On a bone-chillingly cold Monday morning in Delhi, a group of students from Jamia Millia Islamia University were sitting shirtless at the university gates. The unusual protest was to highlight the Delhi police’s high-handedness the day before (December 15), entering the campus forcibly and roughing up students after a march against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act or CAA, 2019, turned violent.
Soon, students of over 30 premier educational institutions across India were on the streets in solidarity with their Jamia compatriots and in protest against the controversial act. The main bone of contention here is that the act excludes the Muslim community while making illegal Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh and Parsi immigrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh eligible for citizenship, provided they entered India on or before December 31, 2014, and have stayed here for six years. The protesters, whose ranks include people from all walks of life, believe this violates the spirit of the Constitution and India’s secular ethos.
Eight other institutions in the Northeast had already been protesting against the act, though for a different reason altogether. They fear the act will legalise illegal Bengali-speaking Hindu immigrants from Bangladesh, posing a serious threat to the identity, culture and political rights of the indigenous people of Assam. The state witnessed a six-year-long agitation in the 1980s against the steady influx of illegal immigrantsHindu and Muslimfrom Bangladesh which ended with the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985. The accord eventually led to the publication of the Supreme Court-monitored National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam this year, which left out 1.9 million people. As over 50 per cent of these were Hindus, the BJP, ruling in the state and at the Centre, immediately rejected the NRC rolls, fearing a backlash from their vote bank. Meanwhile, the Narendra Modi-led government rolled out the CAA in a bid to legalise the Hindu immigrants, sparking alarm and widespread protests among the ethnic Assamese.
While the Assamese perceive alleged migrants as an existential threat to their culture, talk of a nationwide NRC (Union home minister Amit Shah has promised one before 2024) has made Muslims everywhere in India uncomfortable about the CAA. Hyderabad MP and AIMIM (All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul-Muslimeen) chief Asaduddin Owaisi, who has already moved the Supreme Court against the act, says the sole purpose of the CAA and NRC is to corral the Muslims. And going by Assam finance minister Himanta Biswa Sarma’s public statements, Owaisi’s apprehensions are not misplaced. The inclusion of Hindu immigrants as citizens will help us neutralise the impact of Muslim votes in 17 assembly constituencies in Assam. We cannot let Badruddin Ajmal become the state’s chief minister, says Sarma. For the record, Ajmal, who heads the AIUDF (All India United Democratic Front), is a bona fide Indian citizen and three-time MP from Assam.
The Bengal gamble
For the BJP, the bigger political objective lies in West Bengal, which goes to the polls, along with Assam, in 2021. The party hopes to conquer Bengal-its final frontier-and is banking on the immigrant Hindu vote for this. They are a substantial presence in 70-80 of the state’s 294 assembly segments.
In the 2019 general election, the gap in vote share between the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC), which won 22 of 42 seats, and the BJP (18 seats) was only 3.3 percentage points-or 2.1 million votes. The granting of citizenship to Hindu Bangladeshi refugees through the CAA and rolling out the NRC-which will eventually detect the only ‘illegal’ immigrants left, the Muslims-should help bridge the gap for the BJP. Meanwhile, the Mamata Banerjee-led TMC depends heavily on the support of the 19 million Muslim voters (out of the total 69.8 million), close to 88 per cent of whom voted for the party in the Lok Sabha poll. Various unofficial estimates put the number of illegal Muslim immigrants in the state at 10-20 million.
Graphic by TANMOY CHAKRABORTY
According to estimates of Bangladeshi economist Abul Barkat of Dhaka University, 8-10 million Hindu refugees had come to West Bengal by 1972, when the government of India decided not to entertain any further application from refugees. “These people, who could not secure citizenship by registration, as had happened for those coming before the 1971 Bangladesh war, have voter ID and Aadhaar cards and other documents. They now want to be Indian citizens officially. This demand has been there for 40 years, but it is the BJP which has taken the big step of granting them citizenship,” says Mohit Ray, convenor of the state BJP refugee cell. Around 7 million of these immigrants belong to the Matua community, and they have been celebrating the passage of CAA in the 51 assembly segments (out of a total of 295) they are a force in. “If this seven million population shifts in our favour, it will be a loss of 45 seats for the TMC,” says state BJP leader Diptiman Sengupta.
