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How will Sonowal's BJP-led govt. tackle the citizenship issue?

POSTED ON 2 NOVEMBER 2016

wasbir hussain
EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, CDPS

Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal’s five-month-old BJP-led government in Assam is in bit of a sticky wicket over the Centre’s move to grant citizenship to Hindu Bangladeshis. This has been among the key election promises of the BJP and in his campaign tours ahead of the Assam Assembly polls, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had categorically stated that Hindus from Bangladesh who had to leave the country due to alleged religious persecution would be granted citizenship as also minorities from Pakistan, Afghanistan and so on.

The people of Assam may have given the BJP a massive mandate, electing 60 party members to the 126-member State Assembly, but sections of the same people, under the banner of organizations like the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuva Chatra Parishad (AJYCP), besides political leaders and members of the intelligentsia are now opposed to New Delhi’s move to amend the Citizenship Act to facilitate the stay of the Hindu and other minority migrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan etc to stay on in India. Some Assam BJP leaders may try to dismiss those opposed to the move by labeling them ‘Communists’, but the opposition is real.

The main argument of groups like the AASU, the AJYCP and others is that if Hindu Bangladeshi migrants who have entered Assam after 25 March 1971 are granted Indian citizenship, it would amount to outright violation of the provisions of the Assam Accord. The 1985 Accord stipulates 25 March 1971 as the cut-off date for detection and expulsion of the Bangladeshi migrants, irrespective of their religion. These groups argue that citizenship or nationality is not determined by an individual’s religion. The agitation that is currently building up across Assam is based on the belief that any amendment of the Citizenship Act to facilitate the granting of citizenship to Hindu Bangladeshis would amount to making the Assam Accord redundant.

It is interesting to note that some of the people who are vocal in their opposition to the move are believed to be close to the BJP or the Assam BJP leadership. Take, for example, some top leaders of the AASU—they are known to be quite close to the BJP top-brass in the State. Again, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), too, as a party, appears to be against the idea. The AGP is an ally of the BJP and is a part of the coalition in Assam. Of course, former Chief Minister and the AGP’s founder-president Prafulla Kumar Mahanta is the only AGP leader so far who is categorical in his opposition to the proposed granting of citizenship to Hindu migrants from Bangladesh. He said this would make a mockery of the historic Assam Accord signed at the end of a six-year-long agitation that saw more than 800 people martyred for the cause of a migrant-free Assam.

The issue promises to present the people of Assam an opportunity to see Chief Minister Sonowal’s administrative and political acumen. A section of the intelligentsia have said if New Delhi is to go ahead with its plan, it must make sure the Hindu migrants from Bangladesh are allowed to settle only in the Bengali-dominated Barak Valley in Southern Assam. That may or may not be possible, but the issue promises to widen the divide among communities and groups in Assam.

There is another dimension to the issue—that of language. Questions are being raised whether the move would impact on the number of those who speak the Assamese language in Assam. What would be the impact of this on local politics? Will Prafulla Mahanta continue to be the lone AGP voice that is clear on the issue or will other top party leaders, including president Atul Bora, who is a Cabinet Minister, join the ranks and be more open in opposing the move? How will the issue impact on the coalition? Can the BJP in Assam afford to do away with the AGP and throw it out of the coalition?

I asked AASU Adviser Samujjal Bhattacharya a rather blunt question the other day—would the AASU relax its seemingly rigid posture and agree to bail the BJP out by letting the Modi Government go ahead with its plan? He said the AASU is bent on agitating until the Government withdraws its plan. After all, he added, the AASU cannot allow the Assam Accord to be made redundant. But again, one is amused at Dhaka’s reiteration of the claim that India has never ever raised the issue of illegal influx from Bangladesh during bilateral meetings or in any other forum. This time, this was stated by Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to Prafulla Kumar Mahanta during the latter’s visit to Dhaka earlier this week! So, the BJP and its government, both in Delhi and Dispur, has a lot of work to do. (courtesy: The Sentinel)