North-eastern States

Citizenship Bill as main plank

Print edition : April 26, 2019

Congress president Rahul Gandhi campaigning for Gaurav Gogoi, the sitting MP of Kaliabor constituency, at Bokakhat in Golaghat district of Assam on April 3. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

Prime Minister Narendra Modi along with Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Pema Khandu campaigning for Union Minister Kiren Rijiju, who is contesting from the Arunachal West Lok Sabha seat, and candidates for the Arunachal Assembly elections at an election rally in Along in West Siang district. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

The NPP’s Agatha Kongkal Sangma, after filing her nomination for Tura Lok Sabha constituency in Meghalaya on March 22. Photo: PTI

Non-BJP political parties’ campaign for the 25 Lok Sabha seats in the eight north-eastern States focusses on the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, with the Congress making the Bill its key electoral plank.

The Congress was clueless about how to rebuild its base in the north-eastern region after it began to lose power in one State after the other. At this point, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government introduced the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019, and the Lok Sabha passed it on January 8, 2019, opening a window of opportunities for the opposition party.

The Bill seeks to remove the “illegal migrant” tag and grant citizenship rights to immigrants belonging to six religious groups—Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jains, Parsi and Christian—from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan who came to India before December 31, 2014, without valid travel documents or are staying illegally in the country even after the expiry of their travel documents.

The Congress has made the controversial legislation its main election plank in the region, but the party cannot hope to take full advantage of the opposition to the Bill as the National People’s Party (NPP) and the Mizo National Front (MNF), which played a crucial role in uniting regional parties in protesting against the Bill, have made it their election plank. Besides, the Left parties and other regional parties are also in the forefront of the anti-Citizenship Bill agitation.

In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, State-specific issues dominated electioneering in the region. This time, the Citizenship Bill has become the common election issue.

The eight north-eastern States account for 25 Lok Sabha seats. Assam has 14 seats, Meghalaya, Manipur, Tripura and Arunachal Pradesh two each and Mizoram, Nagaland and Sikkim one each. The region will have three-phase elections—for the Lok Sabha seats on April 11, 18 and 23, and simultaneous Assembly elections in Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim on April 11.

In 2014, the BJP and its allies won 12 seats, the Congress seven, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) two, the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) three and an independent candidate one. The Congress was in power in Assam, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Meghalaya then, but the BJP and its allies defeated it in all the five States in the Assembly elections held in these States in the past five years.

The Citizenship Bill, which is set to lapse on June 3 when the term of the 16th Lok Sabha will come to an end, became the single rallying point across the north-eastern region. Within days after the Rajya Sabha session ended sine die on February 13 without considering the Bill, BJP national president Amit Shah announced in Assam that his party would reintroduce the Bill if it was re-elected to power at the Centre. He promised to include the Bill in the party’s manifesto for the Lok Sabha election. Amit Shah’s announcement brought the contentious Bill back to centre stage. The Bill has been widely contested in the region ever since it was introduced in 2016.

Amit Shah’s announcement triggered sharp reactions from organisations such as the North East Students’ Organisation (NESO) and its constituents, including the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), and apex student bodies in other States. The Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chatra Parishad (AJYCP) and the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) warned of a vigorous agitation to resist any bid to reintroduce a new Bill. The AASU urged the electorate to vote against those supporting the Bill.

Seizing on the opportunity, Congress president Rahul Gandhi, while kicking off the party’s election campaign in the region on March 21, promised to fight the Bill tooth and nail. The party’s election manifesto, which was released by Rahul Gandhi on April 2, stated: “We will withdraw immediately the widely resented Citizenship Amendment Bill introduced by the BJP Government against the wishes of the people of the NES [north eastern States]”. It promised to address the issue of illegal immigration into the region through consultations with the north-eastern States and evolve a consensus on legislative measures to secure the identity of the indigenous communities. “We will also engage the neighbouring countries, Bangladesh and Myanmar, to address and resolve the issue of illegal immigration into India,” the manifesto added.

As the non-political organisations opposed to the Bill are not the direct stakeholders in electoral politics, the Congress views the return of the issue to the centre stage as an opportunity to garner the votes of the opponents of the Bill.

The BJP pushed the Bill in the Lok Sabha and got it passed by the Lower House of Parliament by a voice vote on January 8, notwithstanding massive protests across the region. The NESO, the AASU, the AJYCP and the KMSS approached Rahul Gandhi and urged him to ensure that the Congress and its allies worked together to stall the Bill in the Rajya Sabha. Rahul Gandhi promised to oppose the Bill if it was tabled in the Rajya Sabha. The BJP, however, did not push the Bill in the Upper House.

In Assam, the revival of the Asom Gana Parishad’s (AGP) electoral tie-up with the BJP despite Amit Shah’s promise to revive the Bill created resentment among the opponents of the Bill. The AGP quit the BJP-led coalition government headed by Sarbananda Sonowal after the Narendra Modi government tabled the Bill in the Lok Sabha. The party’s central executive adopted a resolution criticising Amit Shah and decided not to have an electoral understanding with any party that supported the Bill.

Despite opposition within the party to the revival of an electoral alliance with the BJP, the AGP leadership agreed to a tie-up with the BJP after a meeting with Ram Madhav, the general secretary in charge of BJP affairs in the north-eastern region. The BJP agreed to allot three seats to the AGP and field its own candidates from 10 seats. The two parties agreed to stick to their positions on the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill and resolve their differences through consultation. The Bodoland People’s Front (BPF), another coalition partner of the BJP, has fielded the common candidate of the alliance in Kokrajhar constituency. Three AGP Ministers, including party president Atul Bora, who quit over the Bill, rejoined the Sonowal Cabinet.

