Sunday, Dec 15, 2019 | Last Update : 11:41 AM IST

Citizenship debate in Northeast postponed

The writer, a political commentator based in Guwahati, is editor-in-chief of Northeast Live, the region’s only English and Hindi satellite news channel. The views expressed here are his own.
Published : Feb 15, 2019, 12:26 am IST
Updated : Feb 15, 2019, 12:26 am IST

The Asom Gana Parishad in Assam quit the Sarbananda Sonowal government and snapped ties with the BJP.

A file photo of college students blocking NH 37 in protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, in Dibrugarh in Assam.
 A file photo of college students blocking NH 37 in protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, in Dibrugarh in Assam.

The Citizenship Amendment Bill 2016 has lapsed because it was not introduced in the Rajya Sabha, that has since been adjourned sine die. Now, this is being viewed as a major victory for the Northeast that had seen not just student and civil society leaders, but as many as five of the region’s eight chief ministers openly opposing the bill. Two of the chief ministers — N. Biren Singh of Manipur and Pema Khandu of Arunachal Pradesh — belong to the BJP itself, while the remaining three — Conrad Sangma of Meghalaya, Neiphiu Rio of Nagaland and Zoramthanga of Mizoram — are allies of the BJP-led NDA. It is not surprising to see that there is a lot of euphoria all around with lusty celebrations in most states of the region over the Narendra Modi government’s failure to transform the bill into law.

The BJP or the NDA lacked the numbers in the Rajya Sabha and therefore it is presumed that the government did not introduce it in the Upper House, although the Lok Sabha had passed the bill in January. But in an election year, with the polls just about 60 days away, a ruling party may not like to antagonise a sizeable chunk of the population by pushing ahead with an unpopular proposal. The Northeast sends 25 members to Parliament. Moreover, organisations like the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and the apex North-East Students Organisation (NESO) had successfully mobilised nationwide opposition to the bill by managing to get almost all the top Opposition parties to their side by extracting assurances of voting against the bill in the Rajya Sabha. So the bill clearly united forces not only in the Northeast but across the country. In fact, the opposition to the bill helped create another anti-BJP front, even if a loose one.

Does it now mean that everyone who opposed the bill emerged victorious because the government failed to push it through Parliament? If yes, does it mean that the BJP has lost big time as its plan to grant citizenship to allegedly persecuted Hindu migrants from Bangladesh has failed for now? Things are not as simple. The Narendra Modi government has the option to take the ordinance route to enact this law that would grant citizenship to Hindus or other allegedly persecuted minorities like Sikhs, Parsis and Christians from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. But the government may have decided not to go in for an ordinance and the reasons for that are not far to seek.

The whole purpose of coming up with such a bill was to target a particular section of people and make them eligible for all rights, including the right to vote. The BJP’s argument was that India was the natural refuge for Hindus. One may like to endorse this argument, but why grant citizenship or set a precedent of granting citizenship on the basis of religion? After all, India has always been accommodative to refugees who have fled persecution and Hindus are no exception because migrants in the wake of persecution on religious grounds are already being provided refuge. Now, however, the BJP or the government of the day might well claim victory saying they wanted to regularise the status of all persecuted minorities from Bangladesh and the two other nations but could not do so because their political opponents stalled the move. It may then tell voters to elect the Modi government once again and see the bill transform into law next time. Thus, both the BJP, which introduced the bill, and the others who opposed it can now claim victory.

The issue is far beyond a win or a loss for parties and groups. It actually refreshed the fundamental issue of the looming menace of illegal migration from Bangladesh and the threat it posed to the indigenous population in Assam and the rest of the Northeast. The BJP found itself on a sticky wicket because the party-led government at the Centre may not have had the correct idea of the extent of anxiety among the people of the region over the threat to their identity. Therefore, when they proposed citizenship to Hindu migrants from Bangladesh, the region rose in revolt. The argument of powerful groups like the AASU was that illegal migrants must be detected and deported, irrespective of whether they were Muslims or Hindus.

In Assam, the BJP adopted a defiant posture, engaging in directly attacking influential organisations like the AASU, even going to the extent of questioning their support base. The BJP in Assam took into account their recent panchayat poll victory as well as victories in several local district autonomous council elections. But the anti-Citizenship Bill forces sought to remind the BJP that elections to the Lok Sabha or the State Assembly could witness a different voting behaviour. Many suggested that the BJP was willing to sacrifice the 14 Lok Sabha seats in Assam for the 42 Lok Sabha seats the party is eyeing in West Bengal. But, in the end, the BJP’s national leaders might have been forced to do a rethink after it found its regional allies drifting away and siding with the masses who were opposed to the bill. The Asom Gana Parishad in Assam quit the Sarbananda Sonowal government and snapped ties with the BJP. But the BJP was forced to take a serious note when two of its party chief ministers — Biren Singh and Pema Khandu — too decided to come out in opposition to the bill. The idea had to be shelved, but ground was prepared to tell voters we tried hard to bring in this legislation.

At the end of this all, one person in the Northeast has emerged as the real hero — National People’s Party leader and Meghalaya chief minister Conrad Sangma. His government was the first to adopt a Cabinet resolution opposing the bill. Mr Sangma soon became the rallying point of the anti-Citizenship Bill stir, with the powerful student groups citing his example and asking the other chief ministers in the region to work in the interest of their respective states. The issue or debate on citizenship in the Northeast has not ended just yet, it has only got postponed with the bill lapsing.

Tags: citizenship amendment bill, modi government