(Bloomberg) — Angry protests spread across India’s tea-growing state of Assam, where opposition to a new law that grants citizenship to undocumented migrants based on religion has the potential to reignite long dormant unrest.
The fallout from the contentious bill and the protests against it has been swift.
A planned three-day visit by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was scheduled to land in Guwahati on Sunday, has been postponed, Indian foreign ministry spokesman Raveesh Kumar tweeted. This is the second foreign visit to be called off amid the protests. Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen also canceled a scheduled visit to India.
A U.S. federal commission had called for sanctions against India’s home minister should the legislation be passed, while the United Nations Human Rights office said in a tweet that the new law is “fundamentally discriminatory.”
Authorities shut down internet access across 10 districts in Assam — which borders Bangladesh — where protesters have defied a police curfew to take to the streets against the Citizenship Amendment Law. Passed Wednesday, it bars undocumented Muslims from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan from seeking citizenship but allows Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians who illegally migrated from these regions to do so.
India’s internal tensions were spilling into the diplomatic space, said Harsh Pant, professor of international relations at King’s College London. “There’s been a series of things this year — Kashmir, the new Citizenship Bill and now these protests — that have drawn attention to whether the Indian government can manage internal issues,” Pant said. “It’s not like Japan will review its relations with India because of the protests but if you have a pattern of domestic tensions, it creates a negative narrative. There was clearly a miscalculation about the fallout of the bill.”
India also needs to be careful about managing relations with Bangladesh, where Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is a key ally, Pant said. “There was no need to wreck that relationship.”
Fear and Anxiety
It’s the first time since 1979 that Assam has witnessed protests of this scale, according to Sanjoy Hazarika, professor at Centre for Policy Research, and Saifuddin Kitchlew, chair at Jamia Millia Islamia University. Mass demonstrations against illegal migrants lasted for six years in the early 1980s, leaving 855 people dead and disrupting the economy before the state and federal governments signed an accord to end the movement in 1985.
“Nobody wants a return to that era,” Hazarika said. “This is much bigger than anything we’ve seen.”
Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government has vowed to implement a citizenship drive nationwide to weed out undocumented migrants. Assam was the first state to implement the register. The arduous process that ended in August 2019 has put about 1.9 million people at risk of becoming stateless. The new citizenship law has further raised concerns about the whittling away of values laid out in the secular constitution of the world’s second-most populous nation.
Over a dozen petitions have been filed in the country’s top court challenging the constitutional validity of the new law and many more are expected. The petitioners include lawyers, activists, politicians, and Muslim and student bodies. The court is yet to set a date to hear the cases. India’s Chief Justice S. A. Bobde refused a request for an urgent hearing by one of the petitioners, Mahua Moitra, a lawmaker from the eastern state of West Bengal.
It’s the third move since Modi won a resounding second term that adversely affects Muslims, who form about 14% of India’s 1.3 billion population. In August his government revoked regional autonomy in Muslim-majority Indian Kashmir and in November the Supreme Court handed Hindus control of the disputed site of a demolished mosque. Modi’s party has promised to build a temple there.
Protesters are calling for a total economic blockade across Assam by shutting down oil and gas operations, fertilizers and petrochemicals plants, and the state’s iconic tea gardens.
“The situation is extremely bad and is getting worse,” said Tridiv Hazarika, a spokesman for Assam-headquartered state-run explorer Oil India Ltd. “Everything is closed. The curfew has been relaxed for two hours and I’m struggling to buy even a kilo of rice.”
People are protesting what is considered a breach of a more than three-decade old state accord with India’s federal government over barring migrants from neighboring Bangladesh from making Assam their home. Protests have also spread to neighboring border states of Tripura and Manipur.
There is fear in the northeastern states that granting citizenship to migrants will undermine local communities.
“The government has now passed a bill which basically legitimizes illegal migrants who came in before 2014,” said Aman Wadud, a human rights lawyer who has represented those excluded from the citizenship registry. “People see this as a betrayal. People are angry. You cannot legitimize illegal migrants of any kind.”
(Updates with U.N. Human Rights office tweet in third paragraph.)
–With assistance from Debjit Chakraborty, Isabel Reynolds and Upmanyu Trivedi.
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