Even as opposition members in the Indian parliament have expressed strong reservations on the 2016 Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, that seeks to grant citizenship to Hindus and other minorities in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, BJP MPs on a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) want to push through the report on the proposed legislation before the winter session ends.
The proposed controversial legislation is being discussed and debated in the JPC at a time when preparations are afoot to hold general elections in Bangladesh where the incumbent Awami League government has, curiously, remained silent as senior BJP leaders, including party president Amit Shah and national general secretary Ram Madhav, continue to unabashedly raise the issue of “throwing out” Bangladeshi illegal immigrants from India, particularly the states of West Bengal and Assam.
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According to Indian political observers, the immediate impact on Bangladesh would be that it would be perceived as a country where the government of the day is unable to protect its minorities and give a fillip to Islamist forces there, which in turn could be employed by the BJP as a pre-poll rhetoric against Dhaka with potential electoral benefits in 2019. Creating a ‘pull factor’ for the Bangladeshi Hindus, by “enticing” them with the promise of Indian citizenship, could potentially swell the BJP’s constituency in Bengal as a counter-weight to the Trinamool Congress’ Muslim vote bank.
Speaking to the South Asian Monitor, BJP Rajya Sabha MP Vinay Sahasrabuddhe said that removal of the word ‘Bangladesh’ from the Bill, which some opposition MPs, especially from the Congress and the Trinamool Congress, took exception to, “might work”. But, Sahasrabuddhe, stuck to the BJP’s rhetoric and oft-repeated “line” that “even if the word is deleted, the exodus of Hindus and Muslims, who are entering India in a big way especially in West Bengal, will continue”.
The BJP MPs on the 30-member JPC, which was constituted in August 2016 but is now working against time to debate the contentious Bill, insist that the committee’s report on the proposed legislation must be submitted at the earliest. “We are weighing the present structure of the Bill, though parliamentary rules and regulations allow for maintaining the timeline set to submit the report,” Sahasrabuddhe said, adding that “we have to do so as early as possible”.
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According to Sahasrabuddhe, “it is the BJP’s desire and intent to protect and secure the safety of the Bangladeshi Hindus, sizeable sections of which suffer persecution, especially in the rural areas of that country. Therefore, there is a crying need for protecting and, thereby, doing justice to them”. Sahasrabuddhe agreed that the “reaction in Assam is a cause for worry, especially because the Bengalis there continue to be apprehensive (as a result of the exclusion of 4 million Hindus and Muslims from the draft National Register of Citizens), but no exodus from Bangladesh is envisaged in respect of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill”.
But opposition MPs on the JPC view the BJP’s “hurry” on submitting the report before the winter session of parliament ends in the second week of December as linked to the 2019 general elections. In a telephonic conversation with the South Asian Monitor from Guwahati, Congress MP from Assam Bhubaneshwar Kalita expressed concern about the timing of the BJP’s haste in submitting the report, which, in the event they have their way, will take place two weeks before Bangladesh goes to the polls on December 30.
“Yes, we have to factor that in,” Kalita said thoughtfully. “There are some differences among the ruling party members on the panel, but by and large they want the Bill to be passed as it is. The committee chairman, BJP’s Rajendra Agrawal, is hellbent on submitting the report before the end of the session. Most opposition MPs have expressed the view that the JPC should take more time to deliberate. They have suggested that the Bill shouldn’t be rushed through,” Kalita said.
“The BJP’s intention to rush through the controversial Bill is aimed at creating favourable political conditions for itself ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Besides being controversial, the Bill is also unconstitutional. Some constitutional experts who deposed before the JPC were of the opinion that the Bill is ultra vires of the Constitution. A proposed legislation cannot be on religious lines in which one community of people is favoured over another,” Kalita said.
Most opposition members the South Asian Monitor spoke with were of the view that the Bill is aimed not so much at Assam as much as it is at West Bengal where the BJP seeks to make deeper electoral inroads, especially when it is faced with state chief minister and Trinamool Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee’s massive Muslim vote bank.
“Of course, it is a carrot that the BJP is dangling before the Bangladeshi Hindus,” a Congress member on the JPC, an MP from Assam, said, adding that the “constitutionality of the proposed legislation has come into question”. The MP said that while the “NRC was a trap for Assam’s Bengali Hindus, the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill is half-baked and goes against the provisions of the 1985 Assam Accord”.
There are two key elements of the Bill that opposition MPs have questioned in the course of the JPC’s sittings. The first is a clause that says, “…persons belonging to minority communities, namely, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan…shall not be treated as illegal migrants for the purposes of this Act”. And the second is, “…for persons belonging to minority communities…the aggregate period of residence or service of a Government of India as required under this clause shall be read as ‘not less than six years’ in place of ‘not less than eleven years’”.
According to home ministry sources, the “real objectives” of the proposed legislation is to “grant citizenship to Bangladeshi Hindu immigrants who are settled primarily in West Bengal and Assam where they are concentrated the most and have been living there for years together with or without documents”. But, the sources, said that the “political objective is to use the Bill’s provisions as means to attract more and more Hindus, especially to West Bengal”. The Bill says, “it is proposed to make them (illegal immigrants) for applying for Indian citizenship”.
The opposition has seen through this obvious move to pave the way for the expansion of the BJP’s vote bank, especially in West Bengal. Speaking to the South Asian Monitor, Congress’ Silchar MP Sushmita Dev said: “Citizenship is a very sensitive issue in India and the government must decide on a policy to grant citizenship. With this proposed legislation will the world’s largest democracy create conditions for the world’s largest stateless people?” Trinamool Congress MP on the JPC, Derek O’Brien, refrained from commenting, saying only that his party was “opposed to the Bill”.
While a draft report has been prepared by the JPC secretariat, many panel members are yet to receive copies of it. The next meeting of the JPC is scheduled for November 27 but over the past few weeks, the killing of six Bengali Hindus in Tinsukia in Assam by suspected Ulfa (anti-talk faction) militants earlier this month, followed by another strike in Sibsagar two days ago, has raised the hackles of policy-makers, including Home Minister Rajnath Singh and National Security Adivser Ajit Doval. However, ULFA (I) denied their involvement in the Tinsukia incident.
Assam’s director-general of police (Special Branch) Pallab Bhattacharya has claimed that the Ulfa, which allegedly struck in Tinsukia in response to the iccue over the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, is of late seeing a growth in its following. Police reports from Assam claim that so far 11 young men are suspected to have joined the ranks of the Ulfa (Independent) led Paresh Barua.
When contacted over phone, Ulfa (Progressive) general secretary Anup Chetia, who has been leading peace talks after abjuring violence a few years ago, told the South Asian Monitor that the Paresh Barua faction of the insurgent outfit “has been getting many fresh recruits” over the past few months.
“When the JPC visiting Assam, I had submitted a memorandum to the members, saying that if the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill is passed into law, Assam will burn and more boys will go to the jungle,” Chetia said, adding that the Ulfa (P), along with other likeminded outfits in the state recently launched a new organisation, Sampriti Ahom, which aims to bring all non-Assamese Hindus as well as Muslims under one umbrella for “ensuring peaceful coexistence”. Chetia said that the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill was the BJP’s means to get advantage in West Bengal besides creating a deep wedge between Hindus and Muslims in Assam.