The ‘experts’ of the region based their predictions of BJP’s rout in the North-East on the reported ‘widespread anger’ generated in the region by the BJP’s advocacy of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, which the party passed in the Lok Sabha but did not introduce in the Rajya Sabha.
Himanta Biswa Sarma, NEDA convenor, the sole defender of the Bill, very effectively, painted an alarming picture of a Muslim-majority Assam afflicted by Islamic radicalism where Hindus would have to live like second-class citizens before being driven out.
And the solemn assurance by Modi that the interests of the people of the region would be protected also worked because Modi’s promises hold credibility among the masses.
The results of the recent Lok Sabha polls for the 24 Lok Sabha seats in North East India came as a shock and surprise to many in the region, especially Assam. The ‘many’ being referred to here are mainly self-styled political pundits, armchair intellectuals and journalists, commentators and other so-called ‘intellectuals’. As also quite a number of activists associated with NGOs and purported ‘mass’ organisations.
All of them, without exception, had relished the prospect of a poor show by the BJP in the region and had given the party, and its allies, at best a third of the 24 seats. As it turned out, the BJP bagged nine of the 14 seats in Assam, two each in Tripura and Arunachal Pradesh and one in Manipur, while its allies won one each in Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram and Meghalaya. The Congress, which these ‘pundits’ had predicted would win a majority of the 24 Lok Sabha seats, not only ended up with a paltry four seats (three in Assam and one in Meghalaya), but also fared poorly in many of the seats it contested from.
The ‘experts’ of the region had based their predictions on the reported ‘widespread anger’ generated in the region by the BJP’s advocacy of the , which the party passed in the Lok Sabha but did not introduce in the Rajya Sabha. The Bill, which sought to make the process of acquiring citizenship for persecuted Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Christians, Jains and Parsis from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan easier, triggered fears of an exodus of Bengali Hindus from Bangladesh flooding the North East and reducing the indigenous people of the regions to minorities in their own lands.
The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016
The fears, of course, are genuine. The North East, especially Assam, has borne the brunt of illegal influx of millions of foreigners from East Pakistan and then Bangladesh, and this influx has altered the demography of the region. Large parts of Assam are now dominated by these infiltrators. It was actually the British who started encouraging this migration of Bengali Hindus and Muslims — the Hindus mainly to man clerical posts in the administration and sundry private enterprises like tea gardens and the Muslims as cheap labour and farmers.
As per the existing laws of the country (Citizenship Act of 1955), anyone who has entered India legally and stayed in the country for 11 of the past 14 years is eligible for citizenship through the process of naturalization. The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill proposed to reduce this waiting period from 11 years to six years and make Hindus and persons from the other five communities who have entered the country illegally, eligible for citizenship. The people of the region fear that the Bill, when enacted, would pave the way for a huge wave of migration of Bengali Hindus from Bangladesh.
Also, as per the Assam Accord of 1985, the cut-off date for detection and deportation of foreigners or illegal infiltrators from Assam is March 24, 1971. The ongoing massive exercise in Assam to update the National Register of Citizens (NRC) is based on this cut-off date. But the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill advances this cut-off date (for Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Christians and Parsis who may have entered the country illegally) to as recently as December 31, 2014. That is, all members of the six communities who have entered India (legally or illegally) from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan before December 31, 2014, will be eligible for Indian citizenship if they have stayed in this country continuously for six years preceding that cut-off date (December 2014).
The indigenous people of Assam hold that this would totally negate the purpose of the NRC updation exercise which is meant to identify genuine citizens of India residing in Assam — that is, all those who (or whose forefathers) have been residents of Assam (or any other part of India) as on March 24, 1971.
The protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill
These fears led to thousands of protests all over Assam, and also the other six states of the region. The protests were organised mainly by students’ organisations and opposition parties. The Congress, which had been smarting from the ignominious defeat in the 2016 Assembly polls in Assam, saw the Bill as a golden opportunity to stage a comeback. The party, thus, leveraged the protests, funded them and started spearheading them.
Also, in the forefront of the protests against the Bill were the influential All Assam Students’ Union (who had led a long, six-year agitation against large-scale presence of foreigners in Assam since 1979 that culminated in the Assam Accord), other students’ bodies representing indigenous communities of Assam and the so-called mass organisations like the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS).
Demonstrations and rallies against the Bill became an every-day affair in Assam last year and even turned violent in many places. All the ire was directed against the BJP since it was the sole advocate of the Bill. BJP leaders were attacked and humiliated at many places, and BJP party offices vandalised. Black flags were shown to chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal and his senior cabinet colleagues wherever they traveled to in the state.
The media gave saturation coverage to the protests and when the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) — a partner in the ruling coalition in Assam — broke away from its alliance with the BJP, virtually the entire chatterati wrote away the BJP and started speculating its fall from power in the state. Journalists, commentators, columnists, academics and ‘intellectuals’ predicted that the BJP would fare poorly in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
In the other states of the region, too, the Bill drew voluble protests. Tribal bodies — political and non-political — in Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Nagaland, Manipur and even Tripura led huge protests against the Bill and all political parties (save the BJP) in those states joined and led those protests.
