Guwahati: It was the moment of ‘redemption’ for Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he said on Friday that the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016 is a ‘penance’ for the mistakes committed at the time of Partition.
Sounding the poll bugle for 2019 Lok Sabha polls at a rally in Silchar in Bengali-dominated Barak valley, Modi said he is hopeful that the Citizenship Bill, enabling citizenship to the religiously persecuted Bengali Hindus of Bangladesh, will become a reality soon.
“If the children of Ma Bharati (India) are in trouble, isn’t it the duty of India to take care of its children? Is the colour of the passport more important than the colour of blood? Don’t those separate by Partition have a connection with Ma Bharati? There were mistakes done during the Partition and this bill will correct them,” the PM said.
The announcement came hours later the Union Cabinet decided to set up a high-level panel to discuss Clause 6 of the Assam Accord providing constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards to the indigenous people of the state to protect the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of Assam.
The Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), the regional party of the state and an ally of the ruling BJP, found themselves in a very tight situation after the PM’s announcement. The party had vehemently opposed the bill and had threatened to break ties with the government if the bill is tabled.
“AGP has been opposing the bill even before the constitution of the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) and by holding protests in New Delhi when the JPC meeting was underway. During JPC’s visit to Assam, AGP urged it to take the views of people residing across various places in the state. The JPC had then announced that it would visit Assam again. But, unfortunately, JPC has now taken a ‘U-turn’ by ignoring the public sentiment prevalent in the state,” AGP president Atul Bora said.
The AGP leader added that a delegation from the regional party will meet Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal urgently and urge him to oppose the proposed legislation. In addition, a delegation from the party will also meet Modi to clear its stand on the issue of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill and the Assam Accord.
However, the JPC has already adopted the draft report of the bill and it is likely to be placed before Parliament on January 7.
For opposition Congress, however, AGP’s stand is nothing but a ‘double standard’.
“AGP has betrayed the people of the state. While it continues to say that it opposes the bill, it’s unable to leave the alliance with the BJP because of its love for power. Both AGP and BJP have been fooling the people of the state,” said Ripun Bora, state Congress president. Bora also accused PM Modi of trying to “divide Assam into religious and linguistic lines”.
Ripun commented that the ruling government doesn’t even know what it wants, as the implementation of the Assam Accord and the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, cannot be done simultaneously. “He (Modi) wants to bring Hindu Bangladeshis to Assam only for vote-bank politics,” he said.
The All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) demanded that the state government clear its stand on the bill. “People of Assam are not going to accept it at any cost. The Centre can’t impose it on us. The rights of the indigenous people of the state must be protected,” AASU adviser Samujjal Bhattacharjee said.
Echoing Bhattacharjee’s views, AASU general secretary Lurinjyoti Gogoi said: “Those who support the bill will be termed as betrayers. The BJP government came to power with the promise of protecting the ‘Jati-Maati-Bheti’ (community, land and rights) of the indigenous people of the state and now it’s cheating us.”
AASU had branded Sonowal as ‘Jatiya Nayak’ (hero of the community) for his role in scrapping the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act, 1983. As a student leader, Sonowal had taken the issue of Bangladeshi infiltration to the Supreme Court, which struck down the IMDT Act as unconstitutional in 2005. Under the Act, the onus of proving citizenship rested on the complainant.
Upamanyu Hazarika, convenor of Prabajan Virodhi Manch (PVM) and a Supreme Court lawyer, however, suggested the state government to take urgent steps before the Centre brings the bill.
“The Union Cabinet has lent spine to the state leadership and they should seize this opportunity and pass a law reserving land, employment and other benefits for the indigenous communities and pre-1951 citizens of the state and their descendants. This is intrinsic in Clause 6 of the Assam Accord which promises legal and constitutional safeguards to the Assamese people to give them superior rights over resources,” Hazarika said.
Following the Union cabinet announcement, Sonowal commented that the decision to set up a high-level committee to implement Clause 6 of Assam Accord would pave way for reserving seats for indigenous people in Assam legislative assembly, local bodies and state government jobs.
“Without reservation of land, government employment benefits etc. taking 1951as the cutoff date, such seat reservation in the assembly will be of no benefit as the political leaders would continue to be dependent on their Bangladeshi voters who are in great numbers in many of these constituencies. All the political leaders in the state have been protecting the Bangladeshi vote banks for their political interests,” Hazarika added.
Meanwhile, the Forum Against Citizenship Act Amendment Bill has announced that it will hoist a black flag on January 7, the day the bill is likely to be tabled in Parliament, and will observe it as ‘Condemnation Day’ across Assam. The bill has triggered protests in Brahmaputra Valley of Assam while been hailed by Hindu Bengalis, the dominant group in Barak Valley, where the PM was addressing the rally.
“The mammoth gathering from all sections of the society of Barak valley to listen to beloved PM reflects unprecedented support towards BJP. We seek support and cooperation of the people,” said Assam chief minister Sonowal.
The saffron camp is eyeing victory in at least 21 of 25 parliamentary seats in eight states in the region. Modi had attended the Silchar rally after participating in a function in Manipur. In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, BJP had made massive inroads in Assam, winning seven of its 14 parliamentary seats.