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Why is Assam opposing citizenship bill and how it is different from NRC update exercise

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AGP has threatened to walk out of BJP-led alliance in Assam if the Modi govt goes ahead with the contentious bill.

New Delhi: A recent visit by a parliamentary committee to the northeast to gather views of the people on the contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, has sparked tension in Assam, with even BJP allies such as the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) protesting against it.

Former Assam chief minister and AGP leader Prafulla Kumar Mahanta told ThePrint Monday that if the BJP-led NDA government goes ahead with the bill, the AGP would snap ties with it. Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, whose Janata Dal (United) rules Bihar in coalition with the BJP, has also opposed the bill.

Trouble for the BJP in Assam comes at a time when the state is in the midst of a mammoth exercise to update the National Register of Citizens aimed at identifying illegal immigrants in the state.

Here’s a ready reckoner on the controversial legislation and how it is distinct from the NRC:

The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016

The bill was introduced in Lok Sabha on 19 July 2016 by the Narendra Modi government with an aim to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955. According to the provisions of the bill, illegal migrants belonging to religions such as Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan will be eligible for Indian citizenship.

As per the 1955 Act, for citizenship by naturalisation, an applicant must have resided in India during the last 12 months, and for 11 of the previous 14 years.  The new bill waters down the 11-year requirement to six years for people belonging to the six religions and three countries.

What is the opposition to it?

The bill is seen as giving preference of citizenship on the basis of religion, a move that goes against the tenets of our Constitution, given that Article 14 guarantees right to equality.

But in Assam, where the problem of illegal immigration — irrespective of religion — from Bangladesh has been a long and contentious one, the issue also has complex political and social undertones.

The indigenous Assamese people feel the immigrants, who are already eating into their limited resources and rights, will benefit further as stakeholders once they are legitimized by citizenship. They feel the bill — by giving citizenship to non-Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh — will reduce them to a minority in their own land.

The bill also contradicts the 1985 Assam Accord, which states that illegal immigrants coming from Bangladesh after 25 March 1971 would be deported.

Mahanta’s AGP and the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) built their politics on the six-year Assam Agitation against illegal immigrants, which ended with the signing of the Accord with the Centre. The Accord made 1 January 1966 the base year to detect foreigners and set 24 March 1971 as the cut-off date to identify illegal foreigners, irrespective of religion, and remove them from electoral rolls.

In fact, it has been an Assamese-Bengali conflict, and not a Hindu-Muslim one, that is at the core of the tension surrounding illegal immigrants in Assam.

The AGP, therefore, maintains that the citizenship bill would violate the clauses of the Assam Accord since it seeks to provide citizenship to illegal immigrants based on religions.

Moreover, the immigrant issue in Assam is not confined to the Bangladeshis. In the 1990s, the state had witnessed widespread resentment against the influx of Hindi-speaking people, something that was fanned by the separatist United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA).

The BJP’s push

The deportation of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants had been the BJP’s poll plank in the 2016 Assam assembly elections. In its campaign, the line between anti-immigrant resentment in the state and a resentment towards Muslims as a whole had been cleverly blurred, making the issue even more sensitive. The BJP had promised citizenship to Hindu refugees even in its 2014 manifesto.

Its opponents believe the BJP is trying to communalise the entire issue and pander to its Hindu-majoritarian politics through this citizenship bill.

How is it different from NRC?

The NRC update exercise in Assam, currently underway, began in September 2015 under the then Congress government in the state, following the Supreme Court’s instructions.

The NRC, first published after the 1951 Census, is now being updated keeping 24 March 1971 as the cut-off to essentially identify those who entered Assam illegally from Bangladesh after that date. Applicants have to submit documents to prove that their names appeared in the NRC of 1951, or in any of the electoral rolls of Assam until 1971, or in any of 12 other documents, which had to have been issued before 1971.

The first draft of the updated National Register of Citizens was released on 31 December last year and the apex court directed the government to complete the whole process by 30 June 2018.

The citizenship bill and NRC, however, do feed into each other. Once the NRC is updated to draw up a list of “illegal immigrants” and if the citizenship bill is indeed brought in, it would mean the government will be able to legitimise and give citizenship to all the Hindus (also Christian etc) identified as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, while specifically singling out the Muslims.

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  1. We assamese people really dont want citizenship amendment bill to come into act….as we are already facing vast infiltators….and we assamese dont want our community to become minority….as like tripura…joi ai asom

  2. BJP’s anti-Assamese face has been completely exposed. We indigenous people of Assam will teach the BJP a lesson in 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Join Aai Asom

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