Citizenship Amendment Bill: Will misreading Assam and North East's socio-cultural fabric derail BJP prospects in LS polls?

  • People have refused to buy the religion-based Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 which promises to grant citizenship to Hindu refugees, among others

  • The Assam win for BJP had been a turning point for the party in North East

  • BJP's main alliance partner Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) broke its ties with the party a day before the Bill was passed in the Lok Sabha

At some point in May 2016, huge crowds across the length and breadth of Assam were witness to celebration rallies of the BJP. The saffron party managed to oust the Tarun Gogoi-led Congress government that had ruled the state for three consecutive terms since 2001. Behind this thumping win lay a key promise of implementing the Assam Accord to preserve the indigenous people's jati, mati and bheti (community, land and home) — something the earlier governments had failed to do.

But three years down the line, the saffron party seems to have misread the deciding factors that gave birth to the Assam Accord — the region's demographic differences and its associated socio-cultural ethos. What it failed to read is the mismatch between Hindutva ideology and Assamese sub-nationalism, the two things the BJP has tried to unite vehemently. Not surprising then that the results are starker. People have refused to buy the religion-based Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 that promises to grant citizenship to Hindu refugees, among others.

Dissenting voices can be heard not only from citizens in Assam and the whole of North East, but the party is also battling in-fighting. It may perhaps be recalled here how indifference to regional sensitivities had cost BJP both its alliance partner and the government in Jammu and Kashmir.

 Citizenship Amendment Bill: Will misreading Assam and North Easts socio-cultural fabric derail BJP prospects in LS polls?

AASU activists seen protesting in various places burning tyres in Dibrugarh in Assam. Avik Chakraborty/101Reporters

A divided house 

The Assam win for BJP had been a turning point for the party in North East. It went on to form the government in neigbouring Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Tripura, overthrowing decades-old parties in these states. In Meghalaya and Nagaland, it is part of the ruling alliances.

But the stiff opposition to the bill from political parties within the BJP-led North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA), citizens and students' bodies barely months before the Lok Sabha polls can derail its prospects in the region.

The BJP's main alliance partner, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), severed ties with the party a day before the bill was passed in the Lok Sabha on 8 January. Soon, three AGP ministers — former state agriculture minister Atul Bora, former water resources minister Keshav Mahanta and former food and civil supplies minister Phanibhushan Choudhury — submitted their resignations to Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal.

The strength of the BJP-led coalition ministry, led by Sonowal, has now been reduced to 15, of whom 12 are from the saffron party, including the chief minister, and three Bodoland People's Front ministers. At least six other MLAs have voiced their opposition to the bill.

"A foreigner is a foreigner. Religion cannot be the basis on which a section of foreigners can be granted citizenship," BJP MLA from Bihpuria Debananda Hazarika was quoted by The Times of India.

Assembly speaker Hitendra Nath Goswami had also remarked saying that the Bill was passed without taking into account the interests of indigenous people of Assam.

The BJP-government in Manipur wants the Centre to first implement the Manipur People's (Protection) Bill, 2018 that seeks to regulate the entry of non-Manipuris into the state.

Other allies such as the National Peoples' Party (NPP) in Meghalaya, National Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP) of Nagaland and the Mizo National Front (MNF) have also expressed their opposition to the Bill. Nagaland chief minister Neiphiu Rio had said in a statement that the Bill is not applicable since the state is protected under the provisions of Article 371(A) and the Inner Line Permit.

Similarly, Mizoram chief minister Zoramthanga has told Prime Minister Narendra Modi that people of the state vehemently opposes the passage of the bill. In fact, Meghalaya chief minister Conrad Sangma and Zoramthanga had recently met Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh to urge the Centre to scrap the bill.

Two Meghalaya BJP legislators, AL Hek and Sanbor Shullai, have also submitted a memorandum to Modi to reconsider implementation of the bill.

Such discomfort among allies across the North East may also ring alarm bells about the rise of fresh anti-Delhi anger, something the entire region is all too familiar with. As Sanjoy Hazarika writes, it "could damage not just one party, but also enable the rise of those very forces that had lost credibility and been long dormant. It is time to read the warning signs and reach out to calm the waters".

Peasant leader Akhil Gogoi from Assam has already hinted that the call for sovereignty may arise once more if the bill is not scrapped.

Misreading social fabric 

The ethno-religious character of Assam and most of North East is something the saffron party had unfortunately failed to read. People in the state are against imparting differential treatment to illegal migrants on the basis of their religion. It is being seen as a threat to the state’s secular ethos. The Assamese also fear the bill will make them a minority in their own homeland.

Memories of the six-year-long bloody agitation, starting 1979, that was launched by the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) demanding identification and deportation of illegal migrants from the state, are a defining factor in understanding the surge of insurgency and the linguistic divide in the Brahmaputra and Barak valleys in Assam.  This agitation had culminated in the signing of the Assam Accord — a tripartite agreement, signed on 15 August, 1985, between the Centre, the state government and the AASU which had set the cut-off date of 24 March, 1971 to grant citizenship to people who had come from Bangladesh. The agitation leaders later formed the AGP party that came to power in the state in the Assembly elections of 1985.

The amendment bill, however, seeks to grant citizenship to Hindus of Bangladesh and others who had entered and settled in Assam by 31 December, 2014, and not Muslims.

Updated Date: Jan 22, 2019 19:34:40 IST