On a sunny but chilly January morning, two days before Republic Day, thousands of people rallied across Mizoram in protest against the contentious citizenship (amendment) bill. Many of the protesters were carrying placards and banners that read, “Bye bye India. Hello China”. It was a radical statement by all accounts, a threat to secede from India. It’s the kind of statement issued by militant groups of the Northeast, not by the common man. Then again, this is not a common bill either. And this has brought together the people and political parties of the region against a common enemy—the “illegal immigrant”—leaving the BJP fighting growing alienation in a corner of the country it had found acceptance for the first time.
The biggest setback for the BJP could be losing its allies in the region, which is crucial for the party in this summer’s Lok Sabha elections. After losing assembly turf in the Hindi heartland, the BJP is hoping to win as many of the 25 Lok Sabha seats in the NE to make up for any potential shortfall. In Assam, which sends 14 lawmakers to the Lok Sabha, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) walked out of its alliance with the BJP last month. At least 10 other parties have opposed the bill. Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United), the BJP’s friend in Bihar, has joined the anti-bill chorus. Among the 10 parties, six are members of the BJP-led North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA), a platform of non-Congress parties formed in 2016.
“We are here to work with the people who work against this particular bill. This is not politics right now but the issue of the people. Therefore, we will be reaching out to everybody,” says Meghalaya chief minister Conrad Sangma, president of National People’s Party (NPP), hinting at the possibility of the Congress joining the front against the bill. NPP is the ruling party in Meghalaya where the BJP is also in the government with just two seats. Mizoram chief minister and Mizo National Front (MNF) president Zoramthanga, who attended the 11-party convention in Guwahati, has said that his party too will snap ties with the National Democratic Alliance if the controversial bill is passed in the Rajya Sabha.
The bill, already passed in the Lok Sabha, facilitates citizenship for Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and other minorities from neighbouring Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. It will enable any non-Muslim who had entered India till December 31, 2014 to apply for citizenship even without any documents. The bill aims to relax the 11-year requirement to six years for these people to seek Indian citizenship. This has riled the vast sections of people in Assam where illegal migration is a sensitive and divisive issue. And the protests have been intense in the BJP-ruled state.
Senior journalist and columnist Sushanta Talukdar says the bill has helped the regional parties assert themselves and emerge stronger than before. “The BJP will be under pressure to negotiate for seats and pre-poll alliances particularly with the NEDA constituents. Unless the BJP addresses the issue, it will find it challenging (in the polls),” Talukdar tells Outlook.
Probably, it’s for the first time that the Northeast has joined hands for a single cause. “Yes, because of the gravity of the situation. We have already overburdened with migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh. No more can we keep any. Now, it’s a matter of our identity,” says Samuel B. Jyrwa, chairman of North East Students’ Organisation (NESO), the umbrella body of all the major students associations of the region.
The BJP appears to be shaken. As protests mount and black flags are waved at ministers and MLAs, the police have cracked down on protesters, sometimes even imaginary. On Tuesday, police allegedly forced the mother of a one-and-half-year-old boy to take off his black jacket at the entrance of a rally of Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal in Biswanath district. A woman posted on Facebook that she was not even allowed to carry her purse which had a patch of black on it.
The BJP, however, continues to defend the bill, saying only it can save Assam from “Muslims becoming a majority”. It could yet turn out to be the biggest mistake of the party trying to play its Hindutva cards in the Northeast, where the fear of being swamped by “foreigners” is what matters to the majority of the people. Not religion.
- The citizenship bill has left the BJP fighting growing alienation in a region where it had found rare acceptance
- The biggest setback for the BJP could be losing its allies, crucial for the party in the forthcoming elections
By Abdul Gani in Guwahati