Tuesday saw a war-like atmosphere in Assam both within the confines of the examination hall and outside of it. As 2,42,844 candidates appeared for the higher secondary examination with obvious nervousness on what the question paper might have in store for them, it was the uncertainty over the Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2019 (CAB) that created a similar tension outside the test centres.
Although the CAB was not tabled in the Rajya Sabha on Tuesday, the penultimate day of the ongoing Budget Session — provided it's not extended by a couple of days, the tension was quite palpable on what might lie in wait on Wednesday. The emotion that has been fomenting against the bill from different political and non-political organisations across the North East, has now come down to a mathematical equation.
In the Upper House, the Bharatiya Janata Party has 73 members while the Congress has 50 members of its own. It is obvious that the role of the like-minded parties will play a critical role in deciding the fate of the CAB if it at all comes for discussion and voting at the end in the Rajya Sabha.
"We have 110 MPs in our favour including allies. We need a minimum of 123 to get the bill passed as the Rajya Sabha has 245 members. We are trying to convince parliamentarians from other parties to make up for the deficit and we are positive about it," said Assam BJP general secretary Dilip Saikia.
Among the bills for consideration and passing listed in the Rajya Sabha for Wednesday, the CAB stands at number 9 with Home Minister Rajnath Singh as the introducer.
Even though the UPA has an upper hand with 116 (counting on its side, for now, the remaining 14 MPs are critical for both the parties. One seat is vacant in the Upper House. Among these 14, the Biju Janata Dal has nine members, the Bahujan Samaj Party has four and the Naga Peoples Front has one.
"We met two chief ministers seeking support from them to oppose the bill. They are Andhra Pradesh chief minister N Chandrababu Naidu and his Meghalaya counterpart Conrad Sangma. We also urged them to get in touch with Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik as the BJD's support is crucial to defeating the bill. Sangma, in fact, called us around 9 pm (Tuesday) to inform us that the BJD will vote against the bill if needed as has been assured by Patnaik. However, all would depend on when the voting actually happens," said Assam Jatiyatabadi Yuva Chatra Parishad (AJYCP) president Palash Changmai from New Delhi.
A huge contingent of representatives from 70 non-political organisations is camping in the National Capital and meeting various leaders from across the political spectrum to garner support against the bill. This team has no direct contact with the Odisha chief minister and hence the appeal was made through Naidu and Sangma. Although the BJD seeks to maintain an equidistant from both the BJP and the Congress, the contingent is hoping that Patnaik's bonhomie with Naidu and West Bengal chief minister and Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee might work in their favour. The TMC is opposing the bill and both Naidu and Banerjee supported each other in their respective sit-in protests against the Narendra Modi-led government recently.
The Meghalaya chief minister, who also heads the National People's Party which is an NDA constituent, is fighting hard to prevent the bill from getting passed in the Rajya Sabha. Even his Manipur counterpart and BJP leader N Biren Singh is also camping in New Delhi to stop the bill from getting the Upper House nod. Sangma has even threatened to quit the NDA if the bill is passed.
What is interesting though is the stand taken by Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party.
"We have heard that the Centre has threatened her with unleashing the Central agencies against her if she does not tow the NDA line. The party's role is uncertain as of now. We hope that the NPF being a hill party would vote against the bill," the AJYCP president said. The NPF is also a part of the NDA.
There are unconfirmed reports that the Nagaland party might walk away and abstain from voting.
Assam Congress president and Rajya Sabha member Ripun Bora is confident that the party will stall the bill.
"We have stopped the government from placing the bill in the House today. If it comes tomorrow we will not allow it to pass at any cost. I am confident about it," Bora told Firstpost.
The Assam Congress president also said that his party would oppose any move by the government to extend the session of the House as there are unconfirmed reports that the session might go on till 15 February. Bora indicated of a Plan B but preferred not to spill the beans as yet.
The best chance for the Opposition is if they can manage to defeat the bill. Whether the bill would come up at all is also doubtful as it is placed relatively low in the list of business. With the Rafale controversy now regularly forcing adjournments in the House, it looks difficult if not impossible. Although not quite openly discussed the fear of horsetrading is lurking on both sides.
In parallel with the parleys by non-political organisations, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) along with 10 other regional political parties also had a meeting with Sangma in New Delhi on Tuesday.
"We have urged all political parties to oppose the bill. NDA partners Shiv Sena and Janata Dal (United) already made it clear that they are going to oppose the bill. We are hoping BJD would back us. But if the bill gets passed on Wednesday by chance the atmosphere in Assam would turn really volatile. The North East will burn. We will have no option then but to go to the Supreme Court," AGP president Atul Bora. The AGP had come out of the government in Assam last month following the BJP's insistence to pass the bill despite stiff opposition to it.
Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) leader Akhil Gogoi, who has been vociferously protesting against the bill, has made a mass appeal to the people of Assam to hit the streets on Wednesday to oppose the bill.
"We have to make our opposition felt. Our protests must be even more hard-hitting so that Delhi trembles. It has to be as sharp as they are doing in Manipur. Manipur and Mizoram have threatened to leave India. The government's adamance is compelling for people to take an anti-national stand. Not only it is about safeguarding the interest of the people from the North East but it is also about upholding the core constitutional principle of secularism. India cannot be divided on religious grounds," Gogoi said.
The representatives of the non-political organisations are also meeting the Rashtriya Janata Dal, Aam Aadmi Party, CPM and Congress on Wednesday to urge them to oppose the bill, he said.
The KMSS leader accepted that the role of the BJD is going to be critical either in preventing the bill from being placed or defeating it during voting. He also attributed the comments by Bhupen Hazarika's son Tej in increasing the pressure on the Centre.
"By linking the recently announced Bharat Ratna to the bard of Assam Bhupen Hazarika, Tej heightened the pressure on the government manifold. His comments also got significant coverage on the national dailies forcing the government to think twice. Bhupen Hazarika has always been an artiste of the people. He protested the whole life and was always anti-establishment. He was never nationalistic in his approach. He was for the people and of the people. Our objection is that the government is using Bhupen Hazarika to forward its communal agenda. Even after the Bharat Ratna announcement, have the protests come down? No. People are even angrier than before. To this effect, I would appreciate Tej for being an able son of an able father. Tej has stood up for democracy, for secularism, for North East and for the people," Gogoi said.
Tej, on Monday, came down heavily on the Centre opposing the bill through a Facebook post.
"I believe that my father's name and words are being invoked and celebrated publicly while plans are afoot to pass a painfully unpopular bill regarding citizenship that is actually undermining his documented position. It would in reality be in direct opposition to what Bupenda believed in his heart of hearts," he wrote.
"Bharat Ratnas and longest bridges while necessary, will not promote the peace and prosperity of the citizens of India. Only just popular laws and foresight on the part of leadership will. Numerous media journalists are now asking me whether or not I will accept the Bharat Ratna for my father. I go on record here to answer that A), I have not received any invitation so far there is nothing to reject, and B), how the Centre moves on this matter far outweighs in importance the awarding and receiving of such national recognition — a display of short lived cheap thrills," Tej, who is based in New York, said further.
However, on Tuesday, Bhupen Hazarika's younger brother Samar expressed his unhappiness over the controversy and termed it "unnecessary". Attempts to seek further clarity on Tej's status has gone unanswered as on 26 January his stand was completely different.
"Sure it is overwhelming but glad! This was a good day for all the people of India. Awarding Bhupen Hazarika with the The Bharat Ratna, is a win for humanity, diversity and India as a secular democracy. In his songs can be discovered blueprints for the youth and future of India. In his songs he celebrated the richness of indigenous people not only of the Northeast but all of India as he advocated their inclusion in the Indian experience as essential to the success of Indian civilization as a whole," Tej had said earlier on 26 January through a Facebook post, a day after the country's highest civilian award for his father was announced.
The scale of opposition against the bill in North East is fathomable from the fact that three-time chief minister and Congress leader from Mizoram Lal Thanhawla held a protest in Aizawl on Tuesday along with others that called for an "independent Mizoram".
"The entire North East is of one opinion that the CAB is disastrous for us. The indigenous people will become minorities and that's there such a rise against the bill. Mizoram is no exception," said Lal Thanhawla.
The veteran Congress leader also warned that if the bill is not withdrawn they would be forced to take the extreme step commenting on the "secessionist" placard he was holding during the protest.
"Why would they charge us with sedition? They are forcing us to do it. In a democracy the united voice of the people is supreme. The entire northeastern people are one in this regard. This is irrespective of political parties and about saving the North East," he said.
Tripura is also on the boil following the Centre's attempt to push the CAB. The Indigenous Peoples Front of Tripura, which is an ally of the BJP, is strongly opposing the government's move.
"If the bill comes up today and it gets passed we will have to rethink on our position. But first of all let's see what happens today," said Indigenous Peoples Front of Tripura president Narendra Chandra Debbarma.
In the last few hours of the Rajya Sabha, both the Oposition and Treasury benches are likely to employ every possible tool in their armamentarium for their own purpose. Even as the Opposition accuses the government of being insidious to get the Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2019, their victory will be achieved only when the proposed law is shellacked either by vote or natural lapse. But once so close to becoming a law, a new bill will probaly be a leitmotif of anxiety again like those higher secondary students who will appear in some other exam in the future.
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Updated Date: Feb 13, 2019 17:58:12 IST