The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 – ‘A double-edged sword’

Migration increases the socio-cultural diversity of a community and it can be an asset if it brings about coherent development of the individual as well as the community as a whole and at the same time it’s also a liability that threatens social existence, cultural identity and overall stability of the community.

The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016 amends the Citizenship Act, 1955 and proposes to make immigrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, who are Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians eligible for citizenship by relaxing the requirement for citizenship by naturalisation from 11 years to 6 years. The bill has been passed in the Lok Sabha in January 2019 and is now pending in the Rajya Sabha and will lapse on 3rd June, when the 17th Lok Sabha is constituted. While the Modi-led BJP government wants to pass the bill at the earliest, there has been considerable opposition to the Bill in the North East, with two BJP Chief Ministers, Arunachal Pradesh’s Pema Khandu and Manipur’s N Biren Dingh also in opposition of it.

Most of the opinions, arguments for and against the Bill have been concentrated on the issue of illegal immigrants who have already entered India since 1971 and who continue to migrate even today along with the provisions of Assam Accord. However, there haven’t been many arguments as to why these people have traditionally migrated from Bangladesh to India and the push and pull factors relating to it. Natural calamities, shoddy government policies, dearth of basic necessities, corruption, Islamization of Bangladesh and threat to democracy are some of the factors which have necessitated the migration of people from Bangladesh.

Migrant Stock by Destination (2013) Bangladesh

Top 5 countries or areas of destinationTotal
India32,30,025
Saudi Arabia13,09,004
United Arab Emirates10,89,917
Malaysia352,005
Kuwait279,169
Total62,60,120

(Source: UNICEF)

Water has been one of the major factors which has been neglected over other issues but has caused considerable damage in Bangladesh. India is the upper riparian in both the Ganges River Basin as well as the Brahmaputra River Basin as compared to Bangladesh. This gives India considerable leverage over Bangladesh with respect to the two rivers and their waters. For better water management and economic development, India has constructed the Farakka Barrage in Murshidabad district in West Bengal. The barrage has been operational since 1975 and the main objective of the barrage is to divert approximately 40000 cusecs of water from the Ganges river to the Bhagirathi-Hooghly river through a 38.38 km long feeder canal. This has resulted in the development of the Kolkata port by making the Bhagirathi-Hooghly river system navigable while reducing salinity as well. The economic benefits of the Farakka barrage have resulted in the development of Kolkata and its surroundings exponentially over the years. But the resultant negative effect of the Farakka Barrage has been borne by Bangladesh the most.

Bangladesh is affected by water related natural disasters almost every year. Its geographical placement in a delta does not help it either. Bangladesh faces extreme cases of floods and droughts in the same year almost every single year. India’s quest for economic development and water management of the river basins by constructing the Farakka Barrage has resulted in the displacement of people in Bangladesh due to water shortages, increasing salinity of their land due to excess silt being displaced to compensate for the navigation of the Bhagirathi-Hooghly river. This excess silt has affected the agricultural lands in Bangladesh and displaced approximately 10 million Bangladeshi citizens who do not get the benefits of development and bear the brunt of natural disasters as well, over the years. Owing to its geographical position, it is natural that the displaced Bangladeshis have migrated to neighbouring, and more importantly, the upper riparian India in the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna river basin, for a better standard of living.

Since its independence in 1971, Bangladesh has gone through extreme regime changes which have occasionally threatened to transform the country into an authoritarian state from a democratic one. While there has not been a distinct study on the number of migrants due to water issues in Bangladesh, it is nevertheless a primary factor for displacement of people. Over a million people were displaced in Bangladesh owing to hydrological disasters in 2011 resulting in out-migration. This influx of Bangladeshi immigrants has threatened the demographics of Assam, West Bengal and other north eastern states.

If we take Assam as a sample in ascertaining the sheer number of Bangladeshi immigrants coming into India, it can be found out that the population growth rate of Assam was considerably higher from the period 1911-1991 but has been lower than that of India since 1991. This low rate of population growth does not necessarily mean that immigration has also lowered. If we take a detailed look at the border districts of Assam, it is possible to get a clear indication of migratory trends of people coming into Assam, legally or illegally.

Average Annual Population Growth Rates (Districts in Assam)

Districts (Assam)Average Annual Population Growth Rate %
Kamrup2.61
North Cachar Hills2.47
Goalpara2.30
Dhubri2.29
Karbi Anglong2.27
Nagaon2.23
Karimganj2.19

(Source: SHSU Economics & Intl. Business Working Paper)

The average annual population growth rate has been 2.23% in these districts. This growth rate is higher than the all India average 2.14% or the all-Assam average of 1.89% from the period 1991-2001. The proximity of these districts to the border of Bangladesh gives a clear indicator of cross-border migration taking place in these districts.

The land holding patterns have also changed in Assam due to the mix of ethnicities. The percentage of land held by the native Assamese population has been less than that of the land possessed by the Bengalis and other communities. This is an evident indicator of the native population decreasing in Assam while the Bengali and other language speaking population increasing.

YearPercentage of People Speaking Languages
  Assamese                                      Bengali                              Other (Hindi, Nepali etc)
1951      69.3                                              21.2                                                         9.5
1961      70.1                                              18.5                                                        11.3
1971      70.1                                              19.7                                                        10.2
1991      69.4                                              21.2                                                         9.0
2001      60.8                                              27.5                                                         11.8

(Source: Saikia, N 2016)

Even though the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016 proposes to naturalise people from religions other than Islam, it is evident from the case of Bangladesh and Assam that the issue is not related to religion. There are as much Hindu Bengalis residing in Assam as Muslims and both have threatened the status of the Assamese people in their own state. This is the precise reason why the North-Eastern states are opposing the bill. For them, the issue is about social inclusiveness, traditions and preservation of their indigenous cultures as opposed to religion. The Bill if passed will allow the thousands of non-Muslims already residing in Assam to be naturalised and avail the benefits that come along with it.

Thus, the Citizenship Amendment Bill could prove to be a double-edged sword for the Narendra Modi led BJP government, as it tries to capitalise on the non-Muslim vote bank, but at the same time risks losing the support of the traditional North-East Indian populace and the stability of the crucial region. It will be interesting to see which side the traditional North-Indian populace inclines to in the upcoming General Elections, which would be a key indicator of the mood that prevails in the North-East.

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