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Saturday, Sep 21, 2019

PM Modi reaches out to Northeast to soothe citizenship anger

PM Modi assured the people of Assam and other north-eastern states on that they would not be disadvantaged by the citizenship bill.

india Updated: Feb 10, 2019 08:22 IST
Sadiq Naqvi, Utpal Parashar and Priyanka Deb Barman
Sadiq Naqvi, Utpal Parashar and Priyanka Deb Barman
Hindustan Times, Guwahati/Agartala/Changsari
Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the gathering at the inauguration of several development projects, in Itanagar, Saturday, Feb 9, 2019.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the gathering at the inauguration of several development projects, in Itanagar, Saturday, Feb 9, 2019. (PTI file photo)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi assured the people of Assam and other north-eastern states on Saturday that they would not be disadvantaged by the citizenship bill, which aims to grant citizenship rights to non-Muslim minorities from three neighbouring countries – among his first public statements on an issue that has roiled the region.

The Prime Minister’s comments came in a speech in Guwahati, Assam; the Prime Minister also addressed rallies in Itanagar, Arunachal Pradesh and Agartala, Tripura. On Friday, in Guwahati, the Prime Minister’s cavalcade was met by black flag waving protesters who signalled their opposition to the proposed law.

“People who ruined this country are now spreading lies… about the bill for their own benefit. We need to be wary of them,” Modi said.

“It is a national commitment to the people of the north-east that they will not be harmed in any way and citizenship will only be granted after due investigation and recommendation of the state governments,” he said.

Protests have broken out in north-eastern states over the citizenship bill amid concern that the legislation could dilute local and indigenous identity by accelerating demographic change. The bill provides that “persons belonging to minority communities, namely, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan” shall not be considered illegal migrants.

The PM assured his Assamese audience that citizenship would be granted to the people from the three neighbouring countries only after they are vetted by the state government and after a recommendation by the latter.

He also sought to make a distinction between illegal immigrants from across the border and people who have fled a neighbouring country to escape persecution on account of their faith.

Illegal immigration is a big issue in the north-east (and especially in Assam), and the government’s decision to go ahead with the citizenship bill – it has two more days next week to pass it in Parliament – has provoked angry responses in the region where the party has made significant gains in recent years. The Asom Gana Parshid (AGP) recently snapped its ties with the BJP government in Assam over the citizenship bill. The opposition to the bill has united many north-eastern parties.

Ten political parties from the north-east, including the BJP’s current and former allies, came together last month to oppose the controversial bill. The parties, several belonging to the BJP-led North East Democratic Alliance resolved to oppose the bill “in the interest of the people of north-east”.

This is of concern to the BJP, which was looking to better its tally in the north-east in the summer’s Lok Sabha elections. All told, the seven north-eastern states send 25 representatives to Parliament. The BJP currently holds eight of these seats and was hoping to increase that tally to almost 20.

The Prime Minister also said in his speech in Assam that his government is committed to implementing all aspects of the Assam Accord, including Clause 6 which promises to have constitutional and legal safeguards for the protection of the cultural and social identity of the Assamese.

Modi also said that a lot of protests over the citizenship law were the result of misinformation being spread by his rivals. The Congress has said the bill will create ethnic divisions not just in Assam but the entire north-east and could lead to a resurgence of extremist groups.

Modi was visiting Assam for the first time since the citizenship bill was passed by the Lok Sabha on January 8. It awaits the approval of Rajya Sabha, where the ruling coalition is short of numbers.

In Guwahati, Modi inaugurated development projects worth about ₹18,000 crore including a gas processing plant, a bio-refinery, a gas pipeline and a six-lane bridge. He inaugurated projects worth more than ₹4,000 crore in Arunachal Pradesh for an airport near the state capital Itanagar, a hydro-electric project, a national television channel and 50 health and wellness centres.

“Arunachal Pradesh is a strategically important state related to national security. And yet, earlier governments didn’t improve facilities here. The Centre has allocated funds worth ₹44,000 crore to the state over the past few years,” Modi said.

Speaking at a rally in Tripura, Modi appealed to voters to choose a strong government in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections. “You supported us [in assembly elections] eleven months ago… I appeal to you for similar support for the Lok Sabha elections.”

National People’s Party (NPP) president and Meghalaya chief minister Conrad K Sangma on Saturday threatened that his party will quit the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) if the proposed legislation is passed in Rajya Sabha.

Reacting to Modi’s remarks, Assam Congress MLA Debabrata Saikia said: “The citizenship bill will encourage fundamentalist elements in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan and… lead to a loss of cultural identity in Assam.”

Atul Bora of the Asom Gana Parishad said the bill will violate provisions of the Assam Accord which assure the protection of Assamese cultural identity.

First Published: Feb 09, 2019 22:45 IST