On Wednesday, as the 16th Lok Sabha adjourned, the Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2016 lapsed. The Bill, which seeks to grant Indian citizenship to non-Muslim migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, was passed by the Lok Sabha but the Narendra Modi government never put it up for a vote in the Rajya Sabha.
The Bill was the brainchild of the Bharatiya Janata Party. By introducing a religious test for Indian citizenship, the ruling party sought to pander to its Hindutva support base and, thereby, prepare the ground for the 2019 general election. It has only served to shake up politics in India’s volatile North East, giving fresh impetus to ethnic and communal fault lines in the region.
Assam’s minority Hindu Bengalis supported the legislation but now feel betrayed and angry, seeing the tensions around the failed Bill as further straining their relations with the ethnic Assamese population. The Bill has also angered other ethnic groups in the North East, who fear being swamped by Bangladeshi migrants.
The BJP’s attempts to pilot the Bill through Parliament resulted in unprecedented protests in multiple states in the North East. Mizoram, for example, saw the worst unrest in half a century, with protestors going so far as to threaten secession from India.
Then, of course, there is the anxiety felt by the region’s Muslims, a demographic the Bill targets directly by mandating a religious test for citizenship. This strife is all the more tragic given the region had seen a brief period of calm after decades of ethnic violence.
The purported aim of the Citizenship Bill is to provide shelter to refugees targeted in their countries for religious reasons. On the surface, this is a fine aim. Refugees who desire shelter in India should never be turned away. This is doubly true for Pakistan and Bangladesh, given the legacy of Partition. However, by putting in a sledgehammer religious test for this citizenship, the BJP not only harmed India’s secular ethos, it made it harder to pass a citizenship law for refugees in the first place.
In the end, then, the Bill has little to do with helping refugees and more to do with the BJP’s strategy for the upcoming election. The BJP hopes the communal fault lines that the Bill has opened up will help the party in the North East, West Bengal, and even in the Hindi heartland, where the saffron party has projected the legislation as a Hindu nationalist measure.
Sharpening ethnic and communal divisions to serve partisan political ends is cynical politics by India’s ruling party.