Modi’s Poll Speech in Assam Supporting Citizenship Bill Triggers a Maelstrom

Since the prime minister's vote-seeking speech in Silchar on January 4, and the Union cabinet’s approval of the amendment, Modi’s effigy has been burnt in the Brahmaputra Valley at least twice. Here's why.

New Delhi: Assam is back in protest mode against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016. While the immediate trigger was Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vote-seeking speech at a rally in the state’s Silchar area on January 4 supporting the Bill, on January 7, the unrest was further fanned by the Union cabinet’s approval of the amendment. The Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) has also walked out of the BJP-led state government.

As per sources in the government, the BJP is likely to get the Bill passed in Lok Sabha on January 8.

On January 4, Modi, speaking at a mammoth rally – part of the hundred rallies he is scheduled to address in 100 days in 20 states as the party’s mascot for the general elections – assured the Bengali-dominated Barak Valley that his government would deliver, before its term expires, the long pending demand of the community of an amendment to the Citizenship Act. As per the  Act, Hindu Bangladeshis would be granted Indian citizenship among others on religious grounds.

The Bill, tabled in Lok Sabha in 2016, had been lying in limbo ever since a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) was formed that year in response to widespread protests in Assam over the dilution of the Assam Accord.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a rally in Silchar, January 4, 2019. Credit: @narendramodi/Twitter

In his speech, Modi said, “The Citizenship (amendment) Bill is not for the benefit of anyone but a penance against the injustice and wrongdoings in the past. I hope it (the Bill) gets passed (in Parliament) soon.”

Three days later, even as the Union cabinet was meeting to clear the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in New Delhi, picketers carried out a ‘nude protest’ in front of parliament against the government action – a reflection of the happenings in Assam over the last one week. 

The loud cheer from the crowd in Silchar to the prime minister’s words were met with equally loud words – of anger and protest – by a number of powerful Assamese sub-nationalist forces, including the All Assam Students Union (AASU), Asom Jatiotabadi Yuva Chattra Parishad (AJYCP), Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) and Prabajan Virodhi Manch (PVM). In no time, the battle lines formed.

Since January 4, Modi’s effigy has been burnt in the Brahmaputra Valley at least twice for that speech.

BJP poll strategy

With reports of BJP/NDA not likely to do as well as it did in the 2014 general elections in 2019, the party is said to have chalked out a plan to meet some of the shortfall from the East. Besides concentrating on West Bengal and Odisha, it is eyeing the Northeast, as it has either a BJP government or one led by NDA partners in those states. As per BJP sources in Assam, “The party leadership has given a target of 21 of the 25 seats of the region.”

Eleven of those seats are hoped to be achieved from Assam, which, at 14 Lok Sabha seats, has the largest number among the states of the region. Pocketing seven seats in the last parliamentary polls was the highest ever for the BJP in Assam.

To amp up the numbers further for a five-year-old government against which the anti-incumbency factor would likely kick in, and importantly, to dilute the anger in the majority community against it for pushing for citizenship to Hindu Bangladeshis residing in the state in violation of the Accord, it needed crisp thinking.

Also read: Decades of Discord: Assam Against Itself

To put the strategy in place, this past December 26, state chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal and his deputy Himanta Biswa Sarma were summoned to Delhi for a closed-door deliberation with Modi and the party national president Amit Shah at the prime minister’s house. Though what was discussed in that meeting was kept under wraps, rumours soon spread in Assam that the Centre would finally announce granting scheduled tribe (ST) status to six communities of the state.

These communities – Ahom, Sutiya, Moran, Motok, Koch-Rajbongshi and the Tea Tribe – form a huge chunk of the state’s voters. Speculation was rife that the government was mulling over an exclusive category of ST for Assam – ST (general) – to accommodate these communities under the protected tribal umbrella, lest it could open a can of worms in the rest of India. In 2016, for the assembly polls, the BJP had sought votes in by promising to fulfil this old demand. The Centre formed a committee too to suggest ways for its implementation. Since nothing has come of it, the organisations in parley with the government are an angry bunch now.

On January 3, taking the party’s poll strategy forward, Union home minister Rajnath Singh announced election-related sops for Assam at a press meet in Delhi, but there was no mention of the demand. The groups then jointly organised a press meet with peasant leader Akhil Gogoi in Guwahati the same day and called the central sops announced by Singh as “Dilli ka laddu”.

Post Modi’s January 4 visit, yet another rumour floating in the state is, the Centre would “soon” bring an ordinance to that effect. Even if it does, its validity depends on the return of a BJP government at the Centre. Some of the polls carried out by media outfits this past week have doubted that prospect.

