Fear and loathing in the North-East: Citizenship Bill brings region to boiling point

Pratim Ranjan Bose Guwahati | Updated on January 13, 2019 Published on January 13, 2019

The new Bill promises to grant citizenship to religious minorities (including Hindus) from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, provided they have been in India for six years

Pinku Kalita, 28-year-old Uber driver in Guwahati, is caught between the devil and the deep sea.

On the one hand, he finds logic in the State-wide protests against the Narendra Modi government’s decision to move ahead with the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016.

On the other, the protests are potent enough to hurt the recent economic buoyancy in the State, and ruin his business.

Kalita voted for the BJP in the 2014 Lok Sabha and 2016 State Assembly elections. But 2019 will be different.

“The BJP government did so many good things. The illegal immigration from Bangladesh reduced. Roads and highways got better. Availability of electricity improved substantially. LPG connections are available. But they will suffer big time for this single step,” he said.

He is not alone. Ethnic populations in all North-Eastern States are against the Bill. The Meghalaya Cabinet, which has representation from BJP, took a cabinet decision against the move. The BJP government in Manipur sought exemptions. Mizoram BJP opposed the Bill.

The debate

The situation is more complex in Assam, which is witnessing implementation of NRC (National Registration) — that promised to identify illegal immigrants from Bangladesh — under Supreme Court monitoring. NRC was an Assam Accord (1985) demand.

So far, a little over 10 per cent of Assam’s three crore-strong population has failed to qualify. The number may reduce, once the procedures come to an end, but it adds credence to the age-old controversy about illegal immigration and demographic change in border States.

According to a World Bank working paper, the total number of Bangladeshi immigrants in India may be as high as two crore. In West Bengal, the share of Muslim population has increased by nearly 10 percentage points from the pre-Partition level at 30 per cent since 1981. In contrast, the Hindu population in Bangladesh slid from 25 per cent to less than 10 per cent.

The new Bill promises citizenship to religious minorities (including Hindus) from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, provided they have been in India for six years. Clearly, the Bill has wider electoral implications across the country, especially in States like Bengal or Punjab.

For Assam, implementation of the Bill will mean half-baked implementation of the Assam Accord, which sets March 31, 1971, as the cut-off date for naturalisation of citizenship. Ethnic Assamese are wary that opening the floodgates might repeat the experiences of Tripura, where the indigenous Tripuri tribe lost political power to the influx of the Hindu Bengalis from Bangladesh. Exempting the North-East from the purview of the Citizenship Bill would have been a good idea. Instead, the BJP is trying to deflect sentiments by a hasty promise to reserve seats for the ethnic population under clause six of the Assam Accord.

While no one is against such reservation, the Opposition and major ethnic groups were quick to point out that the promise cannot be implemented during the remaining period of the government as the implementation committee would take six months to submit the report. The All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) does not want to be part of the drill, and at least three more (proposed) members have quit the panel.

Meanwhile, some ethnic groups are up in arms against the Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order (Second Amendment) Bill, 2019, that promises inclusion of six more indigenous communities in Assam as Scheduled Tribes.

The Bill is awaiting clearance by the Rajya Sabha.

Bad for business

It is difficult to say which way things are moving, politically. Will the BJP be successful in its attempts to divide votes along different sub-nationalities, or will Assamese nationality prevail? However, one thing is sure. After nearly five to six years of peace, protests have become a daily routine across the State.

Since January 8, there have been at least two bandhs and innumerable sporadic protests, attacks on the BJP office, etc, in districts. And that keeps local enterprise on tenterhooks. According to official estimates, Assam received ₹6,000 crore actual investments over the last two years of BJP rule.

Local chambers suggest investments worth another ₹4,000-5,000 crore are under implementation in sectors like FMCG, pharmaceuticals, logistics etc. Britannia, ITC, Emami, all have huge exposure in the State. Some are planning expansions.

With peace, tourists have started taking interest in this once-forgotten region.

The fear is that ongoing protests may dampen sentiments again. Ashish Phookan, MD of JTI group, which runs a premium river cruise, mostly availed by foreigners, on Brahmaputra, reported cancellations on January 8 and 9, during the AASU-sponsored bandh. He is concerned that as the news of unrest spreads, tourists will switch destinations. The argument holds good for potential investors too.

“Considering the disturbed past of the region and the State, the current spate of volatility may put many potential investors on wait-and-watch mode,” said a representative of a leading chamber.

And that sends shivers down Pinku Kalita’s spine. He took the risk of buying the car with a bank loan, and ran taxi services anticipating market growth. Disruptions will unsettle him.

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Published on January 13, 2019
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