By: Nava Thakuria

A move by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party to amend India’s citizenship laws to favor Hindu migrants along with Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian refugees from nearby countries has ignited a firestorm across the country, with widespread demonstrations denouncing the measure as an attempt to grant citizenship by religious affiliation. 

The subtext of citizenship by religious affiliation means limiting growth of the Muslim population. The measure has cleared the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament, with the blessing of Rashtriya Swayang Sevak (RSS), the right-wing, Hindu nationalist, paramilitary body widely regarded as BJP’s parent organization and awaits action in the Rajya Sabah, the upper house, during the current budget session, which convened on Jan. 31.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, having previously acknowledged that the bill is linked to BJP and RSS aspirations toward Hindutva — is clearly playing to his vote bank at a time when the BJP is displaying unanticipated frailty at the polls. Mid-December polls saw the opposition Congress coalition win power in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan – three key BJP-governed states in what is known as the Hindi heartland. It lost Mizoram in northeast India to a regional party and failed to make an impact in Telangana that was separated from Andhra Pradesh in 2014.

However, opposition has surfaced, particularly in the alienated northeastern region of Assam’s Brahmaputra valley, inspired by rising apprehension among Assam’s indigenous peoples, who have endured major migration out of Bangladesh. Ethnic Assamese organizations say the burden of illegal migrants will be passed on to the state alone.  It has also drawn flak from parties in the upper house because it excludes Muslims from such countries as Nepal and Sri Lanka.

Some 61.5 percent of Assam’s residents are Hindu, with 34.25 percent Hindu and 3.75 Christians. Sikhs make up fewer than 1 percent. The region has long been overwhelmed by refugees from Bangladesh and has taken part of the brunt of Rohingya minorities fleeing violence in Myanmar. The region on Jan. 8 observed a total shutdown to protest the Union government’s plan. About 3,000 protesters from different parts of the region assembled in Guwahati, the de facto capital of northeast India, to pledge to oppose the bill in the Rajya Sabha during its current session, which started on Jan. 31.

Organized by the powerful All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), which led a six-year battle to  ban Bangladeshi migrants, and 30 indigenous groups at a historic playground on Jan. 23, the rally was followed by an evening torchlight procession by 70 local organizations. The civil society groups have organized continuing protests.

In subsequent separate events, Akhil Gogoi, the leader of Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti, a peasant organization, the well-known academician Hiaren Gohain and a former journalist, Manjit Mahanta, have been arrested and charged with sedition.

The opposition protests that Indian citizenship can’t be conferred on the basis of religion as it is a secular country and that such a law contravenes the spirit of the constitution. In addition, endorsed by 95 percent of protesting organizations, the protests say Assam has already taken the burden of numerous illegal migrants – refugees from Bangladeshi from 1951 to 1971 – and that more would destroy the province’s demography.

The protest gained momentum when the Joint Parliamentary Committee on the citizenship bill arrived in Guwahati last year to face incensed indigenous organizations, local politicians, intellectuals, media personalities and others. More recently, when the Lok Sabha passed the bill on Jan. 8, protests escalated in Assam along with other northeastern States.

Facing extreme public criticism, one of BJP’s Assam allies Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) pulled out of the state government, claiming that the proposed amendment would challenge the Assam accord signed in 1985 after the culmination of a six-year protest against the flood of Bangladeshi migrants. Continuing agitation culminated with an accord signed by in the presence of the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Leaders of AASU and now defunct Asom Gana Sangram Parishad agreed to accept everyone entering Assam prior to 25 March 1971 as legal Indian citizens.

The students’ union, along with the Northeast East Students’ Organization and many Assam-based ethnic civil society groups fear Assam would burn if the bill passes in the upper house of Parliament.

Two northeastern chief ministers belonging to the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance family have even raised their voices against the bill.They are Meghalaya chief minister Conrad Sangma and  Mizoram chief minister Zoram Thanga, who have denounced the measure and said they would refuse the burden of any additional foreigners. Manipur chief minister and a senior BJP leader N Biren Singh expressed his concern over the probable negative implications of the initiative in his State.

However, Arunachal Pradesh chief minister Pema Khandu and Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal have supported the move. After remaining silent for months, Sonowal has begun to deliver statements that the new initiatives would benefit the local populations in the longer term.

Sonowal accused Left and Congress elements of trying to create disturbances in Assam by spreading misinformation that 19 million Bangladeshi Hindu nationals would get citizenship as an immediate outcome, saying the bill has a  cut-off date for citizenship of  Dec. 31, 2014.

“The bill, if duly passed in the parliament, will only allow the Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Parsis and Christians to apply for citizenship after a mandatory residency of seven years,” Sonowal said. “Once they apply, the citizenship applications will be verified by the local authorities.” He added that his government is duty-bound to protect the interests of indigenous communities of Assam.

Expressing concern over the prevailing turbulent situation in the region, a forum recently urged the Centre government and Modi to assure the locals that the region would not be adversely affected by the citizenship amendments.