As BJP Manifesto Promises to Enact Citizenship Bill, Can it Hurt Saffron Party’s Prospects in Northeast?

Widespread protests had engulfed the entire northeast after the bill was passed by the Lok Sabha.

Widespread protests had engulfed the entire northeast after the bill was passed by the Lok Sabha.

The All Assam Students’ Union that led to anti-bill protests across the state has vowed to renew its agitation if the BJP attempts to introduce the bill again.

Karishma Hasnat
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Guwahati: The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has reiterated its commitment to enacting the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, in its manifesto released on Sunday for the upcoming Lok Sabha election.

It said the bill had to be passed “for the protection of individuals of religious minority communities from neighbouring countries escaping persecution”.

This has renewed talks about the controversial bill that promises to grant citizenship to six minority groups from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan after six years of residence in India had created unrest and led to massive protests across the northeast.

The bill that has already been passed in the Lok Sabha could not be introduced in the upper House of Parliament. When the Rajya Sabha was adjourned sine die on February 13.

Former Assam chief minister and founder-leader of Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, who has refrained from campaigning for the general election in protest against his party’s renewal of ties with the BJP, is convinced that the state will suffer the most if the saffron party passed the contentious legislation.

“I had asked the AGP leaders to discuss the issue with their BJP counterparts before taking a decision, but they stealthily entered into an alliance once again, and this itself is a big loss for Assam. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad had said that if the bill was enacted, it would facilitate the entry of 2.5 lakh Bangladeshis into India. And if that happens, Assam would suffer more than any other state,” said Mahanta.

He said the BJP had hurt and disrespected the emotions and sentiments of the people of Assam, but expressed hope that his party leaders who renewed ties with the saffron party would reconsider the issue.

“I had personally met Prime Minister Narendra Modi and appealed to him against the bill. Having spent many years in Assam, Modi knows the situation here and I thought he would understand. Though I have refrained from campaigning in protest, I believe the AGP will reconsider the matter and take a sensible decision.”

The All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) that led anti-bill protests across the state vowed to continue its agitation if the BJP attempted to re-introduce the bill.

“We won’t accept it. It’s a communal bill that is unconstitutional and violates the Assam Accord. This legislation will wreck the language, culture and identity of the indigenous people. Because of our protests, the bill lapsed in the Rajya Sabha, but BJP’s national president Amit Shah travelled to Assam soon after to announce the party’s commitment to pass the legislation. We will continue with our protest. No one has the right to play with the future of the indigenous people,” said AASU advisor Samujjal Bhattacharya, further warning the government against any such move if the BJP was voted back to power.

Meanwhile, litterateur and former director general of police in Assam, Harekrishna Deka, said if the Bill was enacted, the last resort would be the Supreme Court.

“The BJP’s election manifesto is a repetition of statements made before. The bill directly contradicts Clause 5 of the Assam Accord. The BJP has taken shelter in semantics to justify the bill. Further, it violates Article 14 of the Indian Constitution. When the IMDT (Illegal Migrants -Determination by Tribunal) Act was passed in 1983, the then government had justified it, but it was found ultra vires by the Supreme Court. The present proposed amendment is more prejudiced on communal lines,” said Deka.

So far, BJP’s allies in the northeast were silent on the matter. National People’s Party (NPP) vice-president and former Meghalaya chief minister DD Lapang said his party would continue its fight against the bill.

Earlier, NPP chief Conrad Sangma said his party was ready to find a middle-ground with stakeholders on board.

“We will have to fight to ensure that the bill would not affect the region. The BJP may have put it in its manifesto, it doesn’t mean we can swallow it the way it is. We have taken a stand that we will fight and our president (Conrad Sangma) has said that we would go ahead with the stand,” said Lapang.

In Manipur, human rights activist Babloo Loitongbam was of the view that if a BJP candidate lost in the Lok Sabha election this time, one single reason would be the inclusion of the citizenship bill in the party’s manifesto.

“There were widespread protests and resistance against the bill and now, that it is prominently present in the BJP manifesto, it is almost like challenging people’s sentiments quite frontally. The chief minister (N Biren Singh) said Manipur would be an exception, but we don’t find it in the manifesto and neither was it stated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he came to Manipur for campaigning."

The BJP had, so far, refrained from talking about the bill during its poll campaigns, but with the issue resurfacing in its election manifesto, it could prove detrimental for the party’s electoral prospects in the region as several political and social organisations have been vehemently opposing the proposed legislation.

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