Citizenship Bill

A tug of war

Print edition : March 15, 2019

Activists of the Assam Jatiya Yuba Chatra Parishad celebrate after the Citizenship Amendment Bill lapsed, in Guwahati on February 13. Photo: PTI

Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad K. Sangma and AGP president Atul Bora (left) and vice president Keshab Mahanta speaking to the media at the Guwahati airport on February 14. Photo: PTI

Members of the North East Students’ Organisation pay tribute to martyrs of the Assam agitation, in Guwahati on February 14. Photo: PTI

The BJP is determined to push the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, but regional outfits in the north-eastern States continue to put up a united front against it.

THE controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019, lapsed on February 13 after the Rajya Sabha, which was adjourned the same day without setting a date for resumption of proceedings, did not take it up for discussion. However, the issue is set to return as a major poll plank in the Lok Sabha election as the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has vowed to reintroduce the Bill if it is voted to power for a second consecutive term at the Centre. The Lok Sabha had passed the Bill on January 8.

There was jubilation all over the north-eastern States after the Bill lapsed, with people bursting firecrackers, distributing sweets and dancing on the streets to rejoice.

Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma and leaders of the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) were given a rousing reception in Assam when they returned from New Delhi. Meghalaya’s National People’s Party-led coalition government had passed a Cabinet resolution opposing the Bill, and the Sangma-led NPP had threatened to quit the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) if the Bill was passed in the Rajya Sabha.

Mizoram Chief Minister Zoramthanga was also at the forefront of the opposition to the Bill and he joined hands with Sangma and AGP leaders to mobilise 10 regional political parties to put up a united front against it.

The celebrations reflected the relief that people in the region felt on hearing that the Bill had lapsed.

However, the celebration was short-lived as BJP national president Amit Shah announced in Assam on February 17 that his party would reintroduce the Bill and get it passed if it retains power at the Centre. Shah also said that the BJP would include the Bill in the party’s manifesto for the 2019 Lok Sabha election.

Amit Shah’s speech

“Misinformation is being spread about the Bill. I want to clarify that the Bill is not for north-eastern States alone but for all refugees across the country,” he said, while addressing a rally of youth workers in Lakhimpur. He added: “Going by the pace at which demographic change is taking place in Assam, we have to keep in mind that the people of Assam would be in grave danger without the Bill.”

He pointed out that the Congress and the AGP had made the Bill an election issue during elections to the panchayats and three autonomous councils in the State but the people of Assam had defeated them.

Shah’s statement triggered a sharp reaction. The United Democratic Party (UDP), a major partner of the NPP-led ruling coalition in Meghalaya, severed its ties with the BJP-led North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) in protest. The UDP is the second regional party after the AGP to sever ties with the BJP and quit the NEDA over the contentious Bill. The BJP took the lead in the constitution of the NEDA by bringing regional parties together under this political alliance in 2016 for a “Congress-mukt Northeast”.

The North East Students’ Organisation (NESO) dubbed Shah’s statement an “insult to the people’s movement of the whole of the north-east against this Bill”. NESO chairman Samuel B. Jyrwa and secretary general Sinam Prakash Singh said in a statement: “This [Shah’s] statement is also a clear reflection of the mindset which indicates that they don’t have any regard for the sentiments, emotions and welfare of the indigenous peoples of the north-east but rather their design is to reduce the microscopic indigenous communities to a minority by flooding the region with illegal Bangladeshis to achieve their Hindutva objective. NESO would again like to reiterate our stand that we are against the illegal Bangladeshis and we do not differentiate them on the basis of their religion—an illegal Bangladeshi is an illegal Bangladeshi, whether a Hindu or Muslim.”

NESO comprises the Khasi Students’ Union, the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), the Naga Students’ Federation, Mizo Zirlai Pawl, the Twipra Students’ Federation, the All Manipur Students’ Union, the Garo Students’ Union and the All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union.

