BJP seeks 'middle ground' as North East shuns citizenship bill, but quest to make inroads in Bengal seems greater priority

Ten political parties of the North East — all members of the BJP-led North East Democratic Alliance — unanimously decided to oppose the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, after a meeting of representatives on Tuesday. The Janata Dal (United) also joined the 10 fronts to criticise its ally in Bihar for "failing to look after the concerns of the North East".

"Every political party in the region has realised the way the ruling party is trying to impose the bill on them," said Atul Bora, president of the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), which recently snapped ties with the BJP in Assam over the proposed legislation.

Unnerved by this collaborative effort to oppose the bill, the BJP appears to be on the back foot in the North East, even if it claims otherwise. In an interview to The Indian Express, BJP general secretary Ram Madhav, the party's in charge of the North Eaorth st, said the party was trying to find a "middle ground" with regard to the controversy.

"From the party's side, we are talking to all of them. Also, from the government side, the home minister has been in touch with senior leaders of all the front governments in the North East. We are hopeful that we will find a middle ground which will satisfy all of us," Madhav said, though he remained vague on what kind of middle ground they were considering.

BJP seeks middle ground as North East shuns citizenship bill, but quest to make inroads in Bengal seems greater priority

Tribal women at a rally in Tripura against the citizenship bill. Reuters

"I cannot give you a categorical answer now. Our leadership is discussing how to address the concerns that are being expressed by different alliance partners as well as different sections of the people in the North East. At the same time, we have to deliver on our promise to the persecuted people," he added.

The Citizen (Amendment) Bill, 2019, seeks to amend the Citizen Act of 1955. It relaxes the eligibility rules to get Indian citizenship for immigrants belonging to six minority religions — Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians — from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. If the Rajya Sabha passes the bill this Budget Session, those among these groups who have lived in India for six years — instead of 11 years, as mentioned in the 1955 legislation — can get Indian citizenship. This applies to even the undocumented illegal immigrants.

The indigenous communities of Assam see the bill as a threat as it goes against a provision in the Assam Accord, which mentions that any person who came to Assam after midnight of 24 March, 1971, will be identified as a foreigner. The people of Assam also fear that an influx of immigrants will take a toll on the limited resources in the state and alter its demography.

Given the vehement opposition to the proposed legislation, it has puzzled many as to why the BJP was pushing to have it passed in an election year. The bill affects the North East and West Bengal the most as these states deal with a large influx of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Besides the fact that it would legitimise the stay of thousands of illegal immigrants in India, the primary opposition to it has been that it links citizenship to religion and undermines the "secular fabric of the Constitution".

With this bill, the BJP hopes to gain further ground by consolidating votes from the Hindu community, which forms the core of the Opposition's objection to it. In West Bengal, where Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has a strong minority following, the party hopes to use the bill as its base and polarise votes.

But what about the North East? It marks a major setback for the BJP as its 10 allies have come together and opposed a bill that it's been pushing. After the meeting of representatives, Bora was confident when asserted: "They do not have the consent of the people of the region."

This begs the question — why is the BJP insisting on having such controversial legislation passed in an election year. In the upcoming general elections, the BJP hopes to win at least 20 of the 25 Lok Sabha seats collectively in the eight states of the North East. Reiterating its demand for the citizenship bill means the party is putting these 25 seats at stake.

Furthermore, the party had claimed that the Citizen (Amendment) Bill was the BJP's way of fulfiling its commitment to "persecuted people".

"This is a commitment we gave to people in our regular conferences, resolutions and even in the manifesto. We said we would take care of the persecuted people who come to India… We are hopeful that the other parties, including our allies, will appreciate the need of the bill at this juncture to address the issue of persecuted minorities coming to India," said Madhav.

If the "persecuted" are really their concern, what of the Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar?

According to the United Nations Human Rights Council, Rohingyas are the "most persecuted minority in the world". Then why has the government excluded them from its list of persecuted minorities? Going even further, in October last year, India deported seven Rohingya men — a first by any country — to Myanmar, where persecution of the ethnic minority continues.

Rohingyas have become a stateless community, and yet India is trying to send them back to a country where they continue to face atrocities on an everyday basis. This puts a big question mark on the Centre's claim to help "persecuted people" and is precisely why several reports clubbed the communities eligible for citizenship under the bill as simply "non-Muslim".

BJP president Amit Shah has asked party workers to ensure that the BJP wins at least 20 of the 25 Lok Sabha seats in the North East, which makes pushing for the Citizenship Bill during the election season a big gamble for the BJP. In all likelihood, this is why Madhav is now trying to find a "middle ground" over this controversial legislation.

However, despite the widespread agitations in the North East against the bill, which included calls for strikes, rallies and protest meetings, results of recent elections show that the bill has not had much effect on the BJP's prospects in the state. The BJP swept the recent autonomous tribal council elections in Assam, where most of these protests against the citizenship bill have been centred. The party had also won the Assam panchayat polls two months ago.

It could be that the party is holding on to these victories as a sign that regardless of the scores of people taking to the streets of the North East, it will still secure a win in the region. Sweeping the tribal council polls in Assam has only bolstered this confidence.

Moreover, another opinion doing the rounds is that the BJP is willing to sacrifice votes in the North East for the inroads it believes this bill will help the party make in West Bengal by consolidating Hindu votes. The party currently has 2 of the 42 parliamentary constituencies in the state, and it hopes to raise this figure to at least 22. Giving the waning clout of the Left and Congress in the state, the BJP may emerge the prime rival of the ruling Trinamool Congress in the Lok Sabha elections.

The saffron unit seems hell bent on boosting its chances in West Bengal — even if it means resorting to use of force. If observers are right and the BJP really believes that the citizenship bill will work in its favour in the state, the party is going to continue to push for the legislation till it is passed, even if it is at the expense of the entire North East.

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Updated Date: Jan 31, 2019 16:09:48 IST

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