The Modi govt has to reconsider the Citizenship Bill if it doesn’t want the Northeast up in flames
If the Narendra Modi government needed any more warning that it could undo the gains of prioritising the Northeast over the last few years by pushing the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill now, then the latest missive by Tez, son of Bharat Ratna Bhupen Hazarika, should jolt it out of its brazen arrogance or single-minded presumptions. It would do well to review the Citizenship Bill before turning it into a law or risk alienating the region it had so carefully nurtured through development. Tez merely articulated the general discontent in the region, saying his “father’s name and words are being invoked and celebrated publicly while plans are afoot to pass a painfully unpopular bill regarding citizenship that is actually undermining his documented position. It would, in reality, be in direct opposition to what Bhupenda believed in his heart of hearts.” Calling the bill grossly unconstitutional, undemocratic and unIndian, he reminded that just by appealing to the people’s memory of an icon, be it by dangling the carrot of the nation’s highest honour or a bridge on the Brahmaputra, the government of the day could not run roughshod over people’s rights to their land and identity. Or obfuscate the issue. Coming as it does close to the rejection of the Padma Shri by author Gita Mehta, sister of BJD chief Naveen Patnaik, who thought the honour was more politically driven, intended to woo Patnaik, this certainly raises questions about how we value, rather trivialise our own talent. While awards and titles are necessary for acknowledging contributions by pioneering citizens, they shouldn’t be conferred with political gains in mind. In that case, they wouldn’t be an honour but an insult to the personality and with respect to Hazarika his legacy. If anybody had even listened to Hazarika’s song Aami Ek Jajabor (I am a wanderer), he would know that he was all-embracing of people, particularly of the disadvantaged, and wouldn’t have endorsed segregation of any kind.
The Centre had clearly moved the Bill to bring back persecuted Hindus from polarised border states of Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, hoping for an enhanced cushion of returnee Hindu votes before the Lok Sabha elections. And though Modi himself seems committed to the Bill, saying it would not bring about a cataclysmic demographic change, the BJP’s own allies are upset. The AGP has walked out of the Assam government saying any refugee, irrespective of religion, would swamp Ahom identity and the right of indigenous people over their land, opportunities and resources. The Conrad Sangma-led Meghalaya government, where BJP is a coalition partner, has asked for a review while the Mizos are fearing an influx by Buddhist Chakmas. Manipuris are on a massive anti-Bill showdown and there are reports of internet being shut down in their state. The indigenous people argue that the Northeastern states are yet to recover from the influx of Hindu Bengalis from 1971 and of course, the subsequent illegal Muslim migrants, a process encouraged by national parties for shoring up votebases. Besides, one must not forget the colonial legacy, which ensured the import and predominance of educated communities in civil and administrative structures, one that significantly shaped the local economy and social hierarchies. Any further change would mean a flood of refugees and a drought of economic opportunities for local people. The BJP might use the Hindu refugees as the Congress did the Muslim refugees but both encourage alienation of locals rather than integration. What everybody seems to forget is that it has taken years of confrontation, violence, deaths and negotiation to build an alliance of trust. If the BJP underestimates this clamour for identity to serve its Hindutva core, it could knowingly fuel the return of extremist organisations that are lying dormant or have lost relevance. We cannot afford to derail the peace by stoking separatist sentiments.