Vote-bank politics

The AASU and 30 other organisations of ethnic communities of Assam, which launched a united movement against the Bill, also flayed Shah’s statement and described it as “an exercise by the BJP to create a vote bank of illegal Bangladeshis at the cost of the interests of indigenous people of Assam and other north-eastern States and insult to the people of the region”.

AASU president Dipankar Kumar Nath and general secretary Lurinjyoti Gogoi said in a statement: “The people of the region did not accept the Bill and will never accept it under any circumstance. Movements were launched against the Bill, which sought to protect votebanks of illegal Bangladeshis and protect illegal Bangladeshi migrants in violation of the Assam Accord, and will continue against any such move.”

The Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti urged people to defeat the BJP in the Lok Sabha election, while Assam Pradesh Congress Committee president Ripun Bora called for a boycott of the BJP in the upcoming election.

The BJP’s decision to make it a poll plank for the Lok Sabha election appears to be an attempt to prevent the issue of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) from returning to the centre stage of political discourse.

The lapsed Bill polarised the political discourse over the identification of “illegal migrants” on religious lines. The discourse over the NRC, however, centres around the identification of “illegal migrants” irrespective of religion.

Opponents of the Bill are pinning their hopes on an updated NRC, which would be critical to the protection of linguistic and cultural identities of the ethnic and indigenous people in Assam. There has been a growing demand in other north-eastern States too for the compilation of an NRC based on modalities to be decided by the respective States.

Hopes on NRC

The Supreme Court, which is monitoring the process of the updating the NRC in Assam, has fixed July 31 for publishing the final NRC list after the disposal of all claims and objections. Over 40 lakh applicants were excluded from the complete draft of the updated NRC published on July 30 last year.

The NRC is being updated on the cut-off date of March 24, 1971, which is also the cut-off date in the Assam Accord for identification, deletion of names from electoral rolls, and the expulsion of “illegal migrants” in Assam.

The lapsed Bill sought to remove the “illegal migrant” tag in respect of Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Christians, Buddhists and Parsis from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Even though the Bill did not mention any cut-off date, the Central government said that amendments would be applicable for those migrants who came to India until December 31, 2014.

Shah’s announcement has posed a challenge for the NPP and other NEDA constituents, which may not find it easy to ignore it as a mere electoral promise by the BJP.

Regional party leaders will likely be under pressure to sever electoral ties with the BJP on the issue.

For the BJP, it will be a challenge to hold on to the alliance with regional parties under the NEDA banner for an anti-Congress front while simultaneously pushing for the Bill.

Assam Health and Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma claimed that Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma had met him recently and requested him to rethink the AGP-BJP electoral alliance.

He said that differences between the two parties widened after three AGP Ministers quit the government and the regional party fought the panchayat elections alone. State BJP president Ranjeet Kumar Dass recently wrote to Amit Shah that the party would like to go it alone in Assam in the Lok Sabha election, which Sarma seconded, saying it was “our view”.

The AGP quit the BJP-led coalition government in Assam headed by Sarbananda Sonowal on January 7. Assam accounts for 14 of the total 25 Lok Sabha seats in the eight north-eastern states. The BJP won seven seats in Assam in 2014. At that time, the AGP did not have an electoral alliance with the BJP and failed to win a single seat.

The AGP has strongly opposed Shah’s statement on the Bill and the party’s executive committee decided on February 20 not to have an electoral alliance with any party that supported the Bill. It has constituted a nine-member strategy preparation committee headed by Atul Bora to take a final call on having an electoral alliance with any party or going it alone. Bora also clarified that he was not aware of the meeting between Sangma and Sarma.

The weakening of the NEDA over the Bill brings an opportunity for the Congress to revive its North East Congress Coordination Committee to regain the lost support base and explore electoral tie-ups—direct or tactical—with regional parties.

The party is expected to showcase its support to the NESO, the AASU and other organisations in their movement against the Bill and to oppose the Bill in the Rajya Sabha when it goes to the people during the Lok Sabha election.

Regardless of the outcome of the Lok Sabha election, the region will likely see intensified protests if any attempt is made to reintroduce the Bill.