Nevertheless, what Rajnath Singh spelt out, after a Union cabinet meeting, was a two-pronged strategy on Assam. One, the announcement of a “high-powered committee” to suggest ways to implement Clause 6 of the Accord. Two, the establishment of a Bodo museum-cum-language and cultural study centre, modernisation of the existing AIR and Doordarshan stations at Kokrajhar and naming a super-fast train passing through the Bodo areas as Aronai Express – as demanded by All Bodo Students Union (ABSU). 

These sops were, however, announced not to wrest away the Kokrajhar Lok Sabha seat. Though Kokrajhar is a part of the Bodo Autonomous District Council (BTAD), the seat is more likely to go to a non-Bodo (as it did in 2014) as Bodos are a minority in the Lok Sabha constituency.

AGP walks out BJP-led govt

It is here that the BJP strategy gets interesting. In its 2014 manifesto, the BJP had promised statehood to the Bodo community. Since nothing was done on that front during its tenure, the ABSU amplified its agitation for Bodoland in the last few months. These sops were as much to send a message to the community that the party hasn’t forgotten them as to keep intact the BJP-led government in the state. This was in keeping with Modi’s January 4 promise to the Bengali Hindus of Barak Valley. Though such a promise might get the BJP only the Silchar seat but it could well create a challenge for the TMC in Bengal and help the BJP pocket a few seats.

Also read: Asom Gana Parishad Pulls out of BJP-Led Alliance Over Citizenship Bill

However, it was inevitable that the AGP would walk out as soon as the Centre would go ahead with the Citizenship Bill, as the AGP was born out of the Accord.

Now, the BJP, with 61 seats in the 126 assembly, needs three more seats to remain in power. After the AGP, with 14 seats, drops out of the Sonowal government, it would need the Bodo People’s Front (BPF) with 13 seats to be within the alliance. As envisaged, hours after the JPC report on the Bill suggesting the amendment was approved by Union cabinet on January 7, the AGP walked out of the state government.

Clause 6 of Assam Accord

So will this act by the AGP topple the applecart of the BJP in Assam in 2019? Herein kicks in BJP’s strategy number one – bringing in the high powered committee to implement Clause 6 of the Accord while keeping the majority Assamese community’s sentiments in mind.

As per the Memorandum of Settlement, signed between AASU, All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP) and the central and the state governments, the government was to provide

Constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards, as may be appropriate, to protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people.”

The government’s media note said,

“The committee will hold discussions with all stakeholders and assess the required quantum of reservation of seats in Assam Legislative Assembly and local bodies for Assamese people”.

It would also

“assess the requirement of measures to be taken to protect Assamese and other indigenous languages of Assam, quantum of reservation in employment under Government of Assam and other measures to protect, preserve and promote cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of Assamese people.”

Also read: Seventy Assam Orgs to Move SC Against Centre’s Notifications on Citizenship Rules

Non-implementation of the vital clauses of the Accord has been at the root of the majority community’s festering anger against New Delhi for the last 33 years. Having electorally gained twice so far (2014 and 2016) on the promise of protecting the interests of the majority community, BJP is well aware of that overriding sentiment. Singh’s announcement of the committee made it clear that the party is looking at enticing the entire Assamese community than just the six groups within it before the polls.

On January 6, the committee was notified. Seven eminent public figures from Assam were named as members besides Satyendra Garg, the Joint Secretary (Northeast) at the MHA. Retired bureaucrat M P Bezbaruah would head the committee and submit a report within six months.

‘Political stunt’

However, the way things have panned out in the last few days, the BJP’s poll strategy seems a bit wobbly at the moment. Most sub-nationalist forces are angry with the fact that while only a committee was formed to look into the interests of the majority community, a law would be prepared to protect the Hindu Bangladeshis by diluting Clause 5 of the Accord. Clause 5 sets the cut-off date for citizenship in Assam is March 24, 1971, based on which the NRC is being updated. It doesn’t segregate unauthorised immigrants from Bangladesh on religious grounds.

On January 3, reacting to the formation of the committee, AASU advisor Samujjal Bhattacharjee told reporters in Guwahati that the Centre should have instead issued a white paper on what steps did it take in the last five years to implement the Accord: “We were told the Assam sector of the India-Bangladesh border would be completely sealed by December 31, 2018. Nothing happened.”

On January 4, AASU president Dipanka Nath called the committee “a political stunt to succeed in the Centre’s motive to grant Indian citizenship to the illegal Hindu Bangladeshis.”

