Assam stares at mass protests over proposed changes in Citizenship law
The bill, which seeks to amend the Citizenship Act of 1955 in order to grant citizenship to religious minorities from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, has sparked fears about an influx of Hindu Bangladeshis into the state — leading to widespread protests.india Updated: May 17, 2018 23:35 IST
Assam could see another mass movement soon, similar to the six-year-long agitation against illegal immigrants in the 1980s, over the proposed changes in the citizenship law that allows minorities from neighbouring countries to become Indian citizens.
The agitation against illegal immigrants from Bangladesh had culminated with the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985, which assured detection and deportation of foreigners from Assam. Most than 33 years later, the accord is yet to be fully implemented. However, this time, the state could witness an agitation over the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016.
The bill, which seeks to amend the Citizenship Act of 1955 in order to grant citizenship to religious minorities from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, has sparked fears about an influx of Hindu Bangladeshis into the state — leading to widespread protests.
Earlier this month, the joint parliamentary committee (JPC) on the bill conducted public hearings in Guwahati and Silchar to get opinions from the ground about the proposed amendment.
At present, Assam is in the process of completing updation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), which seeks
to weed out illegal immigrants who entered the state after March 24, 1971, when the Bangladesh War started.
The updation is being done as per the provisions of the Assam Accord.
“If the bill is passed, it will render the Assam Accord null and void and will also make the NRC process meaningless. We will not let it happen,” said Lurin Jyoti Gogoi, general secretary of All Assam Students Union (AASU), the students’ body that led the 1979-1985 agitation.
Twenty-eight youth and student organisations are supporting the AASU in its protests against the bill.
Efforts are on to bring together other groups and also lobby with political parties outside the state to oppose the move.
The bill has also put the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is in power in the state, on the back foot.
While senior party leaders staunchly defend the bill, chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal has vowed to step down if he fails to protect Assam’s interests.
The state BJP unit says it will make its stand on the issue clear after the NRC process is over.
“If the state and central governments don’t listen to us and go ahead with the bill, there is a possibility of another mass agitation in Assam. After all, it is the question of our identity,” said Gogoi.
Streets, social media platforms and educational institutions are now the hotbed of activity, joining their hands against the bill.
On Wednesday, students of Dibrugarh University — Sonowal’s alma mater — decided to ban his entry into the institution till the bill is withdrawn.
The state’s 4.30 lakh-strong government employees association, Sodou Asom Karmachari Parishad (SAKP), has also decided to lend support to the protesting parties.
“At present, many employees are busy with the NRC process. We will join the protests after May 31. We expect a long agitation, like the one in the 80s, in order to protect Assamese identity,” SAKP president Basab Kalita said.
The BJP-led government is also facing threats of pull-out from coalition partner Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) — a party that came into being after the Assam Accord was signed and has been in power twice.
“Granting citizenship to Bangladeshi Hindus would dilute the Assam Accord. We will oppose the move to amend the Citizenship Act tooth and nail,” AGP president Atul Bora told HT last month.
Unlike the rest of the state, there have been no major protests against the bill in Barak Valley, where a large number of Bengali speakers reside.
On Monday, miscreants pelted stones at a protest rally organised by AASU in Hailakandi district in Barak Valley against the bill.
The district administration has clamped Section 144, fearing breach of peace over the issue.
The bill has become a bone of contention in other states too, with student bodies and civil society groups in the region up in arms against it.
Meghalaya’s National People’s Party-led coalition, where the BJP is also a partner, has also expressed its reservations with the bill.
In an effort to contain a possible outburst, the JPC has assured more visits to the state to hear public voices.
Some say the way out of another agitation would be to drop the bill or keep Assam outside its purview.