Citizenship bill row may shape poll result in Northeast

The Assam Rifles ground in Mizoram’s capital Aizawl looked deserted on Republic Day. A boycott call by prominent NGOs and civil society groups made many stay away, forcing governor K Rajasekharan address a near-empty ground. The boycott was to protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016 (CAB), which proposes to give citizenship to Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists, Jains and Parsis from Muslim-majority Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

CAB was passed by Lok Sabha in January and was to be tabled in the Rajya Sabha in February in the last session of Parliament ahead of the general election. But stiff resistance in Assam and other states of the Northeast by student bodies, indigenous groups and even by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) allies deterred the government from tabling the legislation, which is now set to lapse.

The Centre’s decision was hailed as a “historic win” and “victory of the people”, but subsequent assertions by BJP president Amit Shah and other leaders about the party’s plan to reintroduce the legislation, if voted to power, turned the brief celebrations into dismay and anger.

Fear of the outsider is a dominant theme in the Northeast’s socio-political discourse. The region has seen mass movements against illegal immigrants, the most prominent being the six-year-long Assam Agitation, which claimed 855 lives and ended with signing of the Assam Accord in 1985. The protests against the CAB stemmed from the dread of foreigners outnumbering locals. And the BJP, which strongly favours the CAB, may see its poll calculations being upset in the coming Lok Sabha election.

From an also-ran, the BJP emerged as the biggest party in the region in the past three years. It heads governments in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Tripura and is part of coalitions headed by allies in Nagaland and Meghalaya.

The transformation took place as BJP managed to shed its hardline Hindutva stance and forge friendships through the North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA)—a platform for parties in the region opposed to the Congress, which had been the biggest national player in the region until a few years ago.

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