Soon, violent protests broke out on the streets of West Bengal. The TMC’s dilemma over the CAA was evident as CM Banerjee took 48 hours to react to its passage in Parliament. While the party depends heavily on Muslim votes, it also does not want to see Hindu votes coalescing around the BJP. The violent protests and the fear of NRC, however, convinced Mamata to break her silence and thunder that she will not allow the CAA or NRC in her state. “In the 2019 Lok Sabha poll, we won 166 assembly constituencies out of which 98 were dominated by the Muslim population. We have to keep our Muslim vote bank secure as quite a number of players, both from Bengal and outside, are keen for a share of it,” says a senior TMC leader. In the past few months, the TMC has found a strong competitor in Owaisi, who’s taking an active interest in the state’s Muslim vote. In response to these challenges, the chief minister hit the streets as part of a three-day-long marathon march against CAA and NRC. The symbolism was evident as she was flanked by a Buddhist monk in saffron robes on one side and a Muslim in a skull-cap on the other. TMC leaders feel the current party stand will help it in a 100 seats with a significant minority population.
The BJP strategy
If BJP sources are to be believed, they already have a plan to counter the negative impact of the CAA. In Assam, the BJP is adopting a three-pronged strategy-public rallies to ‘educate’ people on the CAA and garner support, fast-tracking the implementation of Clause 6 of the Assam Accord (intended to safeguard the socio-political rights and culture of the indigenous people of Assam) and reduce the application time window under the CAA.
Between the last week of December and end of January, the state BJP has planned 10 rallies as a show of strength in support of the bill. “I guarantee more people will come out for our rallies than the protesters in Guwahati and elsewhere in Assam,” says Sarma. While Sarma and Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal will address all the rallies, a BJP source says Shah and PM Modi will take part in the final two rallies in January.
But before the duo face the people of Assam, they must convince the Assamese that they mean business about implementation of Clause 6. On December 11, when the Brahmaputra Valley in Assam erupted in protest against the passage of the CAA in Parliament, Prime Minister Modi invoked Clause 6 insisting that nobody-read Hindu Bengali immigrants who will get citizenship under the CAA-could undermine the protection this afforded to the Assamese. The same day, Shah too said in Parliament that Clause 6 would act as a safeguard and protect the interests of the people of Assam. Clause 6 reads: “Constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards, as may be appropriate, shall be provided to protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people.”
In January this year, the Modi government constituted a committee-for the first time since 1985-to suggest a roadmap for the implementation of Clause 6. However, chairman and former Union tourism secretary M.P. Bezbaruah and five other members quit the panel in protest against the 2016 Citizenship Amendment Bill. In July, the home ministry reconstituted the committee with a new chairman-former Gauhati High Court judge Justice Biplab Kumar Sarma. Sonowal has asked the new panel to submit its report by January 15, 2020.
To assuage the fears of the indigenous Assamese, the government is also pinning its hopes on the relatively “smaller number of immigrants” who will apply under CAA in Assam. “Unlike in the rest of the country, where the immigrants can apply between January 1 and December 31 next year, in Assam, the window will be open only till April 30. Given the hostile mood, we don’t expect more than 300,000 people to apply and most of them will be in Barak Valley where the CAA is hugely welcomed,” says a Union home ministry official.
Several sources indicate that the BJP is in a hurry to issue citizenship certificates to the immigrants before electoral rolls are prepared for the 2021 assembly elections in Assam and West Bengal. The latest eligible immigrants can only be granted citizenship after December 31, 2020, as by then they would have completed six years in India. There is no official word on how much time the government will take on this, but a top BJP minister claims that every attempt will be made to legalise a maximum number of Hindu immigrants in Assam and Bengal before January 2021, when the electoral rolls are likely to be revised in the two states.
