Just like other states in the northeast, the Assam BJP has finally decided to become a bit more frank with the party high command on the controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB).
Jolted by large scale protests, the state’s party leadership has made a case for amendment to the bill which could be tabled in the Parliament during the current session.
“We support the Citizenship Amendment Bill but we want changes. There was a plan to insert some clauses which may not be understood by the people in Assam who are always emotional,” Assam BJP president Ranjit Das told News18. “It’s still a draft and the cabinet is yet to take a final decision. We have offered our suggestions and will do so again.”
Das reached New Delhi on Friday to meet senior party leaders and is also likely to call on Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
His visit to the national capital comes a day ahead of the meeting in North Block where Home minister Amit Shah will discuss the bill with the chief ministers of the northeastern states. Arunachal Pradesh, which is ruled by the BJP, has also opposed the CAB besides the other states in the region ruled by regional parties.
The bill seeks to grant citizenship to a section of non-Muslim migrants and refugees from the neighbouring countries. In the northeast, the apprehension is over the influx of Hindus and Buddhists from Bangladesh. A majority of the people left out of the updated National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam are believed to be Hindus, which has further reinforced the fear among the indigenous communities.
During his visit to Mizoram in October, Shah had told chief minister Zoramthanga that there would be a clause in CAB to exempt the states where Inner Line Permit (ILP) is in vogue. This meant only the hill states of Nagaland, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh leaving out the majority of the states in the disturbed region.
The Assam BJP had adopted a pro-CAB stance and had consistently maintained that changes in the citizenship laws would not pose a danger to the indigenous communities in the state. Clearly, these statements could not prevent a fierce agitation from breaking out last January after the bill was tabled in the lower house of Parliament.
“Intra-party politics also explains why senior party functionaries of BJP do not want to be seen opposing the bill. The two lobbies of the chief minister and Assam’s finance minister Himanta Biswa Sarma are always on a game of one-upmanship and they will not dare to annoy the RSS,” said a BJP functionary who was previously with the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP).
But there is a difference in the protests this time around in Assam with efforts to bring all agitating groups on a common platform gaining momentum. Currently, protests are being organised by the AASU, AJYCP and KMSS individually, with senior citizens and intellectuals also participating in different venues.
Chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal had already apprised Modi and Shah about the unfavourable implications of the bill in the state. Since then, the frequency of closed-door meetings in the government and among party functionaries in the state had picked up, with many party workers making a case for a representation again before the high command.
Sensing trouble, the RSS had sent assistant general secretary Krishna Gopal to Guwahati last week to take stock of the situation. He held separate meetings with party president Ranjit Das, chief minister Sonowal and senior functionary Himanta Biswa Sarma before leaving for New Delhi after three days.
It may be mentioned that before the CAB was tabled in the Lok Sabha last year, many RSS functionaries in Assam had briefed the high command about the adverse consequences if it were to be passed in Parliament.
Subsequently, the bill was in limbo for several months, giving the impression that it has been put on the backburner. Renewed efforts to pass the bill began in November but shelved three months later as the BJP was unsure of its passage in the upper House.
The northeast continues to be a stronghold of the BJP at a time when the number of states ruled by the party is fast shrinking in the mainland. Brushing aside popular sentiments against the proposed bill could be damaging to the party in the region that has suffered from waves of immigration from Bangladesh.
The party high command also knows that the BJP-led government in Assam is already on the back foot for non-performance, allegations of corruption and failure to deliver on the promises made during the assembly polls.
(The author is a senior journalist based in Guwahati. Views expressed are personal.)