BJP's manouevre over Citizenship Bill alienates North East; goal of Hindu consolidation could prove illusory

Ever since the Lok Sabha passed the ill-intentioned Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019, on 8 January, protests have broken out across the North East. Before we get to the details of the Bill, it must be mentioned that the idea of giving citizenship to immigrants of particular religions from some countries appears, on the face of it, unconstitutional. That it is based on a misreading of the Indian realities is a different issue altogether.

A recapitulation of the details of the disastrous Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019, is necessary. It seeks primarily to grant citizenship to Buddhists, Christians, Jains, Hindus, Parsis and Sikhs from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan who are in India as (often illegal) immigrants. According to the provisions of the original Act, a person could apply for citizenship by naturalisation if he or she had been resident in India for the past 12 months and 11 of the 14 years preceding that. The amendment envisages the curtailment of the 11-year provision to six for immigrants in the categories mentioned above.

Activists stage a protest rally against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019, in Guwahati. PTI

Activists stage a protest rally against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019, in Guwahati. PTI

You don’t really need to have a doctoral degree in astrophysics to figure out that the BJP and the government it runs at the Centre targeted this legislative exercise at current and prospective Hindu immigrants from Bangladesh and Pakistan. It was clearly intended, in the collective wisdom of the wise heads of the party and its ideological and political mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), to play to the gallery of its committed constituency: Hindus who are Hindutva fanatics as well.

Unfortunately for the Hindutva peddlers, the wise heads of the BJP and RSS, well versed though they are in politics and ‘social engineering’, had failed to do their Indian Sociology 101. If they had, they would have known that India is divided and fractured along many lines and religion is only one of them. You have divisions along regional, linguistic, cultural and ethnic identities, senses of belonging and many more. That is what, in fact, makes India an incredibly plural, if often fractious, nation.

In the North East, though religious identities are important, they are interpenetrated by other identities based mainly on ethnic (often tribal) and linguistic solidarities, which is why the BJP government’s proposal to give citizenship to a large number of Bengali-speaking Hindus did not go down very well, to put it mildly.

The natives of Assam, Manipur, Tripura, Meghalaya and other states have protested vehemently against the passage of the Bill. Violence has broken out, not unsurprisingly, practically all over the North East. The political fallout is likely to be significant as we shall see in a bit.

The largest of the northeastern states is Assam. The BJP first came to power in the state after the 2016 elections in alliance with the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP). The AGP has pulled out of the alliance over the Bill. If that is a blow to the ruling party, four of its legislators have spoken out against the Bill. Most damaging for the party was the opposition to the Bill from the Speaker of the Assembly, Hitendra Nath Goswami, who regretted the haste with which the Bill was passed on 9 January, the day after the deed was done.

This opposition from within the party has prompted the BJP central leadership to send national general secretary Ram Madhav to fight the fires in the state. He only got there on Thursday, but if he persists with the line that ‘misinformation’ about the Bill has stoked unrest, it is unlikely that he will achieve anything to write anywhere about.

The civil society has also voted against the Bill with both its feet and voice. Several popular cultural figures have been sharply critical. Not least among them is Rima Das, the young filmmaker who has made waves with the film Village Rockstars, which unexpectedly became India’s entry for the Oscars.

The BJP government in Assam has reacted to the criticism in the manner all BJP governments seem to react. It has charged noted octogenarian academic Hiren Gohain, activist Akhil Gogoi and journalist Manjit Mahanta with sedition for criticising the Bill at a public meeting attended by ordinary citizens and 'notables' like former chief ministers Tarun Gogoi (Congress) and Prafulla Mahanta (AGP), and former director-general of police Harekrishna Deka. As usual, the BJP conflates itself and its governments with the nation and the state.

This sanguinary action is unlikely to cut much ice though. It appears unlikely that the BJP will retain the seven seats it won in the state during the 2014 Lok Sabha election. Assam contributes 14 seats to the Lower House of Parliament.

What’s happening in Assam is happening in other states in the North East as well. After coming to power in 2014, and with a swollen war chest at its command, the BJP came to power in various states in the North East in alliance with local parties. In 2018, the party won a resounding majority in Tripura, sweeping aside the Left Front, which had been ruling the state for decades. But Tripura has been ravaged by violence over the Bill since last week, and a number of parties including the Indigenous Peoples Front of Tripura (IPFT) — a BJP ally — have called for the resignation of Chief Minister Biplab Deb. The IPFT is reconsidering its ties with the BJP.

Activists under various student union outfits protest against Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019, in Khumulwng, West Tripura. PTI

Activists under various student union outfits protest against Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019, in Khumulwng, West Tripura. PTI

In the 2018 Assembly Election in Meghalaya, the Congress won 21 of the 60 and was the single largest party in the Assembly, but the BJP with just two seats teamed up with the National People’s Party, which won 19 seats, to become a part of the government. It now claims the state as its own. The Meghalaya Cabinet has now passed a resolution opposing the Bill. A similar story has unfolded in Nagaland. The BJP was part of an alliance that came to power in the state in 2018. The main alliance partner, the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party led by chief minister Neiphiu Rio, has made it clear that the state has been given enough powers constitutionally to reject the Bill. It will presumably do so.

Earlier, the BJP became a partner of the ruling alliance in Manipur executing a manoeuvre, not unlike the one it executed in Meghalaya. Though the Congress emerged the largest party with 28 seats in a 60-strong House, the BJP, with 21, managed to win over the smaller parties and form a government with N Biren Singh made the chief minister.

Manipur has been badly rocked by violence. Its own government has rejected the Bill and has sought an exemption from it despite the fact that over 40 percent of the population is Hindu. An umbrella organisation of the Kuki tribe, which comprises a substantial percentage of the population, has disapproved the Bill and will oppose it.

Elections to the Mizoram Assembly were held late 2018. The Mizo National Front won the elections winning 26 of the 40 seats; the Congress won five seats and the BJP won one seat. Chief Minister Zoramthanga has told the prime minister that his state ‘vehemently opposes’ the Bill; even the state BJP has asked the prime minister to reconsider the proposed law.

Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh has been trying to deal with the fallout of the cynical piece of legislation, the only purpose of which is to consolidate Hindus outside the Hindutva constituency behind his party. He hasn’t had much to offer. Perhaps he hasn’t been given much to offer the North East by his political masters. He has said that the Centre is contemplating offering incentives to prospective Hindu citizens to settle outside Assam and that the National Democratic Alliance (meaning the BJP) is committed to preserving the identity and heritage of Assam. Whatever that may mean, it sounds distinctly like very cold comfort in an unusually cold north Indian winter.

Apart from the fact that it is distinctly possible that the Bill won’t survive a judicial challenge if it becomes an Act, the BJP’s cynical attempt at manipulation will have alienated an entire region, which till recently, it had been crowing about having conquered electorally. Whether much will accrue by way of majoritarian consolidation remains to be seen.

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Updated Date: Jan 18, 2019 23:07:42 IST

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