At NEDA Conclave, 'Congress Mukt Bharat' Trumps Citizenship Amendment Bill

At the third conclave of the North East Democratic Alliance, even as regional partners shared the dais with the top brass of the BJP, differences on issues such as Citizenship Amendment Bill remain far from resolved. Important faces were missing from the conclave included Zoramthanga, Pawan Chamling and T.R. Zeliang.

Guwahati (Assam): A day after Karnataka chief minister elect B.S. Yeyduruppa resigned, party chief Amit Shah spoke of almost achieving a ‘Congress mukt Bharat’ at the third conclave of the North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) here.

After the September 2017 meeting of the BJP’s North East regional alliance in Guwahati, this was its third meet since its inception in May 2016. Hours before the day’s proceedings began, Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) leader Akhil Gogoi was detained along with several other protestors seen displaying black flags in protest outside the venue at Srimanta Sankardeva Kalakshetra. KMSS, along with local bodies like the All Assam Students Union (AASU) and All Assam Tribal Students Union (AATSU), have been at the forefront of protesting the Citizenship Amendment Bill 2016 for violating the 1985 Assam Accord by creating provisions to give Indian citizenship to Hindu Bangladeshis residing in the state.

On the stage, Shah was flanked by chief ministers from four BJP ruled states – Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Tripura – besides two chief ministers of its regional allies from Meghalaya and Nagaland. There were also leaders of BJP’s coalition partners – the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT), Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) and the Manipur state unit of Naga People’s Front (NPF). Despite the setbacks in Karnataka, party leaders displayed a jubilant mood, as they drew conclusions in favour of BJP, who ultimately won people’s votes, no matter the floor test.

BJP president Amit Shah addresses the NEDA conclave in Guwahat. Credit: Makepeace Stilthou

BJP president Amit Shah addresses the NEDA conclave in Guwahat. Credit: Makepeace Stilthou

However, the absence of former Nagaland Chief Minister T.R. Zeliang of NPF, Sikkim Chief Minister Pawan Chamling and Mizo National Front (MNF) president Zoramthanga’s was strongly felt, given their participation in the preceding years. This past week, NPF president Shurhozelie Liezietsu reportedly said the party had no longer any connection with the BJP. Speaking to The Wire, spokesperson Achumbemo Kikon said that the party felt betrayed when the BJP broke all ties with the party after the recent Nagaland elections.

“We could have easily formed more than the magic number with Congress in Manipur but chose to remain loyal to the BJP. Henceforth, our party has decided that we will not participate in any NEDA or NDA (National Democratic Alliance) events,” he told this correspondent. However, NPF Manipur unit president Awangbow Newmai told Hindustan Times that they never received any official communication from Liezietsu and therefore are at the NEDA meeting.

When asked if Congress could be a likely partner in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections given the present circumstances, Kikon said it was still too early to comment. “They are, however, supporting our candidate in the upcoming by poll (for the Lok Sabha seat vacated by present Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio) in a secular front,” he added.

Recently, in Mizoram, Zoramthanga’s MNF didn’t join hands with the BJP to take over the Chakma Autonomous District Council even though it was a NEDA partner. Interestingly, BJP joined hands with those members elected on Congress tickets to seize power. Chamling’s Sikkim Democatic Front (SDF) was represented by Sikkim Lok Sabha MP Bhim Rai.

Local issues remain sidelined

Formed after the BJP won Assam elections in a landslide victory, NEDA has gone from strength to strength fulfilling its key objectives of BJP expansion in the Northeast and toppling Congress from the three other states since its inception. Despite NEDA evidently playing a key factor in the BJP’s victories, Shah refrained from acknowledging it as a political alliance, instead preferring to call it a “geo-cultural” alliance.

Undoubtedly, the BJP has bridged the political alienation between New Delhi and the Northeast with such platforms. The payout is most visible in leaders like NEDA convenor Himanta Biswa Sarma, Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma and more recently, Tripura Chief Minister Biplap Deb taking centrestage in the media (even if for the wrong reasons). However, despite the rise in their profiles, boiling issues in the region like the Citizenship Amendment bill, border disputes between states and disaster relief measures still remained largely sidelined.

Rio brought up the border dispute between Nagaland and Assam and briefly talked about challenges ahead for his state in the impending Naga political solution. Resonating with Rio, BPF President Hagrama Mohilary stressed on the need to look into issues like the Citizenship Amendment Bill since “development will anyway come as long as the Centre sends us money”.

“Himanta promised us proper disaster management but we haven’t got a single department as yet and the money for relief takes too much time. Then we’re pulled up for misallocating money for providing relief from our funds,” Mohilary said, to an overly amused crowd.

More than two months after sweeping the Tripura elections in a pre-poll alliance with IPFT, BJP looked to distance itself from the latter’s demand for a separate state.

“BJP said that after the elections, a high-level team will be sent to Tripura to assess the problems of our tribal people,” general secretary Mewar Kumar Jamatia, present at the conclave, told The Wire. At the announcement of their alliance in January, he told this reporter that the committee would be formed before the election.

While Jamatia admitted ideological differences with BJP, he said the alliance was in the interest of protecting the indigenous culture of the hill tribes. However, in any attempt to supersede them, IPFT would be prepared to stand in opposition, like if the recent reported proposal of the state government to replace Kok Borok with Hindi was pushed. “Our long standing demand is not for Hindi but the Roman script,” he added.

Citizenship Amendment Bill – the elephant in the room

While AGP President and agriculture minister Atul Bora categorically stated his party’s opposition to the Citizenship Amendment Bill and division of society along religious lines, Sangma and IPFT president N.C. Debbarma, however, refrained from touching upon the issue at the forum. In the interest of protecting the vulnerable minority hill tribe communities they represent, the IPFT has vehemently opposed the Bill before the Joint Parliamentary Committee. Earlier this month, the Meghalaya assembly also passed a unanimous resolution against the Bill deeming it ‘dangerous’ for its proposal to grant citizenship to “Hindu or Christian once they are here for six years”.

IPFT president N.C. Debbarma addresses the conclave. Credit: Makepeace Stilthou

However, neither felt it necessary to bring it up in the platform as parliamentary representations had been made. Debbarma said they had been opposing the Bill ever since it was introduced in Parliament. “If this bill is passed, we will revive the movement in alliance with those who oppose the bill in Tripura, Assam and other places,” he told The Wire.

The bill did not even come up for discussion at the closed-door meeting of the partners that followed, as per Sangma. “It was more governance-centric like the implementation of central schemes like Saubhagya, bamboo mission and insurgency matters,” he told this correspondent.

Asked if the NEDA alliance looked fragile in 2019 with Congress said to be rising as a formidable opposition, he disagreed, stating, “They may be forming a government (Karnataka) but their numbers have gone down drastically which clearly reflects the people have rejected them. Even if they won, I wouldn’t be worried,” he said.