has opened fresh wounds about identity and ethnicity in a region which was already riven by deep social and religious divisions. However, contrary to the consensus in the secularist-liberal sections, we find it hard to question the objective behind the bill.
After all, if persecuted minorities settled in foreign lands, distant or neighbouring, with a close religious affinity to this country cannot find shelter in India, which other country are they expected to turn to? It is clear as daylight that Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, etc, are treated as second class citizens in some countries, especially in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Even friendly Bangladesh has a poor record in protecting its Hindu population which since its birth in 1971 has dwindled sharply. Therefore, granting citizenship to Hindus, Parsis, Sikhs, Jains, etc, who were forced to leave their countries due to persecution and entered India before 2014 is an onerous duty of the government.
To read into this any communal intent is to mistake the basic fact that India is a Hindu-majority country, even though it is not a secular country, and it cannot abdicate its responsibility to shelter those whose roots, old or new, lie in the local soil. The persecuted people with roots in this country have a claim on this land. Besides, none of these denominational groups singly or collectively engage in waging a war against this country. We make bold to say that the case of Muslim infiltrators is entirely on a different footing. They might be economic refugees but they have played havoc with the demographic character of the entire Northeastern region. The numbers of persecuted Hindus, Sikhs and others sought to be accorded citizenship rights is a small fraction of the Bangladeshis who have virtually overrun large parts of Assam, transforming several districts of the State into Muslim-majority.
The same is the case in West Bengal where districts bordering Bangladesh have become Muslim-majority thanks to the unremitting infiltration from across the international border. Such infiltration aside from posing an economic challenge has become a huge headache for the security set-up as well which must keep special vigil against agents provocateur among the illegals who can foment trouble and help ISI push its anti-India agenda.
Yet, the political costs of giving succor to the persecuted minorities threatens to upset the BJP applecart in the Northeast. The party has expanded its footprint in the entire region with governments in Assam, Manipur, Tripura and Arunachal Pradesh while its allies are in power in Meghalaya, Nagaland and Mizoram. The passage of the citizenship bill has led to the exit of the Asom Gana Parishad, one of the oldest allies of the BJP in the state, from the NDA. The BJP government in Guwahati might survive but the AGP’s move has had a dominoes’ effect in the entire region. Several other allies of the BJP have threatened to leave the NDA. Civil society activists and the opposition groups have come out on the streets to protest the citizenship bill.
The AGP insists that the cut-off for determining non-Muslim residents should remain 1971 as it is under the Assam Accord. The AGP and other local groups seek to protect old demographic and ethnic sub-national identity whereas the BJP seems to take a wider, pan- national view. In this clash between region-specific and nation-specific identities, the immediate danger is to the electoral prospects of the ruling party which was hoping to increase its tally in the coming general election. It is remarkable that the AGP looks at the Bengali settlers from West Bengal with as much hostility as it does at the Bangladeshi infiltrators. The BJP will find it difficult to pander to this ultra local identity.
Hence, its refusal to buckle under pressure from its allies in the Northeast. Once the bill passes muster in the Rajya Sabha, the process of weeding out the illegals from the 40-lakh people who were found to be without bona fide citizenship documents is set to begin. Pushing the cut-off year for non-Muslims from 1971 to 2014, the BJP’s allies fear, will enable a large number from those listed for deletion from the national citizenship register to claim citizenship. Even now it is not too late for the government to persuade the misguided allies to see reason.