Considered by many to be a “threat” to the indigenous population of Assam, the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, passed by the Lok Sabha on January 8, has also led to differences within the state BJP.
On Friday, visiting BJP national general secretary Ram Madhav met legislators and reached out to party leaders who have voiced concerns regarding the Bill. Madhav said he would also talk to BJP ally AGP, which quit the government over the BJP-led Central government’s decision to go ahead with the Bill despite its objections. Separately, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh called up the powerful All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), which has organised protests against the legislation.
Amid spreading protests, with Assamese cultural icons like singer Zubeen Garg joining in and students boycotting classes, BJP leaders have been shown black flags at public events.
BJP state general secretary Dilip Saikia said, “Ram Madhav reached out to those who had opposition to the Bill and cleared their misconceptions. He told them there is a cut-off date (December 31, 2014) and that the Bill did not allow mass movement of fresh batches of illegal Bangladeshis into Assam.
He urged leaders to stick to the party line… In the coming days we will be reaching out to the public and countering the lies being spread.”
However, Dispur MLA Atul Bora, who is among the five BJP legislators to have spoken out against the Bill, says he is “not at all convinced” despite the discussions within the party. “The Bill violates the 1985 Assam Accord and is unconstitutional… I know the population and this land. If the Bill is passed, all genuine Indians settled here prior to 1971 will be harmed.”
The protests against the Bill showed people’s sentiments, Bora added. “I stand with the people. I have conveyed the same to my party leadership.”
Assam Assembly Speaker Hitendra Nath Goswami, the BJP MLA from Jorhat, who had earlier issued a statement saying he hoped the government would respect the views of the people, said, “Dialogue is everything. If the Bill is passed, it will still need people’s cooperation in being implemented. And to get that cooperation, people’s opinions need to be listened to. Listening is important.”
He added that in this regard, he welcomed the BJP’s outreach initiative.
Sootea MLA Padma Hazarika also hoped the BJP would hear “everyone’s opinion” on the matter. Earlier, at a public event, the BJP leader had said, “Assam Accord should be implement word to word. Any foreigner who had entered Assam post March 24, 1971, would be a foreigner irrespective of religion.” Speaking to The Indian Express, he said, his speech reflected his position and that he didn’t want to speak much more at this point. “But yes, the party should have a discussion on the Bill.”
BJP MLA from Bihpuria constituency Debananda Hazarika, was also among those who had criticised the Bill — questioning it for granting citizenship on the basis of religion. He told The Indian Express, “I have been assured by the party that the Bill doesn’t mean open entry to fresh batches of Bangladeshis, and that there is a cut-off. That’s all I can say.”
The Bill, which is pending in the Rajya Sabha, amends the Citizenship Act, 1955, by relaxing the eligibility rules for getting Indian citizenship for immigrants belonging to six minority (non-Muslim) religions — Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians — from neighbouring Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan.
Groups in Assam see the Bill as a “threat” to the indigenous communities of the region as it goes against a Assam Accord provision saying that any person who came into Assam after midnight of March 24, 1971, would be identified as a foreigner.
Seeking to downplay opposition within the party, the BJP said the protests are politically motivated. “Yes some people have spoken up against the Bill, but that’s part of the game, it happens in politics. The problem will be solved in the coming weeks,” BJP state vice-president Taufiqure Rahman said.
BJP general secretary Saikia said, “People who are opposing the Bill now, the Congress and the Left, they had not supported the Assam Accord. Above and beyond the Assam Accord, we are working towards protecting the cultural, heritage, language of the Assamese community and indigenous communities and providing reservation in jobs and seats in the Assembly and local bodies to them.”
Just before pressing ahead with the citizenship Bill, the Centre had announced a high-level committee to implement Clause 6 of the 1985 Assam Accord, guaranteeing the above, and promised grant of Scheduled Tribe status to six communities — both seen as attempts by it to contain the possible damage arising out of the legislation.
Said Congress leader and former chief minister Tarun Gogoi, “The BJP is nervous. They are trying whatever they can. The Bill will definitely affect them. They have miscalculated the entire thing.”