India needs to guard against any attempts by remnants of insurgent groups to reignite insurgencies in its North East
The Indian parliament on 11 December passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAB) 2019, which upon receiving the President’s assent the following day became the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. This Bill had been tabled in parliament earlier in January this year by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), but after passage in the lower house, the Lok Sabha, was not pursued through the upper house, the Rajya Sabha, due to strong opposition by mainly centrist and left-leaning rival parties. The Bill subsequently lapsed. The CAB, however, continued to be a priority for the BJP, and figured in the manifesto of the party for the May 2019 general elections in India in which the party won a landslide victory. Following that victory, the party has demonstrated a resolute and unwavering intent to fulfill the pre-election pledges contained in its manifesto, of which the abrogation of Article 370 of India’s constitution that granted a special status to Jammu & Kashmir, construction of a Ram temple at the site of the desecrated Babri mosque in Ayodhya, and promulgation of the CAB, it can now claim to have implemented within a few short months of commencing its second innings at the helm.
The CAB sought to amend clause (b) under sub-section (1) of section 2 of the Citizenship Act, 1955, that defines an “illegal immigrant” as follows: “Illegal immigrant means a foreigner who has entered into India (i) without a valid passport or other travel documents and such other document or authority as may be prescribed by or under any law in that behalf; or (ii) with a valid passport or other travel documents and such other document or authority as may be prescribed by or under any law in that behalf but remains therein beyond the permitted period of time”. The CAB inserted a proviso to qualify this definition that read, “Provided that any person belonging to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian community from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan, who entered into India on or before the 31st day of December, 2014 and who has been exempted by the Central government by or under clause (c) of sub-section (2) of section 3 of the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920, or from the application of the provisions of the Foreigners Act, 1946, or any rule or order made thereunder, shall not be treated as illegal migrant for the purposes of this Act”.
The requirement for the amendment was explained in the CAB’s contention that “Millions of citizens of undivided India belonging to various faiths were staying in the said areas of Pakistan and Bangladesh when India was partitioned in 1947. The constitutions of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh provide for a specific state religion. As a result, many persons belonging to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian communities have faced persecution on grounds of religion in those countries. Some of them also have fears about such persecution in their day-to-day life where right to practice, profess and propagate their religion has been obstructed and restricted. Many such persons have fled to India to seek shelter and continued to stay in India even if their travel documents have expired or they have incomplete or no documents. The illegal immigrants who have entered into India up to the cut-off date of December 31, 2014 need a special regime to govern their citizenship matters. For this purpose, the Central government or an authority specified by it shall grant the certificate of registration or certificate of naturalisation subject to such conditions, restrictions and manner as may be prescribed”.
The passage of the CAB through the lower house of parliament did not pose any problem for the NDA, given the huge majority that it boasts. Despite not having a clear majority in the upper house, the NDA secured the support of some regional parties that eventually enabled it to get the Bill through with a comfortable margin. The Bill, nevertheless, came in for strong criticism from the opposition which inter alia alleged that the Bill was discriminatory against Muslims, violative of the Constitution, and against the idea, and the values of India. The view that the CAA appeared innocuous until it was linked and seen in conjunction with the National Register of Citizens (NRC), an exercise being undertaken in the state of Assam to identify and sift out illegal immigrants, but which BJP leaders have said would be extended across the whole country, has also gained traction after the Bill was passed. The NRC required all 33 million residents of Assam to prove, with documentary evidence, that they or their ancestors were Indian citizens. Over 1.9 million people cutting across religious beliefs failed to do so.
The passage of the CAB has led to countrywide protests spearheaded by students that first erupted, unsurprisingly, in Assam and other neighbouring north-east Indian states, and then spread nation-wide. Some political parties, including constituents of the NDA, and others who had voted in favour of the CAB in parliament, have since reversed their stand. The CAA has also been challenged in India’s Supreme Court by multiple political parties and several individuals.
The debate on the CAB in parliament and outside after its passage was highly polarized and as sharp as it was impassioned. Sonia Gandhi, Chairperson of the opposition Congress party, in a statement on 11 December described the passage of the CAB in parliament as “the victory of narrow-minded and bigoted forces over India’s pluralism” as the CAB “fundamentally challenges the idea of India that our forefathers fought for”. She termed it as a dark day in the constitutional history of India. Her son and predecessor in the party post, Rahul Gandhi, tweeted, “The #CAB is an attack on the Indian constitution. Anyone who supports it is attacking and attempting to destroy the foundation of our nation”.
