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Will Assam Burn While BJP Fiddles With the Citizenship Bill?

Vivan Eyben |
Opposition to the Citizenship Bill has pushed several educated young people in Assam to join ULFA(I). However, reports indicate that the BJP is hell-bent on passing the Bill.
Citizenship Bill protest Assam

Protesters in Assam agitating against the Citizenship Bill in May this year. Image Credit: Indian Express

On Friday, the Assam Police confirmed that Abhijeet Gogoi, a software engineer had joined the United Liberation Front of Assam (Independent). Gogoi is just one of the many young people to join the armed political group in recent times. The first shock for many was when 25-year-old Pankaj Pratim Dutta, the vice president of the Dergaon unit of the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) joined the underground group in October. Following the Facebook video he uploaded, in which he apologised to his family and colleagues in AASU, many others have joined ULFA(I). On November 13, a report stated that Karishma Mech, a 16-year-old kickboxer from Lekhapani had also joined. Muna Baruah, the nephew of ULFA(I) chairman, Paresh Baruah who had an apprenticeship in Oil India Corporation in Digboi joined the group on November 15. What is common in all these new and educated recruits is that the Bharatiya Janata Party’s stubborn resolve over the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, has been the dominating push factor.

The Citizenship Bill

The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, is an attempt to amend India’s citizenship law to ease the process of obtaining Indian citizenship. However, in its present form, the Bill would make undocumented migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan who are Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians, eligible for citizenship. The Third Schedule of the Citizenship Act provides for conditions to obtain citizenship by naturalisation. Two relevant points in this regard are that it does not apply to illegal immigrants, and to obtain citizenship one has to have resided in India for 12 years consecutively. The proposed amendment would reduce this time to six years. The Bill presumes that all persons who belong to the mentioned religions and come from the specified countries are persecuted minorities. Considering that atheists too have come under attack in the list of countries, one could wonder why atheists are not included.

The Bill has been controversial for two reasons. Firstly, to the secular minded populace of India, the Bill’s overtly discriminatory nature violates the Constitution. The second reason is that the Bill is likely to vitiate the tentative stability the North Eastern region has witnessed over the past few years. In the run up to and during the Monsoon Session, student and civil society organisations in the Northeast organised large-scale protests against the Bill. The Meghalaya Cabinet – which includes a BJP Minister – passed a resolution against it. The Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) when it visited the Northeast to take aboard the public’s opinions received several memorandums against the Bill. The result was that the Bill was not pushed during the Monsoon Session.

Also Read | The Citizenship Bill and the Resurgence of the Rising Sun

Disagreements in the Joint Parliamentary Committee

Though the Bill had been shelved for the Monsoon Session of Parliament this year, the JPC at present seems determined to table it in the upcoming Winter Session. This has added to the anxiety in Assam and other North eastern states that locals may soon become outnumbered in their homelands. The North East Students’ Organisation (NESO) has resumed its agitation against the Bill. In the wake of the agitation against the Bill as well as ULFA(I) increasing its cadre quality if not cadre base, Assam Finance Minister and BJP strategist, Himanta Biswa Sarma proposed a deal with Paresh Baruah that the Bill will be dropped if ULFA(I) comes overground for talks. The Economic Times reported that the JPC was not particularly pleased with the comment.

The JPC meeting on November 20 was a site of great disagreement. The Millennium Post reported that the opposition members of parliament (MP) who were part of the committee said that they had not received any notice for submitting amendments. The BJP members apparently turned up in full strength and demanded that the Bill be passed in its current form. Following protests from the opposition MPs –who even threatened a walkout – the chairperson of the JPC gave them three days’ time to submit their amendments.

Also Read | Is Assam being Polarised on the Citizenship Bill Issue?

On November 23, the Economic Times reported that the BJP MPs from the Northeastern states urged the JPC to ‘go slow’ with the Bill and to remove Bangladesh from the list of countries mentioned. The same article also quoted Trinamool Congress (TMC) MP Sougata Roy as saying that after the National Register of Citizens (NRC), the BJP has lost considerable support in Assam, hence the Bill is a means to regain some of that support and that they would be likely to place a report on December 6 and push it in the Winter Session. The BJP MPs also raised concerns on relations with Bangladesh considering that the Winter Session coincides with the elections in the neighbouring country.

The opposition parties have opposed the Bill as it discriminates on the basis of religion. On November 28, the Economic Times reported that the JPC had been granted an extension till the first day of the last week of the Winter Session of Parliament.

The pertinent point here is that while the JPC members may disagree on whether the Bill is discriminatory or not, the Citizenship Bill is unlikely to be passed in the Winter Session as the BJP does not have the numbers in the Rajya Sabha. Irrespective of the legislative process, the political implications of even proposing such a Bill at a time when the insider-outsider debate has once again reached a peak in the Northeast are potentially disastrous. Not in terms of electoral politics, with the surge in recruitment, the issue is beyond elections. The debate has reached a stage where those with a certain bent of mind are thinking of ‘sovereignty’ rather than Inner Line Permits and regional autonomy.

Also Read | The BJP Will Find Itself in a Bind Over the NRC

Changed Strategy and Tactics of ULFA(I)

Another point that is worth noting is that despite the General Secretary of the pro-talks faction, Anup Chetia’s allusion to the 1979 – 1985 period in an article in First Post, the situation now is tactically very different. ULFA(I) appears to have taken a leaf out of the play-books of the Islamic State as well as the Hizbul-Mujahideen. The new recruits are uploading videos on social media wherein they provide some bio-data as well as explain and justify their decision to join the underground. This may be the first time that the Northeast has witnessed such a marketing technique.

In an interview given to The Week, Paresh Baruah provided some broad information that puts a lot of things into perspective. Firstly, Baruah told The Week that he is not in favour of the National Register of Citizens (NRC). Despite recognising the grievance of the Assamese people, according to him, the process is being done specifically to create divisions on the basis of religion and language. However, the more telling part of the interview was when he referred to the leadership shuffle in the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang) [NSCN(K)]. He claimed that he had recommended bringing in younger people into the leadership and the NSCN(K) had accepted his suggestion. When asked about ULFA(I), he responded that he too could soon be hanging up his boots in favour of a younger leadership.

What Baruah’s statement reveals is that the thrust for the armed political groups at present, is to devise a mechanism for perpetual existence through peaceful succession, thus reducing the likelihood of power-struggles. This can spell trouble for any government hoping to hold talks. However, with the overflowing opposition to the Citizenship Bill, ULFA(I) is likely to have quite a pool of talent to choose from.

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