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Citizenship Bill: Northeast Allies angry, Ram Madhav talks of ‘middle ground’

Acknowledging the opposition and resentment, BJP general secretary Ram Madhav, the party’s in charge of the region, said that both the party and the government were trying to find a way to break the stalemate.

Written by Liz Mathew | New Delhi |
Updated: January 31, 2019 7:54:38 am
Citizenship Bill: Northeast Allies angry, Ram Madhav talks of ‘middle ground’ BJP general secretary Ram Madhav in New Delhi. (Express Photo by Prem Nath Pandey/File)

Rattled by protests across the North-East and opposition from its allies and friendly parties, the ruling BJP is now seeking to find a “middle ground” to go forward on the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, expected to come up in Rajya Sabha during the Budget session beginning Thursday.

Acknowledging the opposition and resentment, BJP general secretary Ram Madhav, the party’s in charge of the region, said that both the party and the government were trying to find a way to break the stalemate.

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“From the party’s side we are talking to all of them, also from the government side, the Home Minister has been in touch with the senior leaders of all the front governments in the North East. We are hopeful that we will find a middle ground which will satisfy all of us,” Madhav told The Indian Express in an interview.

While there have been talks between Home Minister Rajnath Singh and political leaders, Madhav declined to give details of the “middle ground.” “I cannot give you a categorical answer now. Our leadership is discussing how to address the concerns that are being expressed by different alliance partners as well as different sections of the people in the North-East. At the same time we have to deliver on our promise to the persecuted people,” Madhav said.

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With BJP’s ally in Assam, Asom Gana Parishad, walking out of the ruling alliance, Singh had announced that the Centre would hold meetings with the CMs of all N-E states.

The Bill, passed by Lok Sabha and pending in the Rajya Sabha, amends the Citizenship Act, 1955, by relaxing 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 Assam Accord provision saying that any person who came into Assam after midnight of March 24, 1971, would be identified as a foreigner.

Key BJP allies including the National People’s Party, which leads the coalition in Meghalaya; the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party, which leads the coalition in Nagaland; the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT), which is an ally of the BJP in Tripura; and the Mizo National Front (MNF), which is the ruling party in Mizoram; have pledged to oppose the Bill.

BJP’s Bihar ally JD-U has announced that it will vote against the Bill when it comes to the Rajya Sabha, where the BJP-led NDA does not enjoy a majority. But Madhav said he hopes to convince parties and the leaders about the need to pass the Bill before the House takes it up for voting.

Madhav cited the need to complete the National Register of Citizens which seeks to wean out illegal immigrants who have come from Bangladesh and other adjoining countries, as a reason for the government’s bid to push the Bill. “Urgency came because of the impending NRC completion,” he said. But ethnic groups have criticised that the Bill as being at “cross-purposes with NRC.”

While the BJP leadership is counting on political gains in other parts of the country, especially in West Bengal, as the move, they say, will consolidate the Hindu community, party leaders admitted it cannot “afford messing up” the N-E region from where the party hopes to win at least 20 of the 25 seats in the Lok Sabha polls.

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BJP’s poll preparations have already begun there. Both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah are expected to visit the region soon. While Modi is expected to visit Assam in the second week of February, BJP sources said Shah is visiting the state on February 12 when he will address public meetings and hold cluster meetings

The BJP leadership hopes that West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee who has a strong minority support in the state will oppose the Bill and this will give it an opportunity to polarise voters. During his recent address in Malda, BJP chief Amit Shah dared Banerjee to oppose the Bill. The TMC had cautioned that the Bill — by linking citizenship to religion — threatens to undermine the secular fabric of the Constitution.

BJP sources said the Bill was also an “an ideological commitment.” Said Madhav: “This is a commitment we gave to people in our regular conferences, resolutions and even in the manifesto. We have said we would take care of the persecuted people who come to India… We are hopeful that the other parties including our allies will appreciate the need of the Bill at this juncture to address the issue of persecuted minorities coming to India.”

Despite the criticism and the protests, Shah has been strongly underlining the party’s role in pushing the Bill in almost all the speeches he makes at party meetings.

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The BJP may be pushing the Citizenship Bill hard but its allies in Assam, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Tripura and Mizoram have all come out to oppose it. BJP hopes the Bill will chip away at Mamata Banerjee’s base in West Bengal but it risks losing seats in the N-E which sends 25 MPs to the Lok Sabha. This may have prompted Ram Madhav to signal a climbdown.

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