On Tuesday, 10 regional political parties from the North East and the Janata Dal (United) got together in Guwahati to “unanimously and jointly oppose” the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill of 2016, which was recently passed by the Lok Sabha.
However, Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma, who convened the meeting, which was hosted by Asom Gana Parishad Parishad, insisted that that the gathering was “a natural process” and not driven by any “political motivations”.
Friends turn foes?
Apart from Sangma’s National People’s Party and the Asom Gana Parishad, the Mizo National Front, the National Democratic Progressive Party, the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura, the Sikkim Democratic Front, the Naga Peoples’ Front, the Hill State People’s Democratic Party, the People’s Democratic Front and the Khun Hynniewtrep National Awakening Movement were the regional parties in attendance. Many of these parties are allies of the Bharatiya Janata Party at the state level or part of the North East Democratic Alliance - a BJP-led coalition of local parties from all states in the region.
For instance, the BJP is part of coalition governments led by the National People’s Party in Meghalaya and the National Democratic Progressive Party in Nagaland. The Asom Gana Parishad recently quit the BJP-led government in Assam to protest against the Bill. The Indigenous Front of Tripura is the BJP’s coalition partner in Tripura.
The Mizo National Front, which stormed to power in Mizoram in December, is part of the North East Democratic Alliance. “The Bill is harmful and dangerous for the people of North East,” said Mizoram Chief Minister Zoramthanga, who also heads the Mizo National Front. Zoramthanga added that a delegation from the parties who attended the meeting would meet the prime minister and the president to put on record their objections to the Bill.
However, with the exception of the Asom Gana Parishad, the parties chose to sidestep the subject of their alliance with the BJP. “In the unfortunate scenario of the government of India failing to listen to the demand of the people of the North East, and pressing ahead with the bill, the convention has decided to continue its opposition to the bill,” said Sangma in a press conference after the meeting. “Towards this the convention has decided to meet again to chalk out the future course of action.”
BJP’s strategy unravelling?
Crucial to the BJP’s recent electoral success in the North East – it is part of six state governments in the region – has been the party’s partnerships with regional parties. But as the BJP seeks to pass the contentious Citizenship Bill, it may have alienated many of these parties – almost all of regional partners have publicly opposed the bill, with the Meghalaya government even passing a resolution against it in the state Assembly last year.
The bill seeks to grant citizenship to Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Christian, Parsi and Jain migrants from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan if they have lived in India for six years, even if they cannot produce the required documents. Under the current rules, foreigners can acquire citizenship by naturalisation provided they have lived in the country for 12 years and can produce the required documents.
Parties from the North East, a border region, fear this would grant citizenship to undocumented migrants from Bangladesh. The spectre of so-called illegal immigrants encroaching on cultures and populations considered indigenous to the region has played a large part in the politics of the North East.
“We are all united to fight the Bill,” said Asom Gana Parishad president Atul Bora. Widespread protests have broken out ever since the bill was passed by the Lok Sabha earlier this year.
Yet, the BJP leadership in the North East has played down the recent churn. “This will not affect us in the elections,” said Ranjit Dass, the party’s Assam unit president.
Read Scroll.in’s full coverage of the citizenship tangle.