The AGP’s founder president and former Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta and several party leaders and their followers opposed the alliance with the BJP and refrained from canvassing for the party’s candidates on the grounds that the decision did not have the approval of the party’s central executive or general house. Mahanta urged voters to elect those candidates who had opposed the Bill.

The Congress has fielded its candidates in all the 14 seats in Assam. Aggressive campaigning by the Congress over the Bill appears to have put the BJP on the back foot. In their election rallies in the region, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Amit Shah refrained from referring to the Bill. Instead, they showcased the initiative taken by the Modi government to implement Clause 6 of the Assam Accord, which envisages constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards for the protection, preservation and promotion of the social identity and the linguistic and cultural heritage of the Assamese people and the compilation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) to detect “infiltrators”. Modi, Amit Shah and other BJP leaders blamed the Congress for the delay in implementing Clause 6.

The opponents of the Bill argue that it is violative of Clause 5, the core clause of the Assam Accord, which stipulates detection of illegal migrants, irrespective of their religion, who came to India after March 24, 1971, the deletion of their names from the electoral rolls, and their expulsion. They also argue that if enacted, the Bill will make the NRC infructuous. The final list of the citizens’ register, currently being updated under the supervision of the Supreme Court on the basis of the same cut-off date, will be published on July 31. The BJP, however, claims that the party’s victory in the elections to the panchayats and various autonomous councils held during the peak of the anti-Bill movement indicated that the Bill was not an issue for the electorate.

The Congress’ strategy to make the Bill its key electoral plank worked to end its isolation in the region’s politics. Two regional parties, the Naga People’s Front (NPF) in Nagaland and the Zoram People’s Movement (ZPM) in Mizoram, have forged an issue-based alliance with the Congress. The Congress-ZPM combine has backed journalist and sports organiser Lalnghinglova Hmar for the lone Lok Sabha seat in Mizoram. The ZPM has eight and the Congress five legislators in the 40-member Mizoram Assembly.

The ruling Mizo National Front (MNF), however, alleged that the ZPM and the Congress had raised the issue of the Citizenship Bill to “tarnish the MNF’s image.” Mizoram Chief Minister and MNF president Zoramthanga asserted in his election speeches that his party strongly opposed the Bill and that the State Cabinet as well as the Assembly had passed resolutions opposing the Bill. Zoramthanga was at the forefront of the anti-Bill agitation in the region and joined hands with Meghalaya Chief Minister and NPP president Conrad Sangma in uniting 10 regional parties to raise a united voice against the Bill.

The MNF also harped on the Mizoram Maintenance of Households Registers Bill, 2019, passed unanimously by the State Assembly on March 18 to address the issue of identifying illegal immigrants, to counter the Congress-ZPM campaign around the Bill. Besides identifying genuine residents of the State, the objective of the Act is to detect foreigners who “clandestinely stayed back and got assimilated in the people of the State by taking advantage of the mistaken identity and of difficulties in detecting them” and “eating away the benefits of development and welfare schemes”. Mizoram shares borders with Bangladesh and Myanmar. Under the new law, registers will be created containing names, photographs and details of members of every household. “It shall be the responsibility of every householder as well as every member of the household in the State to furnish all such information, particulars and passport-size photographs of the members of the household as may be required by the registering authorities,” the Act states.

In Nagaland, the NPF has backed the Congress candidate and former Chief Minister K.L. Chishi for the lone Lok Sabha seat. While the NPF is the single largest party with 26 legislators in the 60-member Nagaland Assembly, the Congress does not have a single legislator. The NPF president, Shurhozelie Liezietsu, in a statement read out at a consultative meeting of the party’s central executive committee members, office bearers of frontal wings, and legislators, held in the State capital Kohima, stated that “the imminent danger before the Naga people lies in the form of Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. The NPF has decided to garner support of all secular forces together to fight the coming Lok Sabha election and take a stand against the Bill to defend the future of the Nagas”. The NPF, however, clarified that its support to the Congress was only for the 2019 Lok Sabha election. Seven NPF legislators protested against the party’s decision to support the Congress candidate and issued a joint statement extending support to the candidate of the ruling Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP)-led People’s Democratic Alliance (PDA), Tokeho Yepthomi, who is the sitting member of the Lok Sabha from the State. The BJP, with 12 legislators, is a major partner in the PDA. On March 21, the NDDP’s strength in the House rose to 19 after the NPP legislators joined the ruling party.

In a bid to counter the Congress’ campaign on the Bill, Meghalaya Chief Minister Sangma acknowledged in his election speeches that the united opposition of the regional parties had ensured that the Bill lapsed in the Rajya Sabha. He said that Meghalaya was the first State in India to oppose the Bill by adopting a Cabinet resolution.

The Congress is pinning its hopes on the anti-Citizenship Bill sentiments to regain lost ground in Manipur, Tripura and Arunachal Pradesh. The North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) formed by the BJP to bring together the regional parties for a “Congress-mukt north-east” failed to fructify into an electoral alliance. This has helped the Congress convert the controversy over the Bill into an important election issue in the hope that it will have a strong appeal among the electorate across the eight States.

The outcome of the Lok Sabha election will be a pointer to the impact a people’s movement such as the one against the Citizenship Bill can have on electoral politics in the north-eastern region.

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