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Angry allies, upset state units & voters up in arms: How BJP is unravelling in Northeast

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Citizenship (Amendment) Bill push has left not just Assam, but entire region up in flames, putting it in a precarious position politically.

New Delhi: With its partner Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) in Assam snapping ties, allies in Tripura and Meghalaya raising vehement objections and its own party leaders in Assam and Manipur breaking ranks, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s push for the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill has upset the apple cart not just in Assam but the entire Northeast region.

On Friday, Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma — in whose government the BJP is a partner — and Mizoram Chief Minister Zoramthanga met Home Minister Rajnath Singh to mark their protest against the controversial bill. The delegation has also sought time with Prime Minister Narendra Modi Saturday.

Political leaders across the Northeast have condemned the BJP’s attempts to push this legislation, which seeks to give non-Muslim refugees from three countries — Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan — citizenship of India.

Pan-Northeast backlash

The BJP, ever since coming to power in 2014, has been systematically trying to establish its presence in the Northeast, as a result of which it is in power in all seven sisters — except Mizoram — either by having won elections, by forging careful coalitions or through other means. In fact, the party has been hoping to maximise its gains in the 25 Lok Sabha seats in the region in order to compensate for potential losses elsewhere.

However, its push for the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, introduced in the Lok Sabha in 2016 and passed by it in the recently-concluded Winter Session of Parliament, has left not just Assam, but the entire region, up in flames, while also putting the BJP in a precarious position politically.

In Assam, its ally AGP walked out of the coalition in protest and its Meghalaya partner, the National People’s Party (NPP) of Conrad Sangma, has been objecting.

In Tripura, where the BJP pulled off a stunning victory in 2018, its coalition partner, the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) that has eight seats in the 60-member assembly, has also opposed the bill and said it would ask the Centre to reconsider it.

Most importantly, its own party leaders in Manipur, including Chief Minister N. Biren Singh, and his Cabinet have opposed it.

“Unless there is a provision for protecting the indigenous people of Manipur as well as the other Northeast states, the state government would not support the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill,” Singh said.

The party is also witnessing internal schisms in Assam over the issue, with assembly speaker and BJP leader Hitendra Nath Goswami publicly stating the bill was being brought in “haste” and without “taking the indigenous people of Assam into confidence”.

But even more telling of the intense resistance to this move has been the widespread public outrage in Assam, marked by protests and bandhs.

Also read: The Citizenship Bill complements NRC in pushing BJP’s Hindutva agenda: here’s how

The objection

Given this bill has come alongside the process of updating the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam, which aims at identifying illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, the move is being seen as a way for the BJP to push its Hindutva agenda, while ignoring the sentiment of the indigenous people of the state.

The ethnic Assamese have been opposed to all ‘outsiders’ in a religion-agnostic manner, and have for decades demanded that illegal immigrants irrespective of religion be identified and deported. This, in fact, was a key tenet of the 1985 Assam Accord.

Thus, the objection to the bill in Assam, and the rest of the Northeast, is based on the resentment towards the BJP for ignoring he interests and concerns of the indigenous people by looking to legitimise the rights of a section of refugees — whom locals view as in their limited resources.

BJP’s game-plan

Senior BJP leaders in Assam say the party “isn’t acting in haste and had anticipated the backlash”.

“The party and PM want to send out a larger message to its base across the country that it stands up for the cause of the Hindu community. People also don’t understand how this works out in terms of our numbers,” said a BJP leader in the state who did not wish to be identified.

“The number of Hindu refugees is far lower than Muslim ones in the state, thus making it much easier to give the former citizenship. The party will draw up a strategy to convey this message on the ground extensively,” the leader said.

Meanwhile, experts and analysts also believe the BJP is trying to send out a larger message and that it may use the number of Muslim versus Hindu illegal immigrants as its primary justification.

“With the way BJP is campaigning about this issue in Assam and the statements its senior leaders are making, it seems fairly confident of its strategy. They are clearly trying to send a message to the rest of the country, and perhaps not even at the cost of their presence in Northeast. If in Assam, for instance, the Congress and AIUDF don’t come together, the BJP will still do well in the Lok Sabha polls,” said Aman Wadud, a Guwahati-based lawyer.

Wadud said the fear in the state is the government will “drop many more Muslims names as against Hindu names from the NRC to show how there are very few Hindus who are illegal immigrants and hence, should be given citizenship”.

Also read: NRC process in next 6 months crucial for 32 lakh people in Assam, and for BJP’s poll agenda

‘Boxed itself into a corner’

Upamanyu Hazarika, a Delhi-based advocate and convenor of Prabajan Virodhi Manch, a forum against infiltration, agrees, and said there’s a possibility the government will identify far more Muslims as illegal immigrants and then justify giving citizenship to the very small number of Hindu refugees.

“The Chief Minister of Assam has become a chopper CM. He takes a helicopter even from Dibrugarh to Tinsukia to avoid protesting crowds. How will they entangle this mess? The BJP has boxed itself into a corner,” said Hazarika.

“The very fact they want to give priority to one set of immigrants goes against the core sentiment in the Northeast that has been about upholding the interests of the ingenious people. The BJP is basically telling the people of the region that it sees the delicate issue of illegal immigration from a Hindu-Muslim prism,” he added.

Sanjoy Hazarika, director, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), said the party must clearly explain its stand.

“The BJP is probably sending a message to the entire country but it does not even think it is at the cost of the Northeast. But it isn’t just its allies but its own party leaders across the region who are opposing the bill. They need to go in for dialogue and explain their stand,” said the CHRI director.

“This is damaging BJP’s image and support base. In the rest of India, the party perhaps wishes to drive a sharp narrative on sectarian lines, but in Assam, it is certainly not endearing itself to the people,” he added.

The government even slapped sedition charges against public intellectual and Sahitya Akademi awardee Hiren Gohain, among others, for giving speeches criticising the Centre’s decision to push the bill.

“By using archaic laws like sedition against figures like Prof Hiren Gohain who declared that the fight must be constitutional, secular and for India as well as Assam, it is sending a set of bad signals. You need to engage, not force a viewpoint,” said Hazarika.

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  1. CAB is a communal bill as it starts with discrimination in the name of religion. India may accept it, but there is no chance that ASSAM will accept it as it is a pure Secular state in India…

  2. Many years ago, I saw a cartoon, one scientist asking a colleague incredulously, standing in a lab filled with rabbits, You tested your new fertility drug on them ? The north east is an unsettled place at the best of times, riven by cleavages of tribal and ethnic identity. Playing with its faultlines can be lethal. 14 seats in Assam, the remaining 11 completely a trophy for the victor in Delhi. They can barely compensate for the loss of a single state like Rajasthan. Perhaps because I neither understand nor particularly like politics, have always been deeply sceptical of Machiavellianism on steroids, 24 / 7. It is an exceedingly poor substitute for first rate governance and an unremitting push for faster economic growth.

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