Also read: Why Some Regions Are Angrier Than Others Over India’s New Citizenship Law

After Modi’s speech, anger within AASU peaked. AASU general secretary Lurin Jyoti Gogoi said, “The BJP has cheated and betrayed the people of Assam. This Bill will harm the secular fabric of the Constitution…the AASU has been protesting against the Bill and yet the BJP is moving ahead autocratically and undemocratically. My request at this time is that people of Assam should teach a lesson to the BJP.”

Akhil Gogoi of KMSS also spoke on similar lines after Modi’s speech, “The need of the hour is to defeat the BJP or else there will be fascism.”

On January 7, members of KMSS along with 70 other civil society groups held a ‘nude protest’ against the Bill in front of Parliament. They were soon arrested, taken to the Parliament Street police station, and released later in the day.

Credit: Social media

Gogoi has said that these groups would soon file a petition in the Supreme Court against the Bill. Already, a civil society group has filed such a petition in the apex court after Centre recently issued two more notifications to the states to ease the process of granting citizenship to Hindu Bangladeshis among others on religious ground.

Speaking about it, the writer Hiren Gohain, part of that group of petitioners, told The Wire, “It is startling that while the ruling party and government are working overtime to engineer a civil war in Assam over the Bill, the metropolitan media is maintaining an ominous silence on storm clouds here.”

Another interest group that held a press meet on January 4 in Guwahati was PVM. Upamanyu Hazarika, Supreme Court advocate and head of the anti-infiltration outfit, demanded “constitutional safeguards” as per the Clause 6 of the Accord.

“Coming on the eve of the 2019 elections, this appears to be yet another set of promises, when results were the need of the hour,” he said. In an interview to The Wire in 2017, Hazarika had said, “BJP borrowed its entire plank of protecting rights of indigenous people of Assam in the 2016 polls from us.” 

In the January 3 press meet, Hazarika also hit out at the Sonowal government. “The state government should immediately convene an emergency session of the state assembly and pass a legislation similar to the one passed by the Manipur assembly reserving land, employment and other benefits for the indigenous communities and pre-1951 citizens of the state and their descendants.”

“Now that the Central Government has lent spine to the state leadership in Assam, they should seize this opportunity and pass the law,” he added. The Centre’s January 4 note said, “The state government will also take necessary measures related to appropriate land policy and land laws.”

Panchayat polls

According to some BJP watchers in Assam, the reason why the party is hoping to win so many seats in the state is because of the recent panchayat poll results. But if you look closely at those results, for a ruling party, the BJP didn’t do well at all; it bagged only 42% of the seats. In fact, with 34% of the seats, it spoke of the rise of the Congress in the state.

As per a recent report in local news channel Pratidin Time, a number of allegations of rigging by the ruling party in those polls have also come to fore. State’s political observers feel that the reason BJP had to bring electoral sops for Assam also indicates that all is not well on the ground for the party.

Also read: Are We Over-Imposing Our Assamese Identity?

A senior editor of an Assamese newspaper, who didn’t want to named, pointed out, “Though Himanta Biswa Sarma is steering BJP’s 2019 strategy in Assam, in the long run, it would ultimately be politically harmful for Sonowal alone and also the popularity of Modi in entire Northeast. The Bill has been vehemently opposed throughout the region.”

On January 8, the North East Students Organisation (NESO) has called a dawn to dusk bandh throughout the Northeast against the Centre’s decision to go ahead with the Bill. 

Meanwhile, Sarma is using the Bill to religiously polarise the state’s voters to benefit his party in the 2019 polls. He asked the Assamese people to support the Bill as without it the state would go to Muslims. Interestingly, Sarma, who moved to BJP prior to the 2016 assembly polls, called Modi “a terrorist” in a 2014 poll rally in Tezpur and said the blood of Muslims flows through the water pipes of Gujarat.   

Besides Assam, the BJP is also eyeing the Lok Sabha seats in Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh, leaving some of the other seats to its partners. On January 4, Modi inaugurated four development projects and laid four foundation stones for four others worth “more than Rs 251 crore” in Manipur. Rajnath Singh announced a revised list of Scheduled Tribes of Arunachal wherein various tribe names would be included as part of a re-categorisation exercise.

Among them is the Idu Mishimi tribe, part of a BJP government’s gala function in Gujarat in March 2018 to celebrate Lord Krishna’s marriage to Rukmini. Right-wing forces have been putting forward an idea for some time that Rukmini belonged to the Idu Mishmi tribe.