Fear and loathing: Cit­i­zen­ship Bill chaos brings North-East to boil­ing point

The Hindu Business Line - - NEWS - PRATIM RAN­JAN BOSE

Pinku Kalita, 28-year-old Uber driver in Guwahati, is caught be­tween the devil and the deep sea.

On the one hand, he finds logic in the State-wide protests against the Naren­dra Modi gov­ern­ment’s de­ci­sion to move ahead with the Cit­i­zen­ship (Amend­ment) Bill, 2016.

On the other, the protests are po­tent enough to hurt the re­cent eco­nomic buoy­ancy in the State, and ruin his busi­ness.

Kalita voted for the BJP in the 2014 Lok Sabha and 2016 State Assem­bly elec­tions. But 2019 will be dif­fer­ent.

“The BJP gov­ern­ment did so many good things. The il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion from Bangladesh re­duced. Roads and high­ways got bet­ter. Avail­abil­ity of elec­tric­ity im­proved sub­stan­tially. LPG con­nec­tions are avail­able. But they will suf­fer big time for this sin­gle step,” he said.

He is not alone. Eth­nic pop­u­la­tions in all North-East­ern States are against the Bill. The Megha­laya Cab­i­net, which has rep­re­sen­ta­tion from BJP, took a cab­i­net de­ci­sion against the move. The BJP gov­ern­ment in Ma­nipur sought ex­emp­tions. Mi­zo­ram BJP op­posed the Bill.

The de­bate

The sit­u­a­tion is more com­plex in As­sam, which is wit­ness­ing im­ple­men­ta­tion of NRC (Na­tional Reg­is­tra­tion) — that promised to iden­tify il­le­gal im­mi­grants from Bangladesh — un­der Supreme Court mon­i­tor­ing. NRC was an As­sam Ac­cord (1985) de­mand.

So far, a lit­tle over 10 per cent of As­sam’s three crore­strong pop­u­la­tion has failed to qual­ify. The num­ber may re­duce, once the pro­ce­dures come to an end, but it adds The new Bill prom­ises to grant cit­i­zen­ship to re­li­gious mi­nori­ties (in­clud­ing Hin­dus) from Bangladesh, Pak­istan and Afghanistan, pro­vided they have been in In­dia for six years

cre­dence to the age-old con­tro­versy about il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion and de­mo­graphic change in bor­der States.

Ac­cord­ing to a World Bank work­ing paper, the to­tal num­ber of Bangladeshi im­mi­grants in In­dia may be as high as two crore. In West Ben­gal, the share of Mus­lim pop­u­la­tion has in­creased by nearly 10 per­cent­age points from the pre-Par­ti­tion level at 30 per cent since 1981. In con­trast, the Hindu pop­u­la­tion in Bangladesh slid from 25 per cent to less than 10 per cent.

The new Bill prom­ises cit­i­zen­ship to re­li­gious mi­nori­ties (in­clud­ing Hin­dus) from Bangladesh, Pak­istan and Afghanistan, pro­vided they have been in In­dia for six years. Clearly, the Bill has wider elec­toral im­pli­ca­tions across the coun­try, es­pe­cially in States like Ben­gal or Pun­jab.

For As­sam, im­ple­men­ta­tion of the Bill will mean half­baked im­ple­men­ta­tion of the As­sam Ac­cord, which sets March 31, 1971, as the cut-off date for nat­u­ral­i­sa­tion of cit­i­zen­ship. Eth­nic As­samese are wary that open­ing the flood­gates might re­peat the ex­pe­ri­ences of Tripura, where the indige­nous Tripuri tribe lost po­lit­i­cal power to the in­flux of the Hindu Ben­galis from Bangladesh. Ex­empt­ing

the North-East from the purview of the Cit­i­zen­ship Bill would have been a good idea. In­stead, the BJP is try­ing to de­flect sen­ti­ments by a hasty prom­ise to re­serve seats for the eth­nic pop­u­la­tion un­der clause six of the As­sam Ac­cord.

While no one is against such reser­va­tion, the Op­po­si­tion and ma­jor eth­nic groups were quick to point out that the prom­ise can­not be im­ple­mented dur­ing the re­main­ing pe­riod of the gov­ern­ment as the im­ple­men­ta­tion com­mit­tee would take six months to sub­mit the re­port. The All As­sam Stu­dents’ Union (AASU) does not want to be part of the drill, and at least three more (pro­posed) mem­bers have quit the panel.

Mean­while, some eth­nic groups are up in arms against the Con­sti­tu­tion (Sched­uled Tribes) Or­der (Sec­ond Amend­ment) Bill, 2019, that prom­ises in­clu­sion of six more indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties in As­sam as Sched­uled Tribes.

The Bill is await­ing clear­ance by the Ra­jya Sabha.

Bad for busi­ness

It is dif­fi­cult to say which way things are mov­ing, po­lit­i­cally. Will the BJP be suc­cess­ful in its at­tempts to di­vide votes along dif­fer­ent sub-na­tion­al­i­ties, or will As­samese na­tion­al­ity pre­vail? How­ever, one thing is sure. After nearly five to six years of peace, protests have be­come a daily rou­tine across the State.

Since Jan­uary 8, there have been at least two bandhs and in­nu­mer­able spo­radic protests, at­tacks on the BJP of­fice, etc, in dis­tricts. And that keeps lo­cal en­ter­prise on ten­ter­hooks. Ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cial es­ti­mates, As­sam re­ceived ₹6,000 crore ac­tual in­vest­ments over the last two years of BJP rule.

Lo­cal cham­bers sug­gest in­vest­ments worth an­other ₹4,000-5,000 crore are un­der im­ple­men­ta­tion in sec­tors like FMCG, phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals, lo­gis­tics etc. Bri­tan­nia, ITC, Emami, all have huge ex­po­sure in the State. Some are plan­ning ex­pan­sions.

With peace, tourists have started tak­ing in­ter­est in this once-for­got­ten re­gion.

The fear is that on­go­ing protests may dampen sen­ti­ments again. Ashish Phookan, MD of JTI group, which runs a premium river cruise, mostly availed by for­eign­ers, on Brahma­pu­tra, re­ported can­cel­la­tions on Jan­uary 8 and 9, dur­ing the AASU-spon­sored bandh. He is con­cerned that as the news of un­rest spreads, tourists will switch des­ti­na­tions. The ar­gu­ment holds good for po­ten­tial in­vestors too.

“Con­sid­er­ing the dis­turbed past of the re­gion and the State, the cur­rent spate of volatil­ity may put many po­ten­tial in­vestors on wait-and­watch mode,” said a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of a lead­ing cham­ber.

And that sends shiv­ers down Pinku Kalita’s spine. He took the risk of buy­ing the car with a bank loan, and ran taxi ser­vices an­tic­i­pat­ing mar­ket growth. Dis­rup­tions will unset­tle him.


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