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View: Govt should read warning signs and put passage of Citizenship Amendment Bill on hold

The proposed amendments to the Act have been rejected both by ethnic groups and regional BJP leaders itself.

ET CONTRIBUTORS|
Updated: Jan 17, 2019, 06.58 AM IST
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For starters, the Assam government should withdraw the sedition case against one of its most respected public intellectuals, Hiren Gohain, and two prominent activists
by Sanjoy Hazarika

The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, passed earlier this month in the Lok Sabha, has created a furore across Assam and other states across India. In Assam, a key coalition partner of the ruling BJP, Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), quit the state government, accusing the Centre of being anti-Assam.

Anti-Delhi rage is not new, whether for AGP or other regional parties in Assam. It’s been part of the political landscape from pre-Independence. Delhi may see itself as an easy scapegoat, but in numerous cases, as in this one, it appears to have misread the issue.

As the tumult grows, it should be pointed out here that the Bill is still not yet law, as it has yet to be passed by the Rajya Sabha. Before analysing the impact of the Bill — and why the northeast has reacted as it has — it would be useful to examine a few basic facts and to review the positions of BJP’s own governments in these states and its allies, in their own words.

Thus, the Mizo National Front (MNF) government in Mizoram, setting its eyes on the national level, said it would make concerted efforts to defeat the amendment in the Rajya Sabha, where the Bill is to be tabled next month. This shows the depth and sharpness of the fault lines. The region has long seen opposition to what is perceived as ‘illegal settlement’, which has stoked fear and anger among small communities.

What has emerged is that BJP is itself a divided house — Manipur chief minister N Biren Singh and his Cabinet have opposed it, as have BJP cabinet ministers in Meghalaya. The responses are borne out of anxieties, unassuaged by statements from Delhi, that Hindu settlers would flock to these small states, however unlikely this may seem. The Bill seeks to amend the Citizenship Act of1955, which prescribes the four main methods of acquiring citizenship: by birth, descent, registration and naturalisation. The new Bill says that Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists, Parsis and Christians — but notMuslims — who had come illegally from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan would not be treated as illegal immigrants.

The residence requirement is to be reduced from 11 years to six, while Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) card-holders could lose their status if they violated any laws. A Matter of Constitution Assistant professor in law, Pravin Gandhi College of Law, Mumbai, Apurva Thakur has noted in his article in the Economic and Political Weekly, ‘Why the Citizenship Amendment Bill Goes Against the Basic Tenets of the Constitution’ (goo.gl/mNxHXu), that “to accommodate the growing overseas Indian population, at the turn of the millennium, Parliament introduced the concepts of PIO [person of Indian origin] and OCI and granted them certain limited citizenship rights through an amendment made in 2005”.

Today, these rights stand challenged, as does the core constitutional mandate enshrined in Article 14, which lays down that no one can be discriminated against on grounds of religion.

The proposed amendments to the Citizenship Act have been rejected both by small ethnic groups and large political coalitions across the board in the northeast, including BJP leaders itself, not just its allies. The Manipur cabinet “decided to appeal to the Centre to allow it to not implement the proposed legislation”.

BJP leads a coalition there with 31 seats of its own (a jump from the 21it had won in 2017 to the 60-seat assembly). This wafer-thin majority could face difficulties, since the alliance includes MLAs from allied parties — Naga People’s Front (NPF) and National People’s Party (NPP) of Meghalaya chief minister Conrad Sangma —that have expressed deep concern at the passage of the Bill. NPF shares power with BJP in Nagaland.

A cabinet meeting there underlined the complexity, “Taking into consideration the various imbalances that may emerge and to ensure that peace and tranquillity continues in the state and to ensure the sanctity of all previous regulations… and the rights of the Nagas as provided in Article 371(A) of the Constitution, the issue requires further review”.

In Tripura, where BJP swept to an unprecedented victory a year ago, its coalition partner, Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT), declared, “We have previously opposed the Citizenship Bill and we shall again seek intervention from the central government to reconsider it.” IPFT has eight seats in the 60-member assembly. In Meghalaya, the ruling coalition, cobbled together from no less than five parties, in BJP health minister AL Hek’s words, “unanimously passed a resolution to oppose the Bill”. Sit, Talk, Resolve GoI needs to heed this robust opposition.

Such confrontation would undermine a hard-won peace in Assam and in neighbouring states that has come after many years, much sacrifice, bloodshed, trauma and negotiations. The rise of fresh anger against the Centre could damage not just one party, but also enable the rise of those very forces that had lost credibility and been long dormant. It is time to read the warning signs and reach out to calm the waters.

For starters, the Assam government should withdraw the sedition case against one of its most respected public intellectuals, Hiren Gohain, and two prominent activists. On its part, GoI should put the passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill on hold and offer talks. Since dialogue is the key, those agitating also would need to come to the negotiating table.

The writer is director, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI)

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this column are that of the writer. The facts and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of www.economictimes.com.)

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