(Photo: AP)
(Photo: AP)

Opinion | BJP enters a minefield with its citizenship bill

The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill that it tabled in the Lok Sabha has the north-eastern states, especially Assam which is most affected by illegal immigration, on fire

It would appear that there isn’t much going right for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) these days. After the recent reversals in the state elections, it has walked into another minefield, which could be the most politically damaging. It was with an eye on electoral gains that the BJP had tabled the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in the Lok Sabha. Expectedly, the lower house cleared the bill just as the Rajya Sabha, where the BJP doesn’t have a majority, is expected to block it when it comes up next month in the Budget session. The bill seeks to amend the Citizenship Act of 1955 to grant citizenship to Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Parsis, Buddhists and Christians from the Muslim-majority Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan, if they have lived here for six years. Those who do not possess the required documents are also eligible for citizenship. They only need to prove religious persecution in their native country to earn the right to live anywhere in India. The amendment covers those who came to India before 31 December 2014. The north-eastern states, particularly Assam, which is the most affected by illegal immigration from Bangladesh, are on fire. The Assamese see it as a violation of the Assam Accord of 1985, which promised the locals that all illegal immigrants who came there after 24 March 1971 will be deported. The proposed amendment nullifies that pact. The BJP has used religious division to improve its prospects in the upcoming general elections, leaving Muslims and other groups, not part of the six covered in the bill, out in the cold. This is not the first time such a thing is happening. Not too long ago, the BJP-led government had refused to give refuge to Rohingya Muslims who were fleeing persecution in Myanmar. It cited a perceived threat to internal security to deny the hapless Muslims shelter.

The chickens have come home to roost and the North-East is feeling a threat to its own culture from the new settlers—mostly Hindus since Muslims are not eligible for the citizenship. But the BJP’s move is aimed not so much at the North-East as West Bengal. The party must have thought that its march in the North-East—after coming to power in Assam and Tripura—was unstoppable. And West Bengal was what it needed to concentrate on and it found in the bill its means to capture one of its last two frontiers—Kerala being the other one. The BJP felt new citizens would fetch it an electoral dividend in West Bengal. But already, there are reports that the contagion is spreading. In Mizoram, 30,000 students protested against the bill. According to a report in Scroll.in, many of the agitators held banners that read, “Hello China, Bye Bye India". The influential student body Mizo Zirlai Pawl was one of the organizers of the protest rally, among others. Similar rallies have been held in Guwahati. The BJP has already lost a key ally in the state, Asom Gana Parishad. There are already reports of other allies jettisoning the BJP. This could spread to other states in the north-east, and affect the BJP’s electoral chances in the state. The party should cease and desist.