BJP may be forced to re-evaluate position on Citizenship Amendment Bill following fierce opposition from Nagaland cabinet
Support for the movement against the Citizenship (Amendment), Bill 2016 in Assam and other northeastern states has grown with the Nagaland cabinet deciding to oppose any amendment to the Bill that “goes against the interest of the Nagas.”
The Nagaland cabinet’s decision is likely to embolden the political parties, student and youth bodies and various civil society groups in Assam to mount more pressure on the BJP-led coalition government in Assam to yield to their persistent demand for the state cabinet to adopt a resolution opposing the bill and urge the Centre to withdraw it.
Nagaland is the second state after Meghalaya, where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is a partner of the ruling coalition, to have opposed the Bill pushed by the BJP’s central leadership and its Assam unit.
Nagaland cabinet deliberated on the bill at a meeting held on 5 June and decided to oppose it and to take up any such issues with the central government. The cabinet also pointed out that Nagaland is protected under Article 371 (A) of the Constitution and Inner Line Permit regulations.
Article 371 (A) states that “No Act of Parliament in respect of (i) Religious or social practices of the Nagas, (ii) Naga customary law and procedure, (iii) Administration of civil and criminal justice involving decisions according to Naga customary law, and (iv) Ownership and transfer of land and its resources, shall apply to the state of Nagaland unless the Legislative Assembly by a resolution so decides.”
However, any central act like the Citizenship Act, 1955, or any amendment to it, which does not involve these four subjects, can apply to the state of Nagaland. The state has also been witnessing agitations by different organisations mounting pressure on the government to curb “influx” of illegal Bangladeshi migrants and strict enforcement of Inner Line Permit regulations in Dimapur district to curb “influx of non-locals and illegal immigrants” and also make regulations under the ILP regime more stringent.
The Nagaland cabinet’s decision came close on the heels of a dharna staged by the Naga Students’ Federation in front of the Raj Bhavan seeking withdrawal of the Bill and the Nagaland Tribes Council (NTC), extending support to movement against the Bill across the northeastern states and demanding the Neiphiu Rio-led government to oppose the Bill to honour popular wishes and interest of the people. The NTC also said that Assam and Nagaland share a common boundary which will remain porous and cannot be sealed and “when Assam is flooded with foreigners, Nagaland will be the first victim of the proposed Bill.”
The decision of the Neiphiu Rio cabinet in Nagaland comes at a time when cracks have surfaced in the Sarbananda Sonowal cabinet in Assam over the Bill with three Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) ministers opposing it. Pressure has been mounting on the AGP ministers to raise the issue in the cabinet and seek a resolution opposing the Bill. AGP president Atul Bora, who is also holding the agriculture portfolio in the Sonowal ministry, announced they would push for it in the cabinet.
After a meeting of the Sonowal cabinet held on 1 June, the three AGP ministers said that they refrained from raising the issue in the cabinet following request by Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal. Senior BJP leader Chandra Mohan Patowary, who holds the portfolio of transport, industries and commerce in the Sonowal cabinet, while briefing media persons about the cabinet decisions, said the AGP ministers did not raise the issue after the chief minister discussed it with them before the cabinet meeting and requested them not to raise the issue.
Facing sharp criticism for not raising the bill in the cabinet, the AGP ministers made a volte-face and rushed to clarify that they raised the issue in the cabinet meeting but did not disclose it in order to maintain confidentiality of cabinet discussions. They also reiterated that they would quit the ministry if the central government passes in the Bill in Parliament. Pramila Rani Brahma, of coalition partner Bodoland People’s Front, who is also a senior minister in the Sonowal cabinet, also backed the AGP ministers’ claim that they raised the issue but added it could not be discussed as it was not included in the agenda.
Claims by BJP ministers and flip-flop by AGP ministers have created confusion among the people and indicated that cracks in the ruling coalition may widen. AGP’s decision to voice their opposition against the Bill even while continuing in the government and the ruling coalition has come as embarrassment for the BJP. Prior to the cabinet meeting, AGP also recorded its opposition to the Bill in presence of BJP national president Amit Shah at the third North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) conclave held in Guwahati. Bora, in his speech, telecast live by local news channels and live-streamed on social media, insisted that there should not be any division of illegal migrants on basis of religion, and the Bill must be withdrawn as it violates the Assam Accord.
The common agenda of keeping Congress out of power have drawn regional parties to come together under NEDA banner at the behest of the BJP. However, the decisions of the Nagaland and Meghalaya cabinet and AGP’s hardened position on the Bill sent a clear signal to the BJP that their support cannot be taken for granted, particularly when it comes to the issues such as Citizenship (Amendment) Bill or issues related to ethnic identities of the people of the region. By backing the cabinet decision, BJP ministers in Nagaland and Meghalaya also seemed to have sounded a caution to their central leaders that any attempt to push the bill may backfire in the region if the party fails to sense the mood of the people.
With protests over the Bill snowballing fast both inside and outside the government, the Sonowal regime and the state BJP are now saying they will clarify their stand only after the final draft of the National Register of Citizens, currently being updated in Assam, is published. The Supreme Court directed the NRC authorities to publish the final draft on 30 June. This triggered speculation about the number of Hindu and Muslim Bangladeshis who entered without valid travel documents after 24 March, 1971, and are illegally staying in Assam and fail to make it in the final draft of the NRC.
The central BJP leaders as well as the party leaders in Assam appear to have kept their fingers crossed and hope the narrative over the Bill might change after the publication of the final draft of the NRC and in the changed situation it would be easier to push the party narrative that while illegal Bangladeshi migrants are a threat to existence of identity of Assamese and other indigenous people in Assam, Hindu Bangladeshis pose no such threat.
However, the final draft of the updated NRC is not expected to give any clear picture on the number of Hindu or Muslim Bangladeshis as the citizens’ register is not being updated on basis of religion but on the basis on Assam Accord which does not make any distinction on basis of religion and requires all post-1971 illegal Bangladeshi migrants to be identified, their names deleted from voters list and expelled from the country.
It is expected to indicate the number of people who fail to make it to the final draft but will get one month’s time to submit their claims for inclusion. A clear picture of total number of illegal Bangladeshi migrants in Assam, irrespective of religion, can be expected to emerge only the final NRC is published after disposal of all claims and objections. However, until then, the political space would be left wide open for parties and groups to play upon the numbers of the final draft to push their own narratives and perception about the vexing foreigners’ issue in Assam and other northeastern states.
However, the overall mood and sentiment of the people in North East reflects the new political reality that has dawned on the BJP. The party may be under pressure to keep ready a plan b rearticulating its position on the Citizenship (Amendment), Bill, 2016n vis-à-vis Assam and other northeastern states in the event it requires to shed plan A: Pushing the Bill in its present format.