The BJP on Wednesday dropped the Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2019, which had sparked protests in the North East. It would now be interesting to see how politics plays out in the region ahead of the Lok Sabha polls.
After this move, the Opposition may have been deprived of the only issue it had to initiate a political narrative against the BJP.
Anyone who has observed politics in the region in the past few years knows that the BJP has made a long list of compromises with its ideology in order to assimilate itself with the region's unique political culture. It has sought to distance itself from the Hindutva agenda that it espouses in the Hindi heartland.
In 2016, BJP leader Himanta Biswa Sharma, responding to a question on the party's policy on cow slaughter, said, "The BJP is not going to decide on what meat the people of Assam should eat.”
It is significant to note that in many states of the North East, beef is a staple food.
The BJP's policy on cow slaughter in the region remained soft even as cow vigilantism saw a mercurial rise in other parts of the country.
A significant bit of news which was lost in the cacophony of the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill was the BJP’s compromise with the indigenous Muslims in Assam. The 2019-20 budget of the Assam government announced a separate development council for indigenous Muslims, with an allocation of Rs 100 crores.
This can be seen as another attempt by the BJP to fit into the Assamese sub-nationalist narrative, which is inclusive of all the indigenous ethnic groups and tribes.
Assamese Muslims share warm relations with local Hindus for historical reasons. In fact, many Hindus view Assamese Muslims as an integral part of regional pride. Like Ahom General Lachit Borphukan, Ismail Siddiqui (also known as Bagh Hazarika) is also a revered war hero in Assam. Siddiqui had played a crucial part in defending Assam from a Mughal invasion during the historic battle of Saraighat in the 17th century.
Given the recent moves by the BJP, it is no wonder that the Opposition does not have enough ammunition for a powerful narrative against the saffron party.
While the Congress has derived political mileage by siding with various groups struggling against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, the BJP is likely to play up its decision to drop the proposed legislation.
The Congress in the region can only claim credit for ensuring that the Bill was not passed in the Rajya Sabha,
Assam Pradesh Congress Committee (APCC) president Ripun Bora said “It was our party (Congress) and the party president Rahul Gandhi who have clearly said that the Congress has always been against the Bill. Had the Bill been tabled in the Rajya Sabha, we were determined to scrap it after coming to power."
But the reality is that neither the Congress nor the BJP are likely to gain any electoral mileage out of the issue of illegal immigrants.
The widespread opposition to illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in the North East is irrespective of their religion.
On one hand, the BJP, through the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019, established its credentials as a party which favours Hindu Bangladeshis. On the other hand, the Congress has long been seen as a party which favours Bangladeshi Muslims.
In fact, the roots of this issue lie in the reluctance of the Congress government in Assam in 1979 to accept that names of illegal immigrants were included in the voters list illegally.
It was only after six years of protests led by the All Assam Students Union that an accord was signed with the Centre in 1985 on identifying and deporting illegal immigrants.
The Congress had also passed the controversial Illegal Migrants Determination (Tribunal) Act, which was seen by indigenous people as protecting illegal immigrants. The law was declared null and void in the apex court in 2005 after a prolonged legal battle. Assam’s present chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal was the litigant in that case.
The parties which are likely to gain from the controversy over the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill are BJP's allies in the North East who had threatened to review their tie-up if the Bill were to be passed.
Conrad Sangma, Meghalaya's chief minister and the leader of the Nationalist People’s Party, had said, “The NPP has decided that if the Bill is passed in the Rajya Sabha, the party will break its ties with the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA)."
He had also convened a meeting in Guwahati with 11 other political parties, most of whom are NDA allies, to mount pressure on the BJP. The parties present at the meeting had unanimously opposed the Bill. The credibility of these parties has shot up.
The BJP is likely to give these parties more importance in seat-sharing arrangements. For the saffron party, allying with them has become a necessity to prove that all is well in the alliance, and the past is behind them.
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Updated Date: Feb 16, 2019 20:36:20 IST