Resistance of citizenship bill common ground to work together, say Congress, AGP in Assam
The Modi government’s Citizenship Amendment Bill, which seeks to give citizenship rights to non-Muslims from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, has plunged Assam into turmoil, creating an unprecedented common ground for bitter political rivals, the Congress and the Asam Gana Parishad (AGP), leaders of both parties said.
The open overtures from the Congress, including from former chief minister Tarun Gogoi, on at least two occasions, suggest possibilities of potential new political fronts in the future. At present, however, the common ground, leaders of both parties said, is limited to resisting the bill.
Given Assam’s political equations, the Congress and the regionalist AGP, once a political giant, have been bitter foes but the citizenship bill has found them speaking in a similar voice. The Congress has even said the AGP should join forces with it.
Ripun Bora, the chief of Assam’s Congress unit, said he doesn’t rule out a political understanding in the future.
Bora, also a Rajya Sabha MP, said: “Depending on the situation and the cause of Assam we can have political talks with them (AGP).”
“In politics nothing is impossible, in politics everything can happen, politics is the compulsion of the situation, if situation demands then we will think it out,” he added in an interview.
“Depending on the situation and depending on the cause of Assam, we can have talks with them (AGP)..., we can work together.”
Asked about the possibility of the two parties coming together, AGP leader Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, a former chief minister and the architect of the 1985 Assam Accord, said: “The only common ground now is that the citizenship bill violates clause 6 of the Assam Accord and is against the popular wishes of Assamese people.”
He said all future course of action will be decided by his party’s central committee, which he has urged to be convened immediately.
The widely cited Clause 6 of the accord states that the identity of Assamese people will be accorded constitutional safeguard.
Mahanta said he had floated the idea that the strategy now ought to be that “all organisations and parties should come on a common platform that should be led by the All Assam Students Union (AASU)”. AASU is an influential mass students’ body that has a unit in every educational institution, from schools to colleges, across Assam.
Bora, an economist by training, was once part of AASU , the same outfit that led a six-year anti-foreigners agitation in the 1980s and which gave birth to the AGP. He joined the Congress soon after that period and is a former state minister. “Foreigners” in Assam is commonly used to refer to immigrants from Bangladesh.
Asked if this is the first instance of the Congress willing to work together with AGP, Bora added: “There is no political talks at all present. Yes, this is not a political alliance but (willingness to work) on one particular issue. We are different in our approach, they are regional (party), our approach is national, so that difference is there.”
On November 26, 2018, former Congress chief minister Tarun Gogoi, in a televised press conference , made an explicit overture to the AGP. “I want the AGP to live on. I want that both of us should fight the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) together.”
At the time, the AGP was part of the present BJP-led Assam government, which it quit following the BJP’s formal push to the bill in Parliament. The AGP has 14 seats in the 126-member state assembly. The BJP has 62 and its partner, the Bodoland People’s Front 12. Of the 14 Lok Sabha seats in Assam, the BJP has seven. The party was looking to make gains in Assam and the other Northeastern states in the 2019 elections, party president Amit Shah has said repeatedly, including in a late 2017 interview to HT. The push for the citizenship bill could hurt those ambitions, analysts say.
The popular Assamese sentiment is that unabated immigration from Bangladesh threatens local culture and language — a classic identity-based battle against settlers from that country. The Assam agitation led to the signing of the Assam Accord between the AASU and the central government. Anybody residing in Assam prior to March 25 1971, regardless of religion or language, qualifies to be a citizen of India, according to that accord.
“Clause 6 says constitutional safeguards to the people of Assam. What does this mean...reservation of seats in assembly, parliament, acquiring property, land etc. This clause will be applicable only to people who came prior to 1971, so now the Hindu Bengalis they (BJP) want to give citizenship who came after 1971, these people won’t get these facilities and benefits. They will only get voting rights. So what is the motive?” Bora asked.
Not everyone is convinced the AGP will partner with the Congress.
“A lot of speculation is going on about this. According to me, it is unlikely that AGP and Congress could come together in the near-term as the AGP may lose credibility because it has always stood for an ideology that has been the opposite of the Congress,” said Prof Naba Jyoti Bora, a political analyst who teaches in Pandu College here.
The professor also said that the citizenship bill will hit the BJP in some pockets and gain them votes too but the net impact isn’t clear at this stage.