Does the Northeast even count in the Regime’s Cynical push to the Citizenship Amendment Bill?

Written by Walter Fernandes | Published on: January 21, 2019
The Northeast is in turmoil over the Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2016. Assam had just gone through the long process of the National Register of Citizens to identify possible illegal immigrants. As the people of the State were heaving a sigh of relief after it came the sudden announcement by the Prime Minister in the Bengali majority district of Silchar in Assam in the first week of January that the Citizenship Amendment Bill 2016 that was hibernating for two years would bepassed.The bill was revived suddenly and The Lok Sabha passed it on 8th January, 2019.

Citizenship Amendments
 
The Northeast exploded with a bandh and other actions.Its first impact is the whole of the Northeast coming together against it, except some Bengali majority districts of Assam and of Tripura. The bandh was total all over the region. Normally each State has its own action. This is the first time in a long time that the whole region reacted together to what it perceived as a common threat. In Assam the AsomGanaParishad (AGP) that had led the Assam Movement 1979-85 pulled out of the coalition government, putting the BJP Chief Minister SarbanandaSonowal, a former AGP leader in a fix. The BJP tried to counter the opposition to the Bill by on one side announcing that six communities left out of the tribal schedule would be included in the schedule. Simultaneously the Centre appointed a committee to make suggestions for an amendment to the Constitution to protect the indigenous people of Assam. That does not seem to have assuaged the feelings. The committee was still born with nine out of ten members declining to be part of it. Voices of opposition to the Bill were heard from some BJP legislators in Assam. The BJP Chief Minister of Manipur declared his opposition to the bill and said that Manipur should be exempted from it. Also the Chief Minister of Meghalaya who has BJP as a coalition partner opposed it and threatened to walk out of the coalition. In Tripura the bandh was called mainly by the tribals who have been reduced to a minority by the Bengali Hindu influx.
 
The second impact is deepening of the communal divide. There is a strong feeling in the Northeast against what are called illegal Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants. But in Tripura the immigrants are predominantly Hindus who have occupied much tribal land. Also the Barack Valley of Assam has Hindu immigrants. Even the Hindu-Muslim divide is an outside introduction. The local people are concerned more about protecting their land, culture and identity from immigrants than about their religion. But the Bill speaks of granting citizenship to all members of persecuted minorities of the three neighbouring Muslim majority countries. However, in his speech at Silchar the PM is reported to have said that the bill would strengthen Hindus. The remaining minorities seemed to be only a facade to hide this objective. That introduced a Bengali-Assamese divide in Assam in addition to the Hindu-Muslim division. In Tripura it strengthened the tribal-Bengali divide. Thus, the ethnic tension increased in the Northeast.
 
However, the BJP was deaf to these voices. That increased the sense of alienation between the people of the Northeast and peninsular India. A feeling has grown in the region that the exercise is part of the Hindutva agenda ofthe ruling party and that it is ready to lose the 22 seats of this region in order to present itself as the saviour of Hinduism in the Hindu majority states. Some leaders of the movement like Dr Hiren Gohainare reported to have warned the Centre that it can strengthen the voices of people who demand independence of Assam. For this “crime” a case of sedition was thrust on him and two other persons. That cannot but further alienate the region from the rest of India.
 
That is where the rest of India needs to wake up to the reality of the “divide and rule” policy in the Northeast and the feeling of alienation in the region. TheNortheast cannot be allowed to be alienated further. People in the rest of India have to take up the challenge of preventing this downslide by opposing this bill. A whole region cannot be sacrificed to the electoral needs of one party.
 
(The Hindi version of this article was published in DainikJagaran on January 20, 2019)
 
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