How the Citizenship Bill Might Backfire for the BJP in the Northeast Ahead of the 2019 Polls


How the Citizenship Bill Might Backfire for the BJP in the Northeast Ahead of the 2019 Polls

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently said that when you point a finger at someone, three fingers point back at you. Since he is adept at the language of the human hand, he must also know that when you play with fire, you are bound to burn your fingers. And if the current state of affairs in the Northeast, particularly Assam, is anything to go by, the PM better put on some fireproof gear soon.

Even as we get our knickers in a knot over Rahul Gandhi’s “be a man” barb, students are actually stripping off in Assam to protest the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019, that the Lok Sabha has passed. All of the Northeast, particularly Assam, where the BJP government snatched power from the old favourites, Congress, has been in uproar over what the people feel is a law that challenges their identity. Students are on the streets, BJP party offices have been attacked, and bandh after bandh is intensifying the fight against what the Northeast sees as an effort to impose the BJP government’s one-size-fits all vision of what it means to be an Indian. So much so that even the BJP’s own chief minister in Manipur, N Biren Singh, wants the state to be kept out of the purview of the bill.

For those who came in late, the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019, seeks to provide citizenship to Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Parsis, Jains, and Christians from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. It proposes to reduce the minimum years of residency in India to apply for citizenship to six years from 11. The bill does not extend to Muslim migrants.

The indigenous communities of the region, that have been fighting long and hard to fend off “outsiders”, feel this will lead to a sudden rush in the migration of Hindus from these countries, putting strain on their economy and identity. Particularly in Assam, the bill contradicts the Assam Accord of 1985, which clearly states that illegal migrants heading in from Bangladesh after March 25, 1971, will be deported. Irrespective of their religion. The impact of the bill on the ongoing and rather contentious National Register of Citizens enrolment, a list of those who settled in Assam up to the midnight of March 24, 1971, is also being questioned.

The bill does not extend to Muslim migrants.

Sitting in the comfort of your Instagram-friendly office cubicle, or typing from a hip chai shop in Bandra, you might wonder: So is this why the people in the Northeast are so upset? The problem lies in the question itself. For generