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Citizenship issue unlikely to benefit Congress in North East, will only remind voters of party's failure to arrest influx of immigrants

With less than two weeks to go for Lok Sabha Election, the Congress party seems to be trying hard to corner the BJP in the issue of Citizenship Amendment Bill in North East. But public perception on the issue of illegal immigration from Bangladesh is so precariously placed against the Congress in the region that the issue might do more harm to the party's election prospects in the region.

Significantly, in the northeastern region, the Congress has long been seen as the party which reaped political benefits, thanks to the votes of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh at the cost of the economy, culture and political identity of the region.

In the late seventies, Assam saw one of the bloodiest movements in contemporary history demanding detection and deportation of illegal migrants which led to the fall of the Congress government led by the then chief minister Hiteswar Saikia in 1985.

The six-year-long anti-migrant agitation which is known as the Assam Movement also witnessed massive brutality by security forces on the protesting student activists. According to the records of the Assam government, 855 youths from both, Hindu and Muslim communities in the state, were killed in police atrocities in a span of six years. Atrocities against the activists only fortified the perception that the ruling Congress government was siding with the illegal immigrants.

During 1996 Assembly election, the issue of illegal immigrants was pivotal focus for all parties. Saikia lost that year, for the second time, to Asom Gana Parishad. Five years later in 2001, when Tarun Gogoi, another Congress chief minister, was voted to power in the state, he tactfully ensured that the issue of illegal immigration never became a poll issue for the next fifteen years.

In the 2001 Assembly election and every election that took place after that till 2016, Gogoi ensured that only issues related to law and order and economic condition of the citizens prevailed as poll issues in Assam. In the 2016 assembly election, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Asom Gana Parishad alliance made illegal immigration a raging election issue. The BJP-AGP combine won a historically and Congress lost.

 Citizenship issue unlikely to benefit Congress in North East, will only remind voters of partys failure to arrest influx of immigrants

Hindu voters wait to cast their vote during the general election in Dhaka, Bangladesh in December 2018. India's Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2019, fear prominent Hindus in Bangladesh, undermines the struggle for fundamental rights among minority communities in Bangladesh. Reuters

Encroachment of tribal lands and vaishnavite satras (ashrams) in Assam by suspected migrants and the Congress government's perceived failure to reign them in is one of the main issues ahead of elections this year. The Citizenship Amendment Bill tabled in the last Winter Session of Parliament by the present BJP government, just five months before the Lok Sabha polls, ensured that the issue does not lose any traction in Assam.

The bill which was duly passed in the Lok Sabha but was not placed in the Rajya Sabha due to protests from Opposition parties aims at granting Indian citizenship to Hindus, Sikhs, Parsis, Jains, Christians and Buddhists from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

Since the bill has faced severe protests across the northeastern region, the Congress has raised the poll pitch saying that the party will scrap it if it comes to power. Recently, the Arunachal Pradesh Congress Committee and earlier Congress chief Rahul Gandhi announced the same.

But the Congress raising the illegal immigrant issue will only help refreshing memory of gory days for Assam, a condition likely to go against the interests of the Grand Old Party in the region. Secondly, it is also likely to remind the voters of the failures of the Congress party in arresting the influx from Bangladesh.

Significantly, after the Assam movement, the Government of India and the activists agreed upon detecting illegal immigrants in an agreement famously known as the Assam Accord. It took three decades and aitigation for the Congress-led governments in power to initiate the process of updating the National Register of Citizenship in 2015.

The perception was had the process of NRC initiated just after it was agreed upon, situation would have been different.

The apathy over the issue of illegal immigrants does not end here. In 1983, when the Assam Movement was touching it’s peak, the Centre had passed a legislation named Illegal Immigrants Detection Tribunal Act making detection of illegal immigrants legally difficult.

It took another protracted legal battle by current chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal for the courts to strike down this legislation. It is unlikely that the people would now move away from the BJP and suddenly turn to a party against which they have seen themselves struggling for the last 40 years on the same issue of illegal immigrants.

Certainly, there is fear among the people that the BJP would pass the bill if it comes to power in 2019. The fear is aggravated by the repeated announcements by BJP leaders that it would re-introduce the bill once the majority in the Rajya Sabha is attained. Even in this case, the Congress is unlikely to be seen as an option by the people to resort to, given their past experiences.

It is, therefore, no wonder that the BJP and the AGP leaders are now harping on a compromise formula to pass the bill without hurting the interests of the region.

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Updated Date: Apr 02, 2019 16:50:21 IST