BJP bets on citizenship bill to make inroads in Assam, West Bengal as TMC's 'U-turn' leaves legislation up in air

The fate of the Citizenship Amendment Bill ,2016, remains uncertain as the joint parliamentary committee failed to arrive at a consensus on the proposed legislation before the last session of the 16th Lok Sabha. “We are trying create a consensus among the members of the committee to accept the bill in its present form. But if it does not become possible, we will proceed to a vote,” committee chairman Rajendra Agarwal told Firstpost after the latest meet on 27 November. On account of the division within the  joint parliamentary committee (JPC) over the bill, it is unlikely to submit its final report before the Lok Sabha's last session (beginning 11 December) after which the proposed legislation is supposed to be discussed in Parliament. “But we will try to submit the final report before the session ends on 8 January, 2019,” Agarwal added.

Representational image. AFP

Representational image. AFP

The bill, which aims to grant citizenship to Hindus, Sikhs, Parsis, Buddhists, Jains and Christians who fled to India after facing persecution in neighbouring countries —Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh  — was a major poll promise of the BJP during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. After being discussed in the Lok Sabha, the bill was referred to the JPC in 2016. The committee will be dissolved after this session of the Lok Sabha.

A BJP source said that even if the committee submits the bill — as has been indicated by the chairman  — it is unlikely the bill would be passed by the Lower House forthwith, because it has other important business to consider. “Discussions on the triple talaq bill and eight other proposed legislations are likely to consume a good chunk of the time. So, the bill might not get tabled,” said the source. The most contentious issue is the possibility of illegal Hindu immigrants from Bangladesh — residing in Assam — gaining citizenship. This is seen as in direct contrast with the Assam Accord, which makes detection and deportation of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh mandatory.

The proposed bill has caused much anger among the indigenous tribes and ethnic groups in Assam and other states of the northeastern region, who have vowed to fight against it "till the end". “If this bill becomes a law, lakhs of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh living in Assam would get citizenship. This will not only turn indigenous tribes and ethnic groups into a minority, but also aggravate the state's socio-economic and political issues,” said Samujjal Kumar Bhattacharya, a leader of the North East Students’ Organisation. On the other hand many organisations representing Assam's Bengali Hindu community welcomed the bill, seeing it as an antidote to the pains of immigrants who fled Bangladesh after facing religious persecution.

Shantanu Mukherjee, general secretary of Sadau Asom Bangali Oikyo Mancha, said, “Why would not we welcome the Centre’s move? After all, the people who have been granted citizenship are victims of religious persecution in their countries.” He asked, “Where will these people go? If Hindus do not get citizenship in India, then where will they get?”

BJP pins hope on 'game-changing' bill

The BJP is hoping that the bill, if it becomes law, will be a game changer for the party in Assam and transform West Bengal — a political terrain blocked by the ruling Trinamool Congress — into a level playing ground. West Bengal stood firm in the face of the massive 'Modi wave' that engulfed the nation during the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. The saffron party only won two seats (out of 42), while the Trinamool Congress bagged 34 seats.

The party is also hoping that gains in West Bengal would offset any possible losses in the upcoming Assam panchayat polls (in 2014, the BJP won 7 out of 14 seats). Significantly, the saffron party’s pitch is likely to provide it an edge over other parties in a number of constituencies in t Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra. The Centre has ordered 16 district magistrates of these states to register Hindus, Sikhs, Parsis, Jains, Buddhists and Christians who fled to India in the face of  persecution in neighbouring nations.

Win-win 

What does the BJP lose if it fails to push through this bill before the 2019 polls? Nothing. In fact, the 'failure' hands the BJP the opportunity to weave a counter-narrative against the Trinamool Congress, which has been fanning Bengali sentiment both in Assam and West Bengal after the publishing of final draft of the National Register of Citizens. Significantly, soon after the NRC's final draft was published in Assam, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee played the Bengali Hindu card, dubbing the document "a ploy to drive Bengalis out of Assam". “Of 4 million names deleted from the NRC, 3.8 million are those of Bengali-speaking people. And of these 3.8 million, 2.5 million are Hindus. The rest 1.3 million are Bengali-speaking Muslims,” she told the media.

Her statement was seen as an attempt to consolidate Bengali Hindu votes in Assam in her party’s favour and retain her constituency, which the BJP has long been trying to woo. Mamata also sent a group of leaders to visit the families of the five Bengali men slain by suspected ULFA (I) militants on 1 November in Assam.  Interestingly, the party was seen taking a U-turn against the bill within the JPC. Professor Saugata Roy, a TCP member on the JPC said, “Our party is against the bill. We have also suggested an amendment to the bill. According to this amendment, names of specific religions and countries should not be mentioned in the bill. Rather, we proposed that anyone who comes to India facing religious, ethnic or any other form of persecution should be considered for citizenship.”

Though the TCP MP claimed the party’s stand in the JPC will help Bengalis acquire citizenship, this stance is likely to provide the BJP an opportunity to get cosier with Bengali Hindus, many of whom are eagerly waiting for the bill to become a law.


Updated Date: Dec 04, 2018 19:25 PM

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