Citizen bill set to be major factor this poll
“I am not a factor but the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019, is.”
This is how retired bureaucrat M.G.V.K Bhanu, the Congress nominee for the Tezpur Lok Sabha seat, took a dig at BJP candidate Pallab Lochan Das, summing up how the bill is dictating political discourse after having kept the Northeast on edge for months till February 13.
The proposed legislation provides for according Indian citizenship to illegal migrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh who belong to six religious minorities — Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, Sikhs, Parsis and Christians — after six years of residence in India.
Even non-contesting opponents of the proposed legislation are having their say.
Hiren Gohain and KMSS chief adviser Akhil Gogoi have appealed to the people not to vote for the BJP for pushing for the bill despite vehement opposition. So much so that BJP’s present and past allies, such as the National People’s Party, Mizo National Front, Naga People’s Front, Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura and the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) are publicly opposing the bill.
Miffed by the BJP’s support for the bill, former chief minister and AGP legislator Prafulla Kumar Mahanta not only opposed the alliance with the BJP but also decided to stay away from campaigning. He had even appealed to the voters to back candidates opposing the bill.
The bill, passed by the Lok Sabha on January 8 but not taken up in the Rajya Sabha, has figured prominently in the Congress poll manifesto. “Congress had prevented the bill from being passed in the Rajya Sabha and will continue to oppose it in future,” said Assam PCC general secretary and senior spokesperson Apurba Bhattacharyya.
The Congress maintains that the bill is discriminatory and violates the Assam Accord, which pegs March 24, 1971, as the cut-off date for detection and deportation of all illegal migrants from the state irrespective of their religion.
“We want the Assam Accord to be implemented in its letter and spirit but the bill will nullify it. We will not allow the bill to be passed in Parliament. We are committed to protecting all Indian citizens irrespective of their caste, community or religion,” Bhattacharyya said.
Other northeastern states, too, witnessed widespread protests against the bill.
“The bill will definitely be on the minds of a large section of voters, if not all, this election,” said advocate and anti-bill activist Arup Borbora. “Although it was not passed in the Rajya Sabha, BJP president Amit Shah had publicly announced that they will bring it again if they return to power,” he said.
“Himanta Biswa Sarma had said they could not pass it in the Rajya Sabha since the BJP didn’t have the numbers in the Upper House. Sarma said in no uncertain terms that they will ensure that the bill is passed if they come to power again,” Borbora said.
Supreme Court lawyer and convener of anti-infiltration forum, Prabhajan Virodhi Manch, Upamanyu Hazarika, who is contesting from Gauhati as an Independent, believes that the bill will be “a part of the consciousness of voters” and will play a deciding factor in the polls.
“The bill will cost the BJP dear since it had won the Assembly polls because of consolidation of votes of indigenous people. But this time, a large section of indigenous people are upset with them because of the bill,” Hazarika said.
Political analyst and registrar of Krishna Kanta Handique Open University Arupjyoti Choudhary is, however, doubtful how much impact the bill issue will have on the elections.
“No doubt the bill is an important issue and there were mass protests against it in the state but most of the organisations opposing the bill, barring the AGP, are non-political and not contesting the polls,” he said.