Beleaguered BJP pushes for citizenship bill in Assam but opposes it in neighbouring Meghalaya

Opposition to Citizenship (Amendment) Bill by Conrad Sangma-led coalition govt in Meghalaya couldn't have come at a worse time for a beleaguered Assam BJP.

Sushanta Talukdar May 18, 2018 17:24:12 IST
Beleaguered BJP pushes for citizenship bill in Assam but opposes it in neighbouring Meghalaya

The opposition to the Citizenship (Amendment), Bill, 2016 by the Conrad Sangma-led coalition government in neighbouring Meghalaya, in which the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is a partner, could not have come at a worse time for the beleaguered BJP in Assam.

Firstly, it has come at a time when the BJP-led coalition government in Assam headed by Sarbananda Sonowal is caught between the devil and the deep blue sea with the Brahmaputra valley and two hill districts erupting in protest in opposition to the bill while thousands of people took to the streets in support of the bill in the Barak valley.

The state witnessed intensified protests during and after the three-day visit of the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 headed by Rajendra Agrawal from 7-9 May for a public hearing.

Beleaguered BJP pushes for citizenship bill in Assam but opposes it in neighbouring Meghalaya

People queue outside NRC Seva Kendra to check names of themselves and family members in a draft for National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Guwahati. PTI

Secondly, it negates the narrative which the BJP, the RSS and other members of the Sangh Parivar have been pushing in Assam that Hindu Bangladeshis "fleeing religious persecution" should be welcomed to the state and granted Indian citizenship to counter-balance the demographic threat posed by "Muslim infiltrators from Bangladesh and erstwhile East Pakistan".

This narrative of the Sangh Parivar contests the popular narrative that all illegal Bangladeshi migrants, Hindus as well as Muslims, who entered Assam without valid travel documents following creation of Bangladesh in 1971 and staying illegally in the state have altered the demography and pose grave threat to identity and existence of indigenous people of the state and they must be detected, their names are to be deleted from electoral rolls and they are to be expelled back to Bangladesh to safeguard language, cultures, heritage of indigenous people of Assam and other states in the northeast region.

The bill seeks to grant Indian citizenship to six minority communities – Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Parsis and Christians – from three neighbouring countries, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and reduce the period of stay in India to six years from the current requirement of 11 years to be eligible to apply for citizenship.

Three days ahead of JPC's visit to Meghalaya on 10-11 May, the Sangma-cabinet adopted a unanimous decision to say "no" to the bill because, "it would pose grave threat to the people of Meghalaya and, it looks dangerous, as a Christian or a Hindu once they are here for six years can become citizen of India."

Agitations against the bill are now poised to reach a crescendo in the Brahmaputra valley with opposition to the bill snowballing into state-wide agitation reminiscent of the days of six-year long anti-foreigners agitation during 1979-1985. The Assam Movement spearheaded by the All Assam Students' Union and erstwhile Asam Gana Sangram Parishad culminated in the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985.

Political parties, student and youth groups, NGOs, intellectuals, writers, artists, singers, musicians, cine and theatre actors, literary and cultural bodies have taken to the streets, taking out torchlight processions, mass signature drives and campaigns on social media, demanding the withdrawal of the bill. Meghalaya cabinet's decision bolstered their campaign.

The Sonowal government rushed to articulate its response to opposition to the bill stating that the state government would give its view on the proposed legislation only after the final list of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), currently being updated in Assam, is published. However, opponents of the bill are little convinced because the bill was introduced on the floor of the Parliament by the BJP-led coalition government headed by Narendra Modi in 2016 after the work of the updating the NRC in Assam had already begun in 2015.

Those opposing the bill argue that if made into an act, it would make the updated NRC infructuous as it would make all post-1971 illegal Hindu and other non-Muslim migrants from Bangladesh eligible for Indian Citizenship. The cut-off date for inclusion of names in the updated NRC is 24 March, 1971, which is also the cut-off date stipulated in the Assam Accord for identification and expulsion of illegal Bangladeshi migrants in the state.

These parties and groups have said that the bill is violative of the provisions of the Assam Accord that irrespective of Hindus or Muslims, whoever, had entered Assam illegally after this cut-off date are to be detected, their names to be deleted from electoral rolls and they are to be expelled back to Bangladesh.

The BJP state leaders, on the other hand, are divided on the issue. A section of ruling party leaders has opposed the bill and favour Assam cabinet taking a decision like the Meghalaya government opposing the bill while several senior party leaders have pushed for it aggressively in the public domain.

The Supreme Court, which has been monitoring the progress of NRC updation work, has fixed 30 June for publication of the final draft of the updated citizenship register.

Following widespread protest in the Brahmaputra valley against the bill, Sonowal, during an interaction with 21 editors of print and audio-visual media said that he would not take any decision on the bill that would go against the wishes and interest of the people of the state and that he would not continue as the chief minister if he could not protect the interest of the people.

With the BJP and the RSS building the narrative that Hindus in Bangladesh have been facing religious persecution and they have no other place to go but India, it has created apprehension in the Brahmaputra valley that the Citizenship Bill, if passed, would encourage large-scale migration of Hindu Bangladeshis into Assam which may pose grave demographic threat to identity and existence of language, culture, heritage of indigenous people of the state.

The apprehension stems from the fact that the bill does not mention any cut-off date for eligibility of minority communities of Bangladesh, Hindus being the majority among them, to be eligible for Indian citizenship. Some groups opposing the bill have interpreted that this keeps the option open for nearly 1.5 Crore Hindus in Bangladesh to migrate to Assam to become Indian citizens.

A decline in the number of Assamese speakers and rise in the number of Bengali speakers in Assam as revealed in successive Census has shaped such perception and giving rise to apprehension among speakers of Assamese and other language speakers belonging to different tribes and communities of the state.

Opposition Congress party leaders are also divided over the bill with its leaders from Barak valley, where Bengali speakers constitute a majority, standing in support of the bill when party units in the Barak valley are taking out rallies, launching a signature campaign opposing the bill. Under flak for taking contrary positions in the two valleys, the Congress leaders in the Barak valley have re-articulated their position saying that the bill would violate the Assam Accord and India being a secular country a legislation based on religion cannot be accepted.

Pressure is mounting on the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) to quit the ruling coalition, but the regional party has announced that it would quit the moment the Centre initiates the process to pass it. However, Meghalaya cabinet's decision has prompted opponents to the bill to mount pressure on the regional party to take a tougher stand.

The party has asked its three ministers in the Sonowal cabinet to raise the demand for withdrawing the bill in the state cabinet. Like other parties and groups which are opposed to the bill, the AGP too has taken out torchlight processions, launched a signature campaign against the bill, much to the embarrassment of its major coalition partner BJP.

If these political developments are any indication, then citizenship issue is expected to keep Assam's political pot boiling even after the publication of the final draft of the updated NRC.

The author is a senior journalist and editor of NEZINE.

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