India’s Divisive Responses to the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill Continues to Breed Controversy

Greer Brodie-Hall, Staff Writer

9 February, 2019

Protests in Assam courtesy of  BBC

Protests in Assam courtesy of BBC


As of January 8th, 2019, the highly ethnically and geographically divisive Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 was passed through Lok Sabha, the lower house of India’s bicameral parliament. This has been met with numerous protests in the northeastern state of Assam, leading the Assam government to urge for peaceful and dignified protest. Tensions have increased substantially as this bill continues through the legislative process. One example includes the nude protest undertaken by three men outside the Assam Secretariat on February 1st. A member of the All Assam Students Union (Aasu) who is leading demonstrations in Assam, told BBC that, “the movement against the bill has gained momentum across the north-east and if it is not withdrawn, the situation in the region may turn volatile.”

This controversy comes from a complicated history within India. The country has had a contentious past with immigration, with the Citizenship Act 1995 being at the forefront for many issues. The Citizenship Act 1955 was implemented after having difficulty with determining the legality of citizenship. In it, there are four ways someone can be deemed a citizen of India, by descent, birth, registration with specific conditions, and naturalization with the forfeiture of other citizenships. There have been multiple amendments to this act including the one being disputed over presently.

The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 essentially aims to amend the Citizenship Act 1955. The amendment would grant citizenship to non-Muslim illegal migrants from three neighbouring countries, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Along with this, the bill would make citizenship attainable after 6 years of residence in India, as opposed to the current 11-year status. The federal government and Assam’s state government party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is supporting and pushing for this bill. They assert that it will address the need to distinguish illegal Bangladeshi migrants in the country.  However, those opposed see it as a “backdoor” move for illegal non-Muslim migrants that were not included in the National Register of Citizens to gain citizenship.

The National Register of Citizens is a register that is being updated in Assam in order to prove legal residency of citizens up to midnight of March 24th, 1971, when Bangladesh declared independence from Pakistan. This register was established in order to rid the northern area of illegal migrants from Bangladesh. The NRC announced its list in July of 2018, leaving nearly 4 million people off of it, essentially declaring them to be illegal citizens. BBC reported that activists believed this was a direct attack by Hindu nationalists on the state’s Bengali minority community, who are primarily Muslim. From this, those opposed to the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 believe that this is being used to help keep NRC identified illegal migrants in Assam.

In response, Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal stated that “Nobody will automatically get citizenship if the amendment is passed into law. The government will closely examine all applications and reject those that are not tenable." This was met with intense backlash as many Assam residents also believe that a bill like this will turn Assam into a, “dumping ground for Hindu Bangladeshis.” Following the Joint Parliamentary Committee’s visit to Assam in May, the state witnessed highly divisive protests. The people of Brahmaputra Valley, which is Assamese-dominated, came out to protest in substantial numbers. In contrast, those living in the Bengali concentrated Barak Valley in the southern tip of Assam, came out to show their support for the bill.The region continues to become increasingly divided along geographical lines.

Pertaining to the other end of the objection, the main opposition Congress party disapproves of this bill due to the injustice presented by defining citizenship around religion. Supporters defend the bill, asserting that Muslims were not included in the bill because they were working to offer nationality to religious minorities that are fleeing oppression in the three countries listed. This sentiment falls flat for Bengali activist Nazrul Ali Ahmed after the NRC list was sent out, proclaiming that, “They are openly threatening to get rid of Muslims, and what happened to the Rohingya in Myanmar, could happen to us here". Responses like this are leaving the country in a vulnerable state for increased conflict. Offices of the BJP have been burnt down, and the state secretariat continues to be surrounded by protestors. Despite this, Amit Shah, president of BJP, has no intentions of withdrawing the bill.

Mitali Baruah, a university student, stated to BBC that, “Anyone who came to Assam after March 1971 is a foreigner, an illegal migrant. We don't care if he or she is Hindu or Muslim. Religion is not the issue here, it is a question of protecting indigenous people from being swamped by foreigners in their own land.” These feelings and attitudes will continue to permeate the country’s domestic relations as this bill moves to Rajya Sabha, the upper house of India’s government. Chief Secretary of the Assam government, Alok Kumar, will proceed to encourage citizens to partake in peaceful and healthy forms of protest, but only time will tell if this geographical divide can sustain this brimming contention.

This dispute stands to highlight many crucial issues at the geographical, ethnic and governmental level. It highlights the contentious disparity in the opinion of the rights of illegal migrants, specifically those that came after Bangladesh’s independence. From an onlooker’s standpoint, it appears that India will continue to have severe problems if they do not address the religious, ethnic, and kinship differences that separate the country. An issue like this speaks to the growing concern of the refugee crisis, immigration law, and how the international community should respond to religious exclusion and domestic animosity.