The Big Story: A divisive bill

Over the past few weeks, Assam has been roiled by protests as the joint parliamentary committee on the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016 visited the state to hold public consultations. Protests also spread to other North Eastern states, particularly Meghalaya, which the joint parliamentary committee also visited briefly. The North Eastern Students’ Organisation, a conglomerate of various student bodies, has also launched an agitation. These protests reveal the many fissures opened up by a bill where citizenship is premised on religion. To the states of the North East, struggling to find peace after decades of ethnic insurgencies, the bill threatens instability once more.

The bill, a pet project of the Bharatiya Janata Party, aims to make certain crucial changes to the Citizenship Act of 1955. It allows illegal migrants who are Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains and Parsis from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh to become eligible for citizenship. It also eases the terms of naturalisation for individuals from these groups. The clauses of the amendment imply that citizenship will be facilitated only for non-Muslim minorities from the three countries.

In the states of North East, the reasons for protest are also exclusionary. In a region where ethnic nationalisms have been framed as “indigenous” inhabitants versus “outsiders”, all foreigners, no matter which religion they belong to, are to be expelled. The flame of Assamese nationalism, which spurred the anti-foreigners’ agitation of the 1980s, led to the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985. Under the terms of the accord, anyone who could not prove that they or their ancestors had entered the state from outside the country before midnight on March 24, 1971, was to be declared a foreigner and eventually deported. The cut-off date coincides with the start of the Bangladesh War, which triggered a wave of migration from across the eastern border. Over the last few decades, the fear of illegal immigrants has remained the driving force in Assam’s politics.

In Assam, the bill is a disruptive force in various ways. First, it contradicts the exercise to update the National Register of Citizens in Assam. A bureaucratic process that aims to root out so-called illegal immigrants from the state and its electoral rolls, the register is based on the clauses of the Assam Accord. For regionalists, the bill would dilute the accord and the citizens’ register. For Muslims in Assam, who already feel targeted by the updating exercise, the bill sharpens the fear that they will be left stateless. Second, the bill has reopened the old rupture between the Brahmaputra Valley, which is ranged against the proposed legislation, and the Barak Valley, home to a large Bengali-speaking population that has expressed its support for the bill. The tensions between the two regions date back to Partition and even gave rise to a separate statehood demand in the Barak Valley.

Third, the pro-talks faction of the United Liberation Front of Asom and other groups engaged in negotiations with the government have threatened to pull out of the peace process if the bill is passed. The proposed legislation would unravel decades of efforts to end armed insurgencies that have taken a heavy toll on the state. Finally, the bill has put the BJP-led Assam government in a tight spot. Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal recently vowed to step down if he could not protect Assamese interests. But these assurances may not go a long way when other BJP ministers in the Assam government remain silent on it and the party high command seem to actively endorse it. The bill also has also made the BJP’s coalition partner, the Asom Gana Parishad, wary. A regionalist party that grew out of the anti-foreigners’ agitation, the Asom Gana Parishad has threatened to withdraw from the coalition if the bill is passed. So in Assam alone, the bill could lead to a political crisis of grave proportions.

The possible repercussions on the North East should be another reason for the Centre to pause and reconsider the bill. There are, of course, many reasons for the Centre to reconsider the bill, not least because it violates basic principles of secularism enshrined in the Constitution. But then, the animating impulse of the bill has been the BJP’s vision of India as a “natural home” for Hindus, an idea asserted by the prime minister in his election campaigns in the North East. If principled objections based on constitutional values do not cut ice with the government, it could at least consider the very real consequences on the ground.

The Big Scroll

Arunabh Saikia reports on the protests against the bill in the Brahmaputra Valley and the support for it in the Barak Valley.


  1. In the Indian Express, Suhas Palshikar observes that the BJP’s reliance on the prime minister for poll campaigns could be a handicap while the Congress needs to go beyond identity in its electoral discourse.
  2. In the Hindu, Afshaan Yasmeen and S Anil Radakrishnan on Kerala Tourism’s offer to Karnataka,
  3. In the Economic Times, Neerja Chowdhury reads the tea leaves for 2019.


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