Meghalaya chief minister Conrad Sangma, whose party (the or NPP) was a part of the BJP-led (NEDA), threatened to withdraw from the formation. So did the ruling Mizo National Front (MNF) in Mizoram, while Nagaland’s ruling (NDPP), a constituent of NEDA, led strong protests against the Bill. In Manipur, the BJP-led ruling coalition was faced with disruptive protests and found itself in a politically difficult spot. In BJP-ruled Tripura, various tribal outfits also staged protests and threatened to take the state back to the dark days of insurgency.
The Congress and other opposition parties in all these states took full advantage of the so-called ‘popular anger’ against the Bill to gain political mileage and paint the BJP into a corner. A largely defensive BJP found itself in the backfoot. The BJP was portrayed by the opposition parties as a pro-Hindu party which cared little for the sentiments of the people of the region. And going by the widespread protests in the region, the endless coverage of such protests in the media, the opinion pieces by columnists and political commentators and the statements issued by ‘intellectuals’, academics and public figures, it appeared to be the end of the road for the BJP in the North East, especially Assam.
Even when the BJP, taking note of the protests in the region, decided not to introduce the Bill in the Rajya Sabha, the protests continued. The organisations and parties spearheading the protests argued that the BJP had not withdrawn or scrapped the Bill and, hence, their agitations would continue. In trying to keep up the momentum generated against the BJP by the anti-Bill protests, they were thus clearly trying to reap electoral dividends.
The Bill’s solitary defender
Meanwhile, North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) convenor and Assam finance minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma, emerged as the lone defender of the Bill. In all the public meetings he addressed in the run-up to the polls, he argued vociferously in favour of the Bill and pointed out that the legislation was necessary in order to prevent Assam from becoming another Kashmir.
Sarma, adopting the ‘offense is the best form of self-defense’ tactic, launched an aggressive campaign against the opponents of the Bill. He pointed out that if Bengali Hindus, who had illegally sneaked into Assam after March 1971, were declared foreigners, Assam would become a Muslim-majority state.
Sarma, a forceful public speaker renowned for his oratorical eloquence, cited statistics to buttress his arguments. He pointed out that going by the current trend, at least eight more legislative constituencies, in addition to the existing 32, would become Muslim-majority ones by the time the next Assembly polls are held in Assam in 2021 (Assam has 126 Assembly seats). “The only way to prevent this catastrophe is to give citizenship to Bengali Hindus,” he argued.
Sarma, very effectively, painted an alarming picture of a Muslim-majority Assam afflicted by Islamic radicalism where Hindus would have to live like second-class citizens before being driven out. Sarma also cited Prime Minister Modi’s promise that the interests of the indigenous people of Assam, and the North East, would be upheld and protected and they will not be allowed to become minorities in their own lands.
What the Pundits missed
Sarma’s aggressive campaign in favour of the Bill had its effect. The fear of being swamped by Bengali Hindus (from Bangladesh) that was ignited among the indigenous people by the agitations launched by the Congress and some other regional parties, and organisations like the students’ unions, was thus effectively allayed. At the same time, the solemn assurance by Modi that the interests of the people of the region would be protected also worked because Modi’s promises hold credibility among the masses.
And this is what the ‘pundits’ — the journalists, political commentators and columnists, the ‘intellectuals’ and the academics wearing their tinted glasses and living in their ivory towers — completely missed out. Weighed down heavily by their prejudices and biases, they could not fathom that Sarma’s aggressive defence of the Bill negated all the anger generated over the Bill.
They dismissed the Prime Minister’s assurance that the interests of the people of the region would be protected as political double-speak. They could never imagine that the masses would believe the assurance. While the common man in Assam, like his counterpart in the rest of the country, believed Modi, the ‘pundits’ in Assam and North-East (again, like their counterparts in the rest of the country) did not. The ‘pundits’ could never imagine that the masses had developed a high regard for Modi.
A major factor that influenced the voters, at least in Assam, was the many welfare schemes — pensions for the vulnerable, scholarships and other benefits to students, health insurance and free medical treatment et al — initiated by the state government. These were largely the brainchild of finance minister Sarma. The Union Government-funded schemes like grants for housing, micro loans, gas cylinders, toilets, roads, agriculture and many other sectors and sub-sectors were an added bonus. The ‘pundits’ failed to even see, let alone understand, the positive impact these myriad welfare measures had on the lives of the masses. And, as a result, they remained blind to the popular mood.
Thus, the results of the polls came as a complete surprise to them. In Assam, not only did their lofty prediction that the Congress would “ride popular anger” and bag a majority of the 14 seats fall flat and ignominiously on its face, the BJP (and its ally, the AGP) performed quite creditably even in the three seats that the Congress won. In many areas that witnessed loud and angry protests against the Bill, the BJP performed exceedingly well and got more than 50 per cent and even 60 per cent vote share. This was the case with the other North-East states too.
So were the protests against the Bill largely manufactured and politically motivated? Were they mostly a media creation and the result of false scare-mongering (about the Bill) by vested interests that the masses ultimately saw through? And did the benefits from the state and Central welfare schemes trump over manufactured fears of loss of identity? Time the ‘pundits’ of the region ponder over these questions.