Assam Chief Minister Sarbanada Sonowal has been reported to have tacitly backed the Union Government’s plan to have the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 passed in Parliament. At present, the Bill has been passed by the Lok Sabha and is pending in the Rajya Sabha. This is despite widespread anger and opposition being voiced against the Bill in his own state and Assam’s neighbouring states of the Northeast.
Sonowal’s comments on Sunday focussed on three aspects. First, he claimed that there was misinformation being spread about the Bill. Second, he claimed that the Union Government was taking pragmatic steps for implementing clause 6 of the Assam Accord. Finally, he claimed that the Union Government was reviewing the proposal to grant Scheduled Tribe (ST) status to six communities in the state.
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Misinformation on the Bill
Attempting to allay the fears of the Assamese people, Sonowal said that obtaining citizenship under the amended provisions would not be automatic. Instead, the process would involve the discretion of the district’s Deputy Commissioner concerned. Though this assertion is true, it still diverts the attention from several issues with the legislation.
First, the amendment will alter the basis for granting citizenship in India by including a fast-track process on the basis of religion and place of origin. The existing law makes no provision for fast- tracking the acquisition of citizenship, let alone providing for religion and place of origin as criteria. The opposition to the Bill in Assam and other parts of the Northeast have been predicated largely on the basis of indigenous rights. However, articulating these grievances has often been done in language which smacks of xenophobia.
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Implementing the Assam Accord
Though Sonowal claimed that the Union Government was taking pragmatic steps towards implementing the Assam Accord. The problem is that most stakeholders have refused to be associated with the committee. Even the chairman of the committee, M.P Bezbaruah, who previously headed the committee to look into the allegations of racial discrimination faced by the people from the Northeast following the killing of Nido Tania, has pulled out. The All Assam Students Union (AASU) was the first to pull out. Their withdrawal was followed by that of two noted figures in Assam’s educational and literary circles.
Implementing clause six of the Accord, which provides for measures to protect the language and culture of the Assamese people, may be seen as a firefighting move following popular opposition to the Bill. It is believed that the committee was to make recommendations regarding reservation in political representation and other measures.
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However, a fundamental flaw with the Bill vis-a-vis Assam and the Northeast arises with respect to political representation. First, the existing law makes it mandatory for citizens filing their nomination papers to be a registered voter on the rolls in the constituency concerned. Second, the right to vote is a civil and political right accorded to all citizens in India. This means that even a person who has recently acquired citizenship is entitled to be enrolled as a voter and to contest elections.
Not that one ought to oppose the rights of citizens taking part in the democratic process, the issue arises with respect to representation. At present, all the states of the Northeast have a representation of 25 members in the Lok Sabha, the same number as Andhra Pradesh. In terms of population, Andhra Pradesh has 25 MPs representing a population of around 4.9 crore, whereas the Northeast has the same number of MPs representing a population of around 4.5 crore. On the face of it, it would appear that the Northeast has a slightly more favourable representation with respect to population. However, if one were to disregard religion and gender as polities to be represented, and limit oneself to linguistic affiliation, Andhra Pradesh has six communities, speaking Telugu, Urdu, Tamil, Kannada, Marathi and Odia. The Northeast as a whole has communities speaking five languages recognised in the Eighth Schedule and over 200 speaking languages and dialects without official recognition.
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In this backdrop, with a much smaller population and a significantly large number of competing ethnic groups, the issue of political representation finds greater significance. This gets heightened when one considers the 21st Century paradigm of indigenous rights, as articulated in Convention 169 of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), and in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). The ILO convention provides a broad definition of who can be considered indigenous, whereas the UNDRIP lays down the obligations on the part of member States to adhere to.
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Scheduled Tribe Promise
Scheduled Tribe status has become a hallowed rite of passage for many communities in the Northeast. Apart from the cynical motivation of reservation in educational institution and government jobs, ST status also confers a degree of protection regarding land alienation. However, the symbolic factor is that ST status has become a badge of being indigenous. In Assam, six communities have been demanding ST status for a while. At present, the pending amendment to the Scheduled Tribes Order only provides for Bodos and Karbis to become STs in Assam. Sonowal’s appeasement regarding their ST status is that the Union Government is looking into the demand.
However, the timing of these promises ought to be taken into consideration with the Lok Sabha elections just around the corner.