North-east erupts ahead of Citizenship Amendment Bill’s test in Rajya Sabha
Thousands of people blocked roads, burnt tyres and damaged vehicles as massive street protests erupted across the north-east against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill [CAB] 2019 on Tuesday, a day before it comes up in the Rajya Sabha, with the government confident of pushing through a legislation that fulfils a key election promise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Large crowds gathered outside the houses of many prominent politicians and burnt effigies to oppose the draft legislation that cleared the Lok Sabha shortly after midnight on Tuesday. Others hurled stones at police and picketed railway tracks to observe the 11-hour strike called by civil society and student organisations, even as the state government appealed for calm and blamed misinformation for the simmering anger.
“The bandh (strike) has drawn a total response in the north-eastern states,” said Samujjal Bhattacharyya, chief adviser of All Assam Students Union (AASU). “We have made it clear ... CAB will not be accepted and we are going to intensify our agitation.”
In Tripura, authorities suspended internet and SMS services for 48 hours after violent clashes. At least 1,400 protesters were detained. Protests were also reported from West Bengal.
CAB seeks to amend the 1955 Citizenship Act by bestowing citizenship to Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Christians, Parsis and Jains who entered India from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan on or before December 31, 2014. North-eastern groups feel the draft legislation will legitimise the influx of illegal immigrants into the region.
In Delhi, the government continued to defend the bill that has sharply polarised opinion and sparked protests by activists and opposition parties, who say CAB is unconstitutional because it links faith to citizenship. “We are sure that the bill will be passed by the Rajya Sabha. We have the numbers. We have the support of regional parties,” said BJP MP GVL Narasimha Rao.
The government, which lacks a majority in the Upper House, is counting on the support of parties such as the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, YSR Congress Party, Telugu Desam Party and Janata Dal (United) to cross the halfway mark. In the Lok Sabha, the bill had sailed through 334-106 — the tally was revised on Tuesday — with a number of parties outside the ruling National Democratic Alliance backing the government.
But the Opposition vowed to block the bill. “We had a meeting with other like-minded parties… we were as many as 13 political parties and we unanimously decided that we will vote against this bill, because it is against the basic structure of the Constitution,” said senior Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad. The party also announced nationwide protests against the bill.
At least 600 writers, artists, activists, former bureaucrats and ex-judges released an open letter opposing CAB. “All of us from the cultural and academic communities condemn this bill as divisive, discriminatory and unconstitutional,” it read. In 2016, a previous version of the bill sparked violent clashes in the north-east. To assuage these sentiments, the current bill exempts areas with inner line permit (ILP) – which mandate prior permission for non-locals and exist in Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram – and regions under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, which deals with autonomous tribal-dominated regions. But violent clashes that roiled the north-east on Tuesday indicated that activists and civil society were not satisfied with the provisions. “If CAB is not suitable for states with ILP and areas that come under the Sixth Schedule, then how is it good for rest of Assam and other areas which don’t fall in those two categories?” questioned Bhattacharya. The general strike, called by the North East Students Organisation (NESO), began at 5am. In Assam, thousands marched on the streets, and damaged vehicles. Business establishments, schools and colleges remained shut. The Northeast Frontier Railway (NFR) cancelled or curtailed the services of 18 trains.
Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal asked protesters to not spread “misinformation” and said no one should allow “divisive forces” to destabilise the state. In Nagaland, members of Naga Students Federation (NSF) held a sit-in protest in front of the Raj Bhavan in Kohima. In Tripura, about 40 people were injured in clashes in three places.
Many eminent citizens, filmmakers, actors and performing artists joined the demonstrations. National award winner director Jahnu Barua withdrew his film from the state film awards as a mark of protest.
The only region that remained largely peaceful was the Bengali-dominated Barak Valley where many local residents welcomed CAB. In Amraghat village of Cachar district, the family of Ajit Das believed the bill will end their woes. Das, a declared foreigner, has served three months in detention and is currently out on bail.
“The newspaper report said once the Bill is passed, there will be no cases against Bengali Hindus,” said Sumanta Das, his brother-in-law. “People of Barak Valley are very happy. It was our commitment and we have fulfilled it,” said Kabindra Purkayastha, former MP and Union minister.