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Citizenship bill backlash puts Assam BJP in a spot

The BJP’s foot soldiers say things have turned bad for a party that has seen a stunning rise in the northeast.

india Updated: Jan 17, 2019 07:38 IST
Zia Haq
Zia Haq
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Citizenship Amendment Bill,Migrant Bangladeshi,Assamese Bengali
Activists of various indigenous organizations stage a protest rally in front of Assam Secretariat against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, in Guwahati on January 9.(PTI Photo)

The Narendra Modi government’s Citizenship Amendment Bill has caused confusion within the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Assam, leaving the party’s rank and file wondering what lies ahead and how they can defuse a potentially damaging backlash against the bill.

Chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal has called a meeting with select office-bearers on Thursday to discuss these issues.

The bill, which seeks to grant citizenship to non-Muslim settlers from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, has set off an upheaval among native Assamese, who have long resented waves of migrations from Bangladesh.

Asked how the BJP will handle the conundrum, Tafiqure Rahman, one of the BJP’s eight vice-presidents in the state, said: “Everybody is confused here. I am telling you the truth.”

“Of course, it (the bill) is a challenge. It will harm the culture of Assam; it will harm the language of Assam,” he added.

“They (central leadership) will decide everything. The state government is following their order. I am also bound to follow them.” Rahman said, clarifying that he was not speaking to HT in his official but personal capacity.

Two major moves are afoot to offset possible dents in the BJP’s support base, but both are mired in controversy.

One, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has moved a separate bill to amend the Constitution (Schedule Tribes) Order 1950 to grant Schedule Tribes (ST) status to six communities that are scattered across the state. These are the Tai-Ahoms, Mataks, Chutiyas, Koch-Rajbongshis and a clutch of Adivasi (indigenous) groups. This isn’t a surprise political sop. These groups have long demanded such a status, which will give them a higher quantum of reservation in jobs and education. A similar move in 1996 floundered after Parliament failed to pass it.

Secondly, the BJP’s move to form a committee to recommend constitutional safeguards to native Assamese, including reservation in jobs and assembly seats, failed embarrassingly with a majority of experts nominated by the BJP government quitting the panel in protest against the citizenship amendment bill.

These constitutional provisions relate to the so-called Clause 6 of an agreement in 1985 between the central government and Assamese students, who led a six-year mass agitation against illegal Bangladeshi migrants, which were then incorporated into the Citizenship Act 1955.

The BJP’s foot soldiers say things have turned bad for a party that has seen a stunning rise in the northeast. Its legislators are being shown symbolic black flags. Two BJP legislators, Atul Bora and Padma Hazarika, have publicly opposed the bill, going against the party line.

On January 9, Assam assembly speaker Hitendranath Goswami told the Assam Tribune that as a citizen, he could not “support any act, which is unacceptable to the indigenous people of Assam”.

“The party will have to more or less suffer because of this. That is what I feel,” said Mrinal Saikia, the party’s Sonitpur unit chief. Sonitpur is a tea-producing district north of the Brahmaputra.

The citizenship bill was a “mistake”, Saikia said, adding that party workers are “demoralised” because “those associated with the BJP were (also) associated with the anti-immigration agitation (in the 1980s). That sentiment is still alive.”

According to Saikia, the BJP committed a tactical error. It should have first initiated the move to secure constitutional safeguards to native-born Assamese and then brought the citizenship bill. “There were no grassroots-level discussions,” he said.

BJP state vice-president Manoj Ram Phookan, however, said the bill was brought in a “democratic manner” through executive committee resolution.

According to political analyst, Naba Jyoti Bora, the BJP does face a challenge but it may well survive this storm. “The BJP has its own committed cadre now. Polarisation at many levels means a repeat of the 1980s-type agitation may not take place. Earlier, Assamese identity was the sole issue. Now people vote for economic development too.”

Debojit Bora, the chief of BJP’s Golaghat district unit, echoes this view. “We have our own cadre now. There will be an impact but it will be limited to the middle-class, schools and colleges, and government employees.” That’s not small chunk by any measure.

First Published: Jan 17, 2019 07:18 IST

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