Citizenship Bill explainer: A double-edged sword for the BJP

While BJP may gain at least 30 lakh votes, it stands to alienate 1.4 crore Assamese Hindus. Thus, in purely mathematical terms, the Citizenship Bill may spell disaster for BJP in the long term

Photo courtesy: PTI
Photo courtesy: PTI

Tathagata Bhattacharya

What is the Citizenship Amendment Bill?

The Bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha in 2016 seeking to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955, to grant Indian citizenship to Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians, who fled Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan due to religious persecution and migrated to India before December 31, 2014. The Bill was passed by the Lok Sabha on January 8, 2019. People belonging to the above-mentioned category, who entered India before December 31, 2014 and have spent at least six years, will be made citizens if it is passed by the Rajya Sabha.

What is in it for the BJP?

The BJP wants to consolidate and increase the Hindu vote bank in Assam. Muslims, 34 per cent of Assam’s population, are in a majority in at least 11 of the 33 districts in the state. If nearly 3 million Bengali-speaking Hindus are made citizens, this will greatly alter the demographic situation on the ground in those 11 districts.

What is the reaction of political parties and majority of the citizens of Assam?

The various organisations belonging to Assamese and other indigenous communities say the Citizenship Bill violates the Assam Accord of 1985 and the NRC process. The Assam Accord held that Bangladeshi immigrants who came to Assam after March 24, 1971, would be detected and deported. The NRC list is being prepared on the basis of the same cut-off date.

They fear that the Bill is a threat to Assam’s land, language and distinctive culture. They do not distinguish between a Muslim and a non-Muslim immigrant. The various Assamese organisations say that the Assamese, which had defeated the mighty Mughal Empire more than ten times to protect Assam’s land and culture, do not need “Hindu Bangladeshis” for their protection.

Will it benefit the BJP?

A large number of the 40 lakh people, at least 30 lakh of them, who were left out of the complete draft of NRC, are Bengali-speaking Hindus. Traditionally, a Congress vote bank, they have veered towards the BJP in the last few years on the Citizenship Bill issue. While the BJP may gain those 3 million votes, it stands to alienate the 14 million Assamese Hindus. Thus, in purely mathematical terms, it may spell disaster for the BJP in the long term.

How are the BJP-anchored North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) allies positioned on this issue?

The Asom Gana Parishad, BJP’s main ally in Assam, has pulled out of the NEDA and the NDA. Conrad Sangma, Meghalaya Chief Minister and leader of National People’s Party, has asked for the Bill to be scrapped. Mizoram Chief Minister Zoramthanga, the Mizo National Front supremo, has echoed the demand. So has Neiphiu Rio, Nagaland Chief Minister and Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party chief. In Tripura, the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura has announced its protest across the state against the Bill. This leads to one conclusion: that the BJP’s game plan in the Northeast has been severely jolted by this move.

Can the Bill stand up to scrutiny in a court of law?

The Supreme Court has already said that it would hear a PIL filed against the Bill only after and if the Rajya Sabha passes it. However, jurists mostly agree that the Bill is fundamentally unconstitutional. In the Bill, the illegal immigrants who are to be granted the benefit of this legislation are to qualify for citizenship only on the basis of religion; a requirement that goes against one of the basic tenets of the Indian Constitution: that of secularism. Moreover, the OCI and PIO categories have been merged haphazardly, leaving loopholes in the definition of their position as citizens of India.

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