While the game plan is in place to fulfil an ideological commitment-the CAA was in the BJP manifesto in 2014 and 2019-and an electoral dream, what the BJP did not anticipate was the intensity of protests against it across the country. The abrogation of Article 370 was arguably a much bolder decision by the Modi government, but it resonated with the national mood. The CAA has faced resistance from both political opponents and the man on the street. Apart from Mamata, the chief ministers of Punjab, Chhattisgarh and Sikkim (Prem Singh Tamang’s Sikkim Krantikari Morcha is a BJP ally) have declined to implement the CAA, though constitutional experts say they are legally bound to abide by a law passed by Parliament. The law itself now faces challenges in the Supreme Court as 59 petitions have been filed seeking its repeal. With the economy in the doldrums, Jammu and Kashmir in stalemate and the loss of face in the Maharashtra and Haryana assembly elections, the current outrage against the Modi government could not have come at a worse time. Any adverse result in the Jharkhand assembly election, as predicted by several experts, will embolden the anti-BJP forces, as was seen in Maharashtra. “Amit Shah has opened a Pandora’s box and I don’t think he has a plan to neutralise the situation,” says a BJP insider. Some others, however, see it as an immediate opportunity for the party, especially in Delhi, where a large number of refugees from Pakistan stay. The national capital goes to the polls early next year.
The spontaneous protests against the CAA in many parts of the country have enthused the opposition parties. The Congress organised a massive Bharat Bachao rally in Delhi where former party president Rahul Gandhi came out in an aggressive avatar. Taking part in a sit-in at Delhi’s iconic India Gate to show solidarity with Jamia students, Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi launched a scathing attack on the government, accusing it of undermining the Constitution.
The BJP’s assertive Hindu agenda has also resulted in some strange alliances and even more inexplicable U-turns. In Kerala, a state with a 26 per cent Muslim population, the ruling Left Front and its rival, the Congress-led United Democratic Front, came together to protest the legislation. In Assam, BJP ally AGP voted in favour of the CAA in Parliament, but has now announced that it will challenge it in the Supreme Court. Former BJP ally Shiv Sena voted in favour of the bill in the Lok Sabha, abstained in the Rajya Sabha, and now says it will make the party position clear only after the Supreme Court verdict.
The court may take its own time to deliver its verdict. Meanwhile, as the opposition parties sharpen their knives, the BJP must firm up plans to address the fears of every stakeholder-from the indigenous people of the Northeast to the shirtless students of Jamia. It will not be easy in a country now sharply divided on religious and ethnic lines.
The CAA, explained
Everything you wanted to know about the contentious amendment
What is the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019?
A. The act makes illegal Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh and Parsi immigrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh eligible for citizenship, provided they entered India on or before December 31, 2014 and have stayed in India for six years. It’s not applicable to Muslims immigrants and also to refugees from countries other than the three mentioned above.
Why are people protesting against it?
A. The reasons are many. The Assamese do not want immigrants of any hue as they feel they are burdened with a huge influx of Bangladeshis, posing a threat to their identity and culture and their rights on land, resources and political power. In the rest of India, it’s mostly because Muslims are excluded from the bill.
Is the CAA connected to the National Register of Citizens?
A. Technically, no. However, the act allows almost all non-Muslims to get citizenship before the NRC is rolled out. This will ensure that only the Muslimsthose who cannot provide enough evidence to support their citizenship will be excluded from the NRC. This has stoked fear among Muslims in the country. The CAA also doesn’t cover immigrants from other countries. For instance, Tamils from Sri Lanka don’t get immunity under CAA.
Does the CAA apply to resident Indian Muslims?
A. The CAA has nothing to do with Indian citizens of any religion. The NRC framework is not yet decided but exclusion of Muslims from the CAA may make citizenship difficult for immigrants belonging to the community from the three countries.
How many immigrants are likely to get citizenship under this Act?
A. There are no numbers available yet. In Assam, immigrants will be able to apply next year between January and April. The number of applicants will be out by April end. For the rest of India, immigrants can apply between January 1 and December 31. The government hopes to grant citizenship to all those eligible before the revision of voter lists in Assam and West Bengal. Both states go to the polls in 2021. The latest eligible immigrantwho came to India before December 31, 2014can be granted citizenship only after December 31, 2020, as only by then will he/ she have completed six years in India.