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As Sun Sets on Citizenship Bill, Conrad Sangma Rises as ‘Face of the Northeast’

As the heated agitations in the Northeastern states opposing the Bill finally calmed down, the state especially thanked Meghalaya chief minister Conrad Sangma for standing with the people of the region.

Pranjal Baruah |

Updated:February 14, 2019, 1:39 PM IST
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As Sun Sets on Citizenship Bill, Conrad Sangma Rises as ‘Face of the Northeast’
File photo of Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma. (PTI)

Guwahati: Protests gave way to celebrations in Assam on Wednesday with people drumming and dancing in joy across the state. The reason – the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016 is set to lapse as the NDA government failed to table it in Rajya Sabha on the final day of the Budget Session.

However, the day had not started the same. Since Wednesday morning, the state had witnessed an array of bandhs and protests against the Centre’s bid to pass the Bill. But as time rolled and the Parliament session ended, angry protesters turned jubilant dancers.

They were happy that the controversial bill technically lapsed with the ruling BJP government ending its term shortly. Bills passed by the Lok Sabha and pending in the Rajya Sabha lapse.

The Citizenship Bill provided for according Indian citizenship to non-muslims from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. It violated the Assam Accord, according to which all illegal immigrants who have come after 1971, irrespective of their religion, have to be deported.

The opposition had been opposing provisions of the two bills in Rajya Sabha where the government lacks numbers.

As the heated agitations in the Northeastern states opposing the Bill finally calmed down, the state especially thanked Meghalaya chief minister Conrad Sangma for standing with the people of the region.

Criticism came the way of chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal, who was once titled ‘Jatiya Nayak’ (Hero of the community) for his strong stand against illegal infiltrators from Bangladesh.

While Sonowal faced brickbats for supporting the bill, neighbouring state’s Sangma emerged as the strong leader from the region and the new ‘face of northeast’.

Political experts said Conrad replicated his father and former Speaker of the Lok Sabha, PA Sangma’s legacy. Sangma, who breathed last in 2016, had served as the Speaker from 1996 to 1998 and chief minister of Meghalaya from 1988 to 1990.

“Conrad has emerged as the new age politician of the region. From uniting the regional parties of the northeastern states and creating a unanimous voice amongst the NE leaders against the Bill, he has set an example of leading the people from the front. He has truly accomplished himself as a national leader from the region like his father,” said senior advocate and political analyst Hafiz Rashid Choudhury.

Following the split between the ruling BJP and its ally in the state government- the regional party of Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) - over their differences and passing of the Bill in Lok Sabha in January; Conrad immediately jumped into action and started uniting the regional camps.

He convened a meeting in the city where he managed to pull support of at least 11 regional parties of NE states. Participating in the meeting, his counterpart in Mizoram, Zoramthanga, and several other parties from Nagland, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam announced they would launch a united effort against the Bill.

Under Conrad’s leadership, the Meghalaya Democratic Alliance cabinet comprising two BJP ministers had passed a resolution opposing the Bill too.

Thanking his initiative and bold steps, AGP president Atul Bora said, “Special thanks to Conrad Sangma who has managed to unite all the regional forces and we all have managed to defeat BJP’s communal politics.”

Bora and other AGP leaders, including former Assam chief minister and AGP leader Prafulla Mahanta, were also camping in Delhi and busy communicating with all non-BJP MPs and party leaders requesting them to oppose the Bill if placed in the RS.

Mahanta added, “It’s a victory for the people of the region and we like to thank Sangma and Zoramthanga for standing with the people of the region and show their brave support.”

Echoing similar tunes, influential student group of All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) advisor Samujjal Bhattacharjee said Sangma’s bold position despite being a part of the BJP-led NEDA (North East Democratic Alliance) was highly significant.

“He has managed to gather support from all corners, groups and political spheres of the region and we want him to continue to fight for the region’s welfare.”

The AASU along with members of North East Students’ Organisation (NESO) and 30 other groups also opposed the Bill and staged numerous demonstrations across the state.

Thanking Conrad, Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) leader Akhil Gogoi announced that his organisation is going to felicitate him for his contribution. “He (Conrad) has proved himself to be a true leader of the people. He deserves all the applauds,” Gogoi said.

Reacting to the praising, Conrad humbly replied that it was not an individual effort.

“It’s teamwork where people from the region across political barriers, ethnicity, religion and all other differences who unanimously came together and demanded justice for the region. I want to thank every single one who has supported the anti-Bill movement.”

When asked whether he would like to form any political platform that includes other regional camps of the NE states, Sangma chose his words carefully. “The basic motto of coming together of all the regional parties was to strengthen our protests against the Bill. There was no political agenda or planning in forming any group so far.”

Sources, however, said that possibility of setting up a joint platform of regional parties ahead of the general elections can’t be ruled out.

The Meghalaya CM had earlier threatened to break his party’s alliance with NEDA and BJP if the Centre pushes the Bill. He, too, camped in Delhi since Sunday to hold meetings with different political parties to appeal to them to oppose the bill in Rajya Sabha.

He said, “It’s not about politics always. When it comes to the rights of the indigenous people then no politics can be more important than it. The movement against the Bill has brought the people of the region closer and our bonding has become stronger than ever before.”

“I believe that the message of the unity amongst the people of the region and the power of a united movement is delivered to the Centre. It is indeed a great and an emotional moment for all the citizens of the northeast, apart from the country,” he added.

While thanking Conrad, former chief minister Tarun Gogoi came down heavily on Sarbananda Sonowal. “Conrad and Zoramthanga have proved themselves as brave leaders whereas our own Chief Minister has proved himself as a spineless and coward leader who has surrendered before the Centre avoiding the interest of his own people shamelessly,” he said.

In Rajiv Bhawan, Congress’s headquarter in the city, sweets were distributed and crackers were burst to celebrate the occasion. Debabrata Saikia, the leader of opposition, said the Congress has yet again foiled an attempt by communal forces to convert secular India into fundamentalist India.

“Congress honours the sentiments of the people of Assam and North-East as a whole and evolved such effective floor coordination with non-BJP parties that the Modi government was unable to muster the courage to table the Bill in the RS on the last day of the Budget Session of Parliament.”

However, for Assam Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma it was highly unfortunate for the state that the Bill could not become a reality. Sarma reiterated, “Without the Bill, the political powers of lower and middle Assam districts would be highly vulnerable.”

Author is a senior journalist. All views expressed are personal.

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