The BJP is in talks with its allies in the Northeast to find a middle ground that will satisfy all sides on the controversial amendment to the Citizenship Act, party general secretary and in-charge for the region, Ram Madhav, has told this paper. The mobilisation in the Northeast against the amendment bill, now pending before the Rajya Sabha, leaves the BJP with little choice but to go back to the drawing board and rethink its position.
The proposed amendment, which injects a religious factor in the resolution of citizenship claims, goes against the idea of a secular India projected during the freedom struggle and reflected in the Constitution. It has revived dormant fears about linguistic and ethnic marginalisation in the Northeast. The region has witnessed countless movements, some violent, centred on real and imaginary threats to its demography.
The turmoil in the region threatens the tenuous peace of recent years that the Indian state achieved by creatively addressing the concerns of local populations regarding cultural and political sovereignty. A convention held by 10 major political parties of the region in Guwahati on Tuesday should serve as a wake-up call for the Modi government. Rarely have all these regional parties come together to collectively and publicly lend their weight to a demand. Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sagma said the convention was called in response to the public protests that have rocked the region ever since the Centre revealed its intent to amend the Act.
Ironically, most of the parties that attended the convention are a part of the NDA and run governments in the region. In Assam, the epicentre of the protests against the Bill, the public sentiment appears to be a throwback to the days of the Assam Movement of the late 1970s and ‘80s. The Asom Gana Parishad, the political legatee of the movement, has walked out of the NDA and the Sarbananda Sonowal government in Guwahati.
On Wednesday, the families of 76 people killed during the Assam Movement returned mementos given to them by the Sonowal government in 2016. An influential union of state government employees, Sadou Asom Karmachari Parishad, has now joined the stir against the Bill, spearheaded by the AASU (All Assam Students Union) and other regional outfits.
The BJP must know by now that the public sentiment against the “foreigner” in the Northeast is, always has been, more about ethnic, linguistic and cultural identities, not religion. The party can still salvage the situation by allowing the Bill to lapse in the Upper House.