Troubles for the BJP are expected to mount in the northeastern states as the passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 in the Lok Sabha on Tuesday may trigger a negative sentiment ahead of the general elections this year.
BJP chief Amit Shah had earlier claimed that his party will win 21 out of 25 seats in northeastern states. However, the protests against the Citizenship Bill by the BJP’s allies in Northeast, especially in Assam, may dampen the hope of the party which is recovering from the recent loss in Assembly elections in three states and trying hard to keep its alliance intact in other parts of the country.
The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, seeks to amend the Citizenship Act of 1955 and aims to give citizenship to Hindu, Parsi, Sikh, Jain and Christian migrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Many see it as the Centre’s effort to selectively target only the Muslim migrants from across the border.
However, the reasons for opposition in Assam are even deeper. Since May last year, Assam — especially the Brahmaputra Valley — has seen widespread protests against the Bill. The opponents feel the Bill will only aggravate a problem the state has long been grappling with: influx of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh since the 1971 war, who they fear will irrevocably dilute the strength of the indigenous Assamese population.
On Monday, BJP’s ally Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) pulled out of the government. Not only the allies, but BJP spokesperson Mehdi Alam Bora also resigned from the party, moments after the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill was passed in Lok Sabha on Tuesday.
The opposers also feel that the Bill undermines the ongoing updation of the 1951 National Registry of Citizenship (NRC), which, like the Assam Accord, also uses the March 24, 1971 cut-off date to determine a list of Assamese citizens. According to them, the new Bill will nullify the objective of the NRC as well as the foundations of the Assam Accord as it has a cut-off date of December 31, 2014.
But the bone of contention here is the Citizenship Bill. Besides the Congress and the CPI(M) led Left Democratic Front (LDF), BJP allies such as Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) and National People’s Party (NPP) in Meghalaya and most other regional parties are strongly opposing the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, asking for its withdrawal. These states feel that the Bill needs to be opposed in “a bid to save their indigenous communities from extinction”.
IPFT had raised a case for a revision of the citizens’ register to safeguard the state’s demography, despite Chief Minister Biplab Kumar Deb’s assertion that there is no need for it. Reports of a rift in the alliance surfaced hereafter, with the IPFT reportedly going back to its secessionist demand for a separate state (Twiparaland) for the state tribals.
Not only IPFT, but the other tribal party in the state INPT (Indigenous Nationalist Party of Tripura), which is a Congress ally, blocked the national highway and the lone railway line in the state last month, demanding the withdrawal of the Bill.
This could be a major setback for the saffron party which has worked hard to find its feet in the Northeast. The party, which not even existed on the map of India’s northeast region five years ago, is now either the ruling party or part of an alliance in the ‘Seven Sister’ states, except Mizoram.
The northeast region sends 25 MPs to the Lok Sabha, with 14 of them coming from Assam. Out of the 126 seats in the Assam Legislative Assembly, BJP has 61 seats while the AGP has 12 seats. AGP’s parting ways with the BJP may not affect its standing in the assembly, but it could affect the party’s social acceptability among the Assamese at large, who feel they have been most affected by the immigrants in the state, irrespective of which religion they belong to.
The BJP is already facing the brunt of its allies ahead of the general polls this year. Old ally TDP parted ways with the BJP last year. In Kashmir, the BJP itself pulled out of the government that was formed with the PDP. In Bihar, RLSP leader Upendra Kushwaha walked out of the alliance following difference over seat sharing. Other regional parties such as Apna Dal, Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party and Shiv Sena in Maharashtra are also threatening to leave the alliance before the elections.
Who is opposing the Bill in other north-eastern states
In Mizoram, parties like People’s Representation for Identity and Status of Mizoram (PRISM) along with influential NGOs such as Young Mizo Association, are strongly opposing the Bill. The newly-elected Mizo National Front government is also opposing the Bill.In Nagaland, Nagaland Tribes Council (NTC) is against the Bill.
The Meghalaya Cabinet has unanimously opposed the Bill.
Besides the political parties, the influential North East Students Organisation (NESO), an umbrella body of students organisations of the northeastern states, called for 11-hour shutdown in the entire Northeast on Tuesday.
In Arunachal Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh Congress Committee (APCC) has expressed its solidarity with the NESO agitation against the Bill.