Protests in the Northeast, especially in Assam and Tripura, over the Centre’s move to push through the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in Parliament highlight the dangerous pre-election adventurism of the BJP. The Bill seeks to confer Indian citizenship to persecuted migrants from the Hindu, Jain, Sikh, Parsi, Christian and Buddhist communities from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh who came to India before 2014. The Bill, contentious in itself for its exclusion of Muslims, is seen by many as a ploy to legitimise the presence of Hindu Bengalis who had reached the Northeast in the aftermath of the birth of Bangladesh in 1971. The BJP’s ally in the Assam government, the Asom Gana Parishad, an ethnic party at its core, called it quits on Monday when the Union Cabinet cleared the redrafted Bill for introduction in the Lok Sabha. It was passed on Tuesday. While the BJP-led governments at the Centre and in Assam have often given the assurance that the extra burden of people is not solely the State’s, the Rajendra Agrawal-led Joint Parliamentary Committee’s report is categorical: “The Assam Government should help settle migrants especially in places which are not densely populated, thus, causing lesser impact on the demographic changes and providing succour to the indigenous Assamese people.” Thus, an alliance with the BJP became politically impossible for the nativist AGP.
The blowback from the Bill in the Brahmaputra valley is not lost on the BJP either. It has tried to offset the impact with two decisions aimed at appealing to the Assamese electorate. These, the constitution of a committee to resurrect and operationalise the crucial Clause 6 of the 1985 Assam Accord stipulating “constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards for the Assamese people”, and the proposal to accord Scheduled Tribe status to six major communities that are currently classified as OBCs, are of a piece. They are intended to assuage and assure Assamese speakers that the party can merge Hindutva obligations with local interests. The ST status could turn Assam, which has a 34% Muslim population, into a tribal State with a majority of seats reserved. The panel could recommend reservation of seats in the Assembly and local bodies and in jobs for the indigenous populace. The point, however, is that for now the measures count as messaging. The Citizenship Bill and the ST Bill have yet to be passed in the Rajya Sabha. And the panel on Clause 6 has until July 6 to submit its report. The BJP knows that with reverses expected in the rest of the country in the Lok Sabha elections, it needs to retain, if not augment, its seats from Assam to come anywhere close to its 2014 haul. It is doing all it can ensure that, but with little thought to the ethnic and communal fault lines it is aiding.