As Bill to grant citizenship to Bangladeshi Hindus clears Lok Sabha, BJP...

As Bill to grant citizenship to Bangladeshi Hindus clears Lok Sabha, BJP senses electoral advantage in West Bengal

Chandan Nandy,
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With barely three months left before India goes into election mode, the Lok Sabha today passed the 2016 Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, paving the way for it to become law, albeit a controversial one, if and when it clears the Rajya Sabha. The Narendra Modi government moved swiftly after a joint parliamentary committee (JPC) which examined the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, submitted its report on January 7, recommending granting of citizenship to minorities of a few neighbouring countries, including Bangladesh.

Even before its passage in the Lower House, the Bill caused a maelstrom of protests in Assam, where the Ahom Gana Parishad (AGP) withdrew support to the BJP government, while political parties elsewhere in India’s northeastern states have urged the Narendra Modi government to withdraw the proposed legislation which could potentially cause a violent backlash among ethnic-linguistic-religious groups opposed to the inclusion of Bangladeshi Hindus as citizens.

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With the passage of the Bill in the Lok Sabha today, a thorny impediment before the Modi government was removed, paving the way for a “citizenship to persecuted Hindus” (primarily of Bangladesh) call by the BJP over the next three to four months. Speaking to the South Asian Monitor, BJP Rajya Sabha MP Vinay Sahasrabuddhe said: “There will of course be some political fallout (in Assam and West Bengal) but this legislation has been for the sake of humanity. India has been providing shelter to the Hindu minorities of some neighbouring countries and was hesitant to fully recognise this and take action. That hesitancy has now gone away.”

Other BJP sources said that the party “now feels confident to take on the Trinamool Congress regime of Mamata Banerjee” in Bengal where the bulk of the Muslims constitute a solid vote bank for the ruling party. While the Modi government bludgeoned through with a redrafted Bill, the “silence” over the proposed legislation in West Bengal, especially among national political parties, will now help the BJP add force its agenda to confer citizenship to illegal Hindu immigrants already settled in the state and those in Bangladesh who might yet “bite the bait” and make a bid to cross over and settle down in the state just before the parliamentary elections due in May 2019.

The TMC’s representatives on the JPC, Derek O’Brien and Saugata Roy, submitted a note of dissent along with a few other MPs from the northeastern states. Curiously enough, O’Brien and Roy were silent on the political/electoral impact of the proposed legislation in West Bengal, though they cautioned that it “brings out the ethnic divisions in the state of Assam”. Roy and O’Brien should be aware of the impact that the proposed law could have on West Bengal in general and their party in particular because the TMC enjoys a bulk of the support of Muslims across the state.

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The reaction of civil society organisations in Assam was predictable. In their representations to the JPC, ethnic groups cautioned that the proposed law “is going to be highly inimical to the indigenous people of Assam and the federal structure of the state. The very language of the Bill goes against the secular principles of the Constitution as only specific communities are included for granting citizenship while excluding a particular community. Citizenship is being granted in a manner that encourages the minorities of the neighbouring countries to illegally migrate to India and get citizenship on stay of six years”.

When contacted, Bhubaneshwar Kalita, Congress MP from Assam, said he feared that “violence may break out in the state”. He said that “there is already a lot of unrest in the northeast and emotions and sentiments against the legislation is very high the region. The Assamese people feel betrayed by this action. There will also be repercussions in West Bengal. There was no widespread anti-immigrant violence in the northeast after the 1985 Assam Accord, but this action of the Modi government will push the entire region towards violence”.

The anxieties and negative reaction among political parties in Assam and other northeastern states such as Meghalaya is understandable because Bengali Hindus in these parts are a minority. While the National Register of Citizens caused ethno-linguistic and ethno-religious tensions in Assam, the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill will undoubtedly benefit BJP which enjoys the support of indigenous communities such as the Bodos.

The proposed legislation will now help them enlist the support of Bengali Hindus who migrated and settled in the state after March 25, 1971, which was the “cut off” date beyond which all entrants were deemed to be unauthorised/undocumented settlers. In this context, the JPC sought to take a “soft” stand and found a way to accommodate immigrants by operationalising “resettlement packages and compensation” and “help settle such migrants especially in places which are not densely populated, thus causing lesser impact on the demographic changes and providing succor to the indigenous Assamese people”.

By proposing a new “cut off” for immigrants—December 31, 2014—the committee has widened the scope for a massive chunk of the Bangladeshi Hindu immigrants already settled in Assam and Bengal to avail citizenship. This will certainly bolster the BJP’s Hindu base in the two states, particularly West Bengal where the party is pitted against the TMC. While acknowledging the government’s decision to grant citizenship, the JPC, recommended that the government must “engage and mobilise all the resources at its command for implementing effective border fencing and technology deployment in a time-bound manner to detect and stop further influx of illegal migrants”. Will such forever ongoing measures stop illegal immigration? The brief answer is NO.

While the demographic disturbance that the proposed legislation will cause in the northeastern states could likely set off violence in Assam, the flow of new Bangladeshi Hindu immigrants in this region will not be high considering the fact these areas, for several years now, have no longer been attractive settlement sites for immigrants seeking better and improved livelihood sources. Over the last 30 years or so, West Bengal has remained a more “welcome place” for both Hindus and Muslims leaving Bangladesh to settle on this side of the border. This is primarily because of the absence of ethno-religious tensions in West Bengal where political parties, the CPI(M) in the past and the TMC now, have welcomed Bangladeshi immigrants with open arms to deepen and expand vote banks. The population demographics in the border districts have changed heavily with data revealing a growth in the number of Muslims and Hindus.

But now, with the Bill clearing the Lok Sabha hurdle, the BJP will seek to take advantage of the presence of hundreds of thousands of Hindu immigrants in West Bengal, besides the very likely possibility of more from Bangladesh’s minority community seeking to make a beeline for the state. Bangladesh’s Hindu population is somewhere in the region of slightly over 8 percent – a progressive decline from 1971 when the country was liberated from Pakistan. Most Hindus who continue to live in the border districts of Bangladesh possess a ‘second home’ in West Bengal, while others wait for opportune moments to emigrate.

Bangladeshi political leaders, including those from the ruling Awami League, will understandably not make any noises on India’s decision to push through with the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. An admission that millions of Hindus have already emigrated and more might in the future would reflect poorly on successive governments’ record on protecting the rights and interests of the country’s minorities. A Bangladeshi Hindu leader said on condition of anonymity that “the minority community is jubilant with this development (passage of the Bill in the Lok Sabha)”.

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