As relative calm returned to Assam on Sunday after days of violent protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act that led to the deaths of five people last week, the state unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party is grappling with dissent within its ranks. Several members of the party, which heads the state government, have resigned or given up official posts since the Bill was passed by the Rajya Sabha on December 11. Still others, including many of the BJP’s spokespersons, are now shying away from defending the party’s position.
The act, which fast-tracks Indian citizenship for undocumented non-Muslim migrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, has triggered widespread protests in Assam. It undermines the Assam Accord of 1985, an agreement signed between the Centre and Assamese nationalists to end a six-year-long anti-foreigners’ agitation. Under the terms of the accord, anyone who entered the state after midnight on March 24, 1971, would be declared a foreigner liable to deportation.
Much of the public anger was directed at the BJP, including Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal.
Jagadish Bhuyan, who was chairman of Assam Petrochemicals Limited, before quitting his position and the party on December 14, said he decided to “stand with the people” after the Bill was passed in the Rajya Sabha. “I did not quit earlier because I had hoped that the government would respect the voice of the people,” he said. “Now there is no middle ground left to occupy: you either oppose the bill or not.”
On December 15, the Asom Gana Parishad, the BJP’s alliance partner in the state, also vowed to oppose the bill “politically and legally”. “It was a mistake to vote in favour of the bill in the Rajya Sabha,” the party’s MLA Ramendra Narayan Kalita told Scroll.in.
Assam speaker Hitendra Nath Goswami, a BJP legislator from Jorhat, has also sounded a note of dissent against the new law, asking the Centre to reconsider it.
In public, the BJP’s state leadership has played down the resignations and dissent. But in the last few days the party has held several internal meetings. Its leaders have visited rural areas and a delegation of the senior party leaders, including Sonowal, is likely to head to Delhi to meet the home minister and the prime minister very soon.
The idea, according to several BJP leaders to whom Scroll.in spoke, is to impress upon the Central leadership the urgent need to provide “constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards to protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people” under Clause 6 of the Assam Accord.
Vijay Kumar Gupta, vice president of the BJP’s state unit, said the party also plans to organise a “peace rally” in Lower Assam’s Nalbari district on December 21.
The BJP also concedes to have been caught off guard by the scale and intensity of the protests against the Act. “We did not see this coming and were definitely not administratively prepared to tackle them,” said Gupta.
Yet, Gupta insisted that the current wave of protests would not affect the party’s electoral prospects. “Most of the people out on the streets are not our voters in any case, 90% of them are Bangladeshi Muslims,” he said.
Gupta also maintained that the anger against the party was ephemeral. “Such strong emotional reactions do not sustain long,” he said. “And even if we lose a seat here or there because of the Bill, it will help us win a few in other areas.”
Protests in Upper Assam
But several accounts suggest that protests were most intense in the Upper Assam districts – areas with a negligible Bengali-speaking Muslim population. Gupta’s assertion that people who have hit the streets were never with the BJP also does not stand up to scrutiny.
At least two functionaries of the BJP’s Tinsukia unit have given up their official positions in the party in the last couple of weeks. One of them told Scroll.in, “You can’t possibly do politics by going against the people and it is clear where the people stand on this matter. People get angry the moment someone utters BJP.”
But senior leaders of the party seem convinced that the anger will boil over. “Yes, people are angry now and we will honour that statement,” said Bimal Kumar Borah, BJP legislator from Tingkhong constituency in Dibrugarh, where protests have not relented in days. But the resentment, Borah said, was driven by “misinformation” about the Act. “There have been all sorts of lies spread by the leaders of the protests, the most important being that 1.8 crore people from Bangladesh will settle in Assam and grab their land and resources,” he said. “But once they realise that that’s not happening – and they will soon – they will have no reason to oppose the Bill.”
In addition, Borah said, the Centre would implement of Clause 6 of the accord very soon and reserve 100 assembly seats for the Assamese people. “That, coupled with our developmental work, will make sure that we do not lose any political capital,” he said. “Now, some people with vested interests are misguiding the people, but we will also hit the ground soon and present these facts.”
Criticising Himanta Biswa Sarma
While the BJP seems confident there is no lasting political damage done to the party, most within party ranks admit that the party did not handle the situation prudently to begin with.
The most common complaint is against Assam Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, who many say made too many reckless comments and tweets. While the state was roiled by protests, the minister welcomed the passage of the bill and dubbed 36% of the state’s population “infiltrated Bangladeshi Muslims”.
“It is not right to say things to incite people in emotional times like this,” said a senior BJP leader from Upper Assam. “As a responsible politician you diffuse things, but instead he has been adding fuel to fire.”
Another top leader of the party’s state unit was also critical of Sarma’s role. “Aggressiveness and overconfidence is never a good thing,” he said.