by Piyasree Dasgupta
“They wanted to turn Hindus against Muslims, they’ve turned Hindus against Hindus.”
This was how a former BJP worker, who wanted to remain anonymous, explained why the BJP government’s new Citizenship Amendment (2016) Bill may backfire on the party, months before the general elections.
The bill, which will give eligibility to Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh to apply for Indian citizenship, was passed in the Lok Sabha on 8 January, even as northeast Indian states, which worry they will be disproportionately affected by it due to their proximity with the Bangladesh border, have erupted in protest.
While the BJP was attempting to consolidate its Hindu votebank ahead of the election, it seems to have underestimated the ethnic faultlines that run deep in the region. Assam, especially, is already facing a difficult test with the National Register of Citizens (NRC) being updated—40 lakh people were left off the register because they could not show the papers to prove that they or their predecessors were in Assam before 1971. The Citizenship Amendment Bill is widely seen as the BJP’s attempt to protect its supporters who have been left out of the NRC.
But the party’s mishandling of the sensitive issue of illegal immigration, as well as its failure to take along powerful state political groups, has led political observers to predict a tough time in the election.
Samujjal Bhattacharjya, the chief adviser to All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), Northeast India’s largest student organisation, told HuffPost India that student leaders from the seven states are feeling betrayed now. For the past three years, he said, they had submitted dozens of memorandums to the Modi government, state governors, chief ministers and other politicians to illustrate how the bill would harm the region’s economic stability and social harmony.
Bhattacharjya, who was a part of the delegations which met a parliamentary committee on citizenship formed by the centre, said that they were explicitly told that the interests of states such as Assam would be considered by the government. Now, they feel betrayed.
“We even had a tripartite meeting with the home ministry and the Assam government. There, Rajnath Singh assured us that our concerns will be looked into. It’s there in the minutes of the meeting,” he said.
Pitting Hindus Against Muslims
HuffPost India spoke to six political activists from Assam, Tripura and Meghalaya — some of who have been spearheading the protests — and they said that the BJP’s approach to the sensitive issue of illegal immigration had seemed suspect from the beginning.
In September last year, party president Amit Shah allegedly called illegal immigrants from Bangladesh ‘termites’. Meanwhile, the bill that would grant citizenship to non-Muslims remained to stay on Modi government’s agenda, clearly indicating which community Shah’s rhetoric was directed at.
Samuel Jyrwa, a resident of Shillong and chairman of the North Eastern Students Organisation (NESO), said that the BJP’s move just exposes its short-sightedness and ignorance about the country’s history.
“There are just 12 lakh Khasi people left in Meghalaya. We have a different identity. Our identity will be finished,” he said.
With the criteria for non-Muslims to apply for citizenship having been reduced to six years of residing in the country, Jyrwa fears that their political rights are the risk.
“Say, 5-6 lakh Hindus come to Meghalaya over the next year and are made the country’s citizens, they will multiply and then we will become a minority. It may serve BJP’s vote bank purpose, but we will not have political representation at all,” he said.
The bill, said Jyrwa, is a blatant attempt to “Hindu-ise north east India”.
Mehadi Alom Bora, BJP’s spokesperson for Assam who recently left the party due to differences over the Citizenship Amendment Bill, said it was becoming impossible to support the party’s stance in public.
“They want me to be the spokesperson and defend the bill. How can I defend a bill which is against my own conscience?” Bora told HuffPost India.
Bora said he had joined the party in 2014, the same day the party’s vision document in Assam was published.
“It clearly stated that the Assam Accord will be respected, which demands that people who have migrated to Assam from Bangladesh after 1971 not be regularised,” he added. However, in party meetings later on, Bora said the Accord was completely dismissed.
The Assam Accord was signed in 1985 after a six-year-long agitation against illegal immigration, waged under the leadership of AASU.
“They have divided the entire state for their Hindutva politics,” said Bora said.
AASU’s Bhattacharjya said that the northeast states are frustrated with the party’s doublespeak. On the one hand, he said, the party has supported the NRC, which may end up cancelling the citizenship rights of anyone who moved to Assam from Bangladesh after 1971.
“On the other hand, they have extended protection to Hindus through this bill, thereby just leaving the Muslims out,” he added.
Bhattacharjya made a clear distinction that their movement aims to protect the political rights and economic opportunities of indigenous Assamese, not to discriminate on the basis of religion.
“To protect their vote bank, they are trying to marginalise democratic voices,” he said.
Upendra Deb Barma, leader of Twipra Students’ Federation (TSF) told HuffPost India that a bill that discriminates between citizens on the basis of religion should not be mooted in a secular country at all.
“Not only are they adding to the economic burden of our states, they are also communalising our societies with this Hindu-Muslim divide. What they are doing with this Bill is unconstitutional, we cannot decide who gets to be a citizen of the country based on religion,” he said.
Like Assam, Tripura has also had a long history of tensions between the tribal population and ‘outsiders’, mainly Bengali-speaking people.
The likes of Deb Barma and Bhattacharjya are also riled by the fact that while the BJP’s move may help the party curry favours with Hindu voters elsewhere in the country, the actual influx of migrants have to be borne by the north-eastern states and West Bengal. “They won’t go and settle down in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, right? They will try to cross over and live the closest to the border,” said Prodyut Bora, a former member of the BJP who set up its infamous IT cell in 2007.
The former BJP worker cited at the beginning of this article told HuffPost India that the Citizenship Bill is intended as a push to the party’s Hindutva agenda, which is especially directed at West Bengal. The party has been unable to make significant inroads into the state, partly due to a state leadership crisis as well as a formidable, often violent political rival in Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress.
“Even if they do not get votes from migrants right now, they wanted to amplify their Hindu saviour image among the voters of Bengal,” the person said.
Deb Barma agreed, adding that in Tripura, where the tribal population has reduced to 31%, there’s a fair chance that the party will be able to strike a chord with the rest of the population.
Assam, however, is a different story. Ex-spokesperson Bora explains that the BJP won the state Assembly elections in 2016 for the first time with ample help from the Asom Gana Parishad, with which it was in an alliance—however, earlier this week, the AGP broke the partnership after disagreeing over the bill.
“RSS workers campaigned at the grassroots level during the panchayat polls in Assam and that’s how BJP won there. However, the same math won’t work in the Lok Sabha polls, especially with no help from AGP,” said former spokesperson Bora.
So why did the BJP take this gamble, given that a clear majority of people and political organisations in northeast Indian states have been relentless arguing against the bill?
“It is less of BJP’s own strategy and more payback for the RSS. The latter have backed BJP and does a lot of their ideological prepping and they are exacting their price now. RSS doesn’t think on the terms of votes, their agenda is more ideology-driven,” said Prodyut Bora.
Ticking off the powerful AASU, said Prodyut Bora, will also work against the BJP.
Working for AASU has been a rite of passage for all major political leaders in the state, including current chief minister Sarbananda Sonawal. During the AASU-led protests that culminated in the Assam Accord, hundreds of activists were killed, giving the organisation an unmatched emotional hold over the state’s political discourse. BJP’s alleged dismissal of the Assam Accord is, therefore, nothing less than blasphemy.
AASU’s Bhattacharjya would not comment on BJP’s election prospects in the region, but said that Assam won’t forget this “political injustice” soon.
“We won’t spare them,” he said.
Prodyut Bora summed it up best. “The Hindus are angry with them, the Muslims they have alienated, it will be a difficult fight in the polls.”
Article first published in HuffPost India.