India’s new citizenship law is not just against Muslims

The uproar over the new citizenship law in India has two distinct dimensions. They are quite different, but the dividing line, while crucial, is often misunderstood.

Jan 03, 2020

By Nirendra Dev
The uproar over the new citizenship law in India has two distinct dimensions. They are quite different, but the dividing line, while crucial, is often misunderstood.

In the rest of India, including the national capital, the central belief is that the amended Citizenship Act (initially enacted in 1955) is discriminatory against Muslims, a charge naturally denied by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ruling Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP).

The amended citizenship bill allows illegal migrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan to become Indians, provided they are not Muslims. Protestors across India say the law discriminates people on the basis of religion.

The fear, however, is different in the far-flung north-eastern states, a region that contains prominent Christian tribal communities such as the Nagas, Mizos, and Assamese (among an overwhelmingly Hindu population). They believe extending citizenship to migrants from Bangladesh will result in natives and tribal people being swamped by “outsiders.”

The term “outsiders” in India’s northeast does not necessarily refer to foreigners as another term used is “plain manu” (people from the plains or the rest of India).” The fear of being ‘swamped’ remains very strong, however, whatever the definition.

It is in this context that we must examine what a Naga Christian lawmaker, K. G. Kenye of the Naga People’s Front party, said during the parliamentary debate on Dec 11.

He supported the amendment and said the issue had been taken completely out of context. “What is raised at the regional level on the ground and what is happening at the national level has taken a completely different turn. Our people in the Northeast have no religious bias.”

He said if the federal government “does not take a closer look and consider our genuine fears early, if it continues to sit over those policies which were in place during the colonial era, and young India never takes a second look, then, it will be catastrophic where one day an irreversible situation may develop.”

Like in Nagaland or the Northeast, especially in Assam, the fear is about issues of employment and opportunities and that the “indigenous Assamese” and other natives (Nagas or Mizos) would lose their rights on their own land.

The inflow of “outsiders” is a major issue in the socio-political life of the region, especially Assam, which in the 1970s and 1980s witnessed unrest that lasted six years.

Three decades back, “the Assam disturbance” was an oftused phrase relating primarily to agitation by students. The unrest, spearheaded by the powerful All Assam Students Union (AASU), was also linked to a linguistic battle between Bengalis and the Assamese. The religious context did not matter as much as the linguistic divide!

“The combination of the influx of foreigners or outsiders from the rest of India, the monopoly by Bengalis of white-collar jobs, and New Delhi’s economic exploitation emerged as an ideal recipe to plunge Assam into long-lasting anarchy,” says Ratnadeep Gupta, a veteran Northeast observer.

This ended in 1985 when the Assam Accord was signed but was revived in this year’s agitation, says Gupta.

Just like the federal government of the 1970s and 1980s, the Modi government has also been “virtually dictatorial” in its push for the controversial Citizenship Amendment legislation.

However, Home Minister Amit Shah, a trusted lieutenant of Prime Minister Modi, says he held talks with student organisations and political leaders before drafting the Bill, which has been passed by parliament and received presidential assent.

The new law, it is expected, will virtually guarantee an influx of Bengali Hindus from Bangladesh and add to the BJP’s share of the vote in Assam. The same could also happen in other northeastern states, especially in the neighbouring state of West Bengal. --LCI (

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