India’s Assam shuts down over plans to amend citizenship law
The government plans to make it easier for Hindus, Buddhists and Christians to get citizenship while excluding Muslims.
Guwahati, India – Fresh unrest simmers in parts of the northeast Indian state of Assam following a shutdown on Tuesday in protest against proposed changes to a controversial citizenship law that purportedly aims to differentiate between immigrants on the basis of religion.
The ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government plans to amend the citizenship law to make it easier for Hindus, Buddhists and Christians from neighbouring countries to gain Indian citizenship.
Activists and opposition leaders say the bill discriminates against Muslims and violates the secular constitution of India.
Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), a regional ally of the BJP, is also opposing the government move to change the citizenship law.
“India is a secular country and nothing which is based on religion, caste and creed should be appreciated. We have already raised the issue at the highest level and if need arises, we are ready to step down from the government,” AGP chief Atul Bora told Al Jazeera.
The government move has stoked tensions within the indigenous communities and Assamese-speaking residents of the state, who fear the amended law will help undocumented Hindu immigrants from Bangladesh get citizenship.
This comes months after a Supreme Court-monitored body released a draft list of citizens that effectively stripped some four million people of their citizenship.
Shops and businesses remained shut in Guwahati city in response to “Assam Bandh” – a 12-hour shutdown called by 46 different political and social organisations, including the influential Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti, a farmers’ advocacy group.
At a press conference in Guwahati, Akhil Gogoi, adviser at KMSS, charged the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi of engaging in “religious politics” over citizenship.
“We are opposing the bill which is dangerous for the state. We will not allow that to happen. Illegal citizens can’t be differentiated on the lines of religion. All the sections of Assamese people have spontaneously supported the strike,” said Gogoi.
Though the BJP-ruled Assam government issued orders for offices and schools to remain open, the roads were deserted and commercial establishments were shuttered.
Tuesday’s shutdown came ahead of the winter session of Indian parliament when the proposed “Citizenship Amendment Bill 2016” will be debated.
Political and student groups in Assam state, which has a long history of agitation against undocumented immigrants, have accused the BJP of helping Hindu Bangladeshis settle in the state.
Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chatra Parishad (AJYCP), a students’ body which also participated in Tuesday’s shutdown, warned their agitation will continue if the planned law is not scrapped.
“The BJP has failed to fulfil its promises and now, they are conspiring to settle the Hindu Bangladeshi people here by amending the Citizenship Bill. This is very unfortunate,” said Palash Changmai, general secretary of AJYCP.
Calls to the BJP, which rules both at the centre as well as in the state, were not answered by the time of publication.
According to a recent report by Hindustan Times newspaper, only 100,000 people left off the draft citizenship list have submitted claims as part of the revaluation exercise that concludes on November 28.
The National Register of Citizens (NRC) – which has been tasked with identifying undocumented immigrants – however, has not revealed details of those excluded.
Many of those left off the list are believed to be minority Bengali-speaking Muslims, who form over one-third of Assam’s nearly 32 million population.
Opposition parties and activists say Modi’s government seems to be denying citizenship to Muslims while making way for Hindu immigrants as part of its pro-Hindu agenda.
“You can’t give citizenship based on religion, it’s unconstitutional. Both Bengali speaking Hindus and Muslims have suffered in this anti-foreigner hate,” Aman Wadud, a human rights lawyer in Guwahati, told Al Jazeera.
“But the BJP is trying to drive out Indian Muslim citizens in the name of religion and preparing to grant citizenship to Hindus who came to India,” he said.
To make it to the citizenship list, residents in Assam had to provide documents proving that they or their family lived in the country before March 24, 1971 – the year Bangladesh seceded from Pakistan.
“A large number of Bengali-speaking Hindus have not made it to to the citizens’ list. That’s why the BJP is trying to open the gates for Bengali Hindus through this amended law. Is the citizenship test meant only for Muslims?” asked Wadud.
Assam has been rocked by protests over undocumented immigration from Bangladesh for decades.
In February 1983, more than 2,000 Bengali-speaking people were killed in Nellie in central Assam. In recent years, hundreds of people have been thrown in detention camps in the border state.
Critics say the ruling right-wing BJP is trying to turn an issue of undocumented immigrants into an issue of Hindu vs Muslim.
Speaking at public rallies in the western state of Rajasthan last month, ruling BJP party chief Amit Shah described alleged Bangladeshi migrants as “termites”.
Prime Minister Modi’s BJP party came to power in Assam two years ago on the promise to act against undocumented immigrants.
On Tuesday, Binod Doley, a businessman, who travelled around 400km from Charaideo to attend a protest rally in Guwahati, said the proposed amended citizenship law is a “threat to the people of Assam”.
“We are worried about the future. The BJP after coming to power showed a different colour and now we are in danger. We won’t let the BJP play politics with religion,” Doley told Al Jazeera.