Senior Congress leader P. Chidambaram described the introduction of the CAB in parliament as a sad day on which “elected Parliamentarians are being asked to do something unconstitutional. The Bill is patently unconstitutional. The government says ‘130 crore (1.3 Billion – India’s total population) people are supporting them’, but the entire North East is in flames”. Chidambaram also put forth some incisive questions to the movers of the CAB, “How do you group three countries and leave out the rest? How do you categorize six religious groups and leave out the rest? Why have you excluded Sri Lankan Hindus and Bhutanese Christians? Semitic religions are three, Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Why have you left out Islam and Judaism from the beneficiaries? And why only religious persecution… are people not persecuted on political and linguistic grounds?” Chidambaram’s party colleague Anand Sharma averred that the CAB violated Article 14 (that provides equality before law) and Article 15 (that says there can be no discrimination on the basis of religion) of the Constitution. Another Congress leader, Gaurav Gogoi from Assam, asked other questions, “Given the state of nationwide protests in the aftermath of Citizenship Amendment Act, will it not be wise to repeal this controversial Act immediately? The economy is tanking, prices are rising and joblessness is increasing. Will PM Modi and HM Amit Shah understand the gravity?”
Other opposition parties have been equally vociferous. Sitaram Yechury, Secretary General of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), tweeted, “We have always believed that the new citizenship law is unconstitutional. It violates the founding principles of our Republic. CPI (M) has decided to challenge the CAA in the Supreme Court”. He added, “No amount of censorship, internet bans, PR and diversions can cover up the anger witnessed across the country on this govt's new Citizenship law. The protests are happening across regions and communities, who are all united against this attempt to divide India”. Another leader of Yechury’s party, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, tweeted, “The Citizenship Amendment Bill is an attack on the secular and democratic character of India. The move to decide citizenship on the basis of religion amounts to a rejection of the Constitution. It will only take our country backward. Our hard-fought freedom is at stake”. Meanwhile, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal urged the Central government to withdraw the CAA, which he termed “dangerous” and opined “will do no good to the country”. He added that only “Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Afghans stand to benefit from it”.
Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) leader MK Stalin lamented the passage of the Bill in the parliament by tweeting, “It is unconstitutional to link citizenship with religion. CAB 2019 is a direct assault on secularism, equality and fraternity - principles which are essential to any democracy”. Stalin’s colleague Dayanidhi Maran alleged that the Bill completely ignored Sri Lankan Tamils. All India Trinamool Congress (TMC) leader Derek O'Brien described the CAB as unconstitutional, anti-Bengali, and anti-Indian. Asaduddin Owaisi, head of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM) party, alleged that “This Bill has been brought in to accommodate Hindus left behind in NRC which will now make many lakh (hundred thousand) Muslims stateless. This is a historic blunder”. Uddhav Thackeray of the Shiv Sena, a former ally of the BJP, opined that “We need to change this notion that one who supports the Bill and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is a patriot and one who opposes it is anti-national. The government should answer all the issues raised on the Bill”.
The BJP and most of its NDA allies were equally vocal and argumentative about the propriety and desirability of the CAA. Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted on 11 December that it was “A landmark day for India and our nation’s ethos of compassion and brotherhood! Glad that the #CAB2019 has been passed in the #RajyaSabha. Gratitude to all the MPs who voted in favour of the Bill. This Bill will alleviate the suffering of many who faced persecution for years”. He subsequently reached out to the people of Assam and other states in the north-east after protests broke out there with the calming words that the passage of the CAA “illustrates India’s centuries old culture of acceptance, harmony, compassion and brotherhood. I want to unequivocally assure my fellow Indians that CAA does not affect any citizen of India of any religion. No Indian has anything to worry regarding this Act. This Act is only for those who have faced years of persecution outside and have no other place to go except India. The need of the hour is for all of us to work together for the development of India and the empowerment of every Indian, especially the poor, downtrodden and marginalised. We cannot allow vested interest groups to divide us and create disturbance. This is the time to maintain peace, unity and brotherhood”.
Senior BJP leader and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh echoed Modi when he tweeted that “It is a memorable day in the history of Independent India as the passage of Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2019 in both the Houses of Parliament has paved the way for the people facing religious persecution to live a life of dignity and get access to every possible opportunity”. BJP working President JP Nadda asked the Opposition to let go of politics and think of the nation. He said that the Bill does not violate Article 14 of the Constitution, as it had nothing to do with the right to equality since no Indian was being denied his rights. He quoted senior Congress leader and former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as having said some years ago in the Rajya Sabha that persecuted minorities should be granted citizenship. He added that there was documented evidence to show that the population of Pakistan's minorities has decreased significantly since independence.
BJP leader and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath described the passage of the Bill as a “golden day in the Parliamentary history of India”, which “also revealed the true face of Congress party and its allies”. Another BJP leader Subramanian Swamy accused the Opposition of being confused between the CAB and the NRC. He said that the Article 11 of the Constitution gave the Indian parliament the powers to make changes to rights of citizenship. He added that a fairly large number of “Not only Hindus, others like Christians and Parsis are leaving Pakistan”. He averred that the government was finally acting on something that was a long recognized problem. Yet another party leader and the Chief Minister of Assam, Sarbananda Sonowal, tweeted that “We are committed to protect all genuine Indian citizens and the rights of the people of Assam. I call upon all sections of the society to thwart the elements who are misleading the people on #CAA & indulging in violence and together continue the growth journey of Assam”.
The most detailed and scathing response to the opposition’s reservations over the Bill came from Home Minister Amit Shah, who presented and debated the Bill in both houses of parliament, and had been tasked by PM Modi to see it through. Shah described the CAB as a “historic Bill” that sought to complete what the “Nehru-Liaqat pact could not do”. This pact, signed between the then PMs of India and Pakistan in 1950, was aimed at safeguarding the rights of minorities in both countries. He assured that “The Bill has no provision to snatch citizenship from anyone but to grant citizenship to the refugees. There is no need for Indian Muslims to live in fear. India has given respect to its Muslim population. This Bill does not discriminate against them. India will never be Muslim mukt (free)”. He added, however, that “If you expect that Muslims from all over the world would be accommodated here, then you are mistaken. This country will not function like this”.
Shah refuted charges that the CAB was anti-minority, and opined that had the Congress not partitioned the nation on the basis of religion, the need for bringing this legislative remedy would not have arisen. “This Bill doesn’t take away the right of minorities in India. Why do we need this Bill today? After independence, if Congress had not carried out partition of the country on the basis on religion, today we would have not needed this Bill”. Shah argued that while Hindus, Sikhs and other religious minorities in these three Islamic nations mentioned in the Bill did face religious persecution at home and had nowhere to go apart from India, which was their natural, civilizational and ancestral home, it was inconceivable that Muslims would face religious persecution in nations where they form the majority. The question of granting Muslims citizenship on this ground, Shah averred, therefore does not arise. Shah clarified that if any Muslims from these three Islamic nations apply for citizenship, their cases will be considered in all seriousness under existing laws.
On the suggestion that the Bill was violative of Article 14 of the Constitution, Shah said that the basis of the Bill is “reasonable classification”, and religious persecution is a valid ground for reasonable classification. He felt that it does not violate any proviso of the Constitution, and recalled that laws have been framed earlier and citizenship accorded to people on several occasions, including by former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1971 after the creation of Bangladesh, or attacks on Indians in Uganda, by using the provision of reasonable classifications. Shah also mentioned citizenship rules of the United States (US), which award green cards to migrants not based on equality but the value that they bring to the host nation. In other words, reasonable classification is also the basis behind the US rule.
Shah urged opponents not to link the CAB with the NRC, elaborating that the two had different purposes. While the latter was to identify illegal immigrants, CAB was aimed at benefitting non-Muslim refugees who seek permanent shelter in India. He tweeted, “CAA is to give citizenship to religiously persecuted refugees, it is not to take away citizenship of any Indian. Some parties are spreading rumours and inciting violence for their political interest. I request students to go through the CAA once and not fall in their trap”. He also said that other neighbouring countries like Nepal and Sri Lanka were not mentioned in the CAB as those were not theocratic States.
The most weighty argument that Shah proffered was that the BJP had clearly indicated its intent to table the CAB in its election manifesto for the 2019 general election, and the people of the country had voted overwhelmingly for it. He said, “It is not vote bank politics. We told the people before the elections and won the people’s mandate and approval”.
The polarization in India over the CAA has posed serious constitutional, political, and ethical questions to the people of the country as well as its institutions. Astute handling of the situation within India’s democratic framework, while at all times keeping the larger national interest in focus, appears to be the way out. How it will play out will become clearer in the days to come, especially once the Supreme Court gets involved.
While the political solutions are being arrived at, India must not lose sight of the imperative to preserve the hard-earned peace that has been ushered into Assam and the other 6 volatile states of the north east after decades of violent insurgencies. The north east, which is critical for the Modi government’s Act East policy, is connected to India through a thin sliver of land that constitutes less than 2% of its territory. Integration of the region into the Indian mainstream has been a labored process, which of late had been showing signs of speeding up. The reasons to ensure stability in the region are, therefore, many.
The people of Assam, as also the rest of the north east, fear being swamped by refugees, both Hindus and Muslims, from neighbouring Bangladesh, who over the decades have entered the region illegally and altered its demographic profile. The genesis of the militant United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), which has plagued the state for over 30 years, lay in the struggles of the “anti-foreigner movement” that was launched in 1979 by the All Assam Student’s Union (AASU) and the All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP) for the detection of illegal immigrants, their deletion from the voters’ list, and their deportation to Bangladesh.
The AASU is again at the forefront of the ongoing anti-CAA protests in Assam. The ULFA (Independent) is, meanwhile, watching keenly from its bases in Myanmar and China, desperate to resurrect itself by capitalizing on any instability and signs of disaffection in Assam. ULFA has already begun reaching out to the protestors. Its chief, Paresh Baruah, in a message on 11 December, sought to win sympathy and support by saying that “The ULFA-I will not sit idle if a protesting student or any Assamese for that matter is assaulted. We appeal to Bhaskarjyoti Mahanta, Director General of Police (DGP) of Assam Police, not to lathicharge (baton charge) people taking to the streets and vehemently opposing the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. The DGP should control his police force and not harass innocent protesters”.
Stability in the north east was achieved by India through blood and toil. Amidst, and despite, the turmoil that has engulfed the country over the CAA, keeping the peace in Assam and the rest of the north east by preventing the existing remnants of insurgent groups from gaining any traction among the populace, and inhibiting the sprouting of new insurgencies, must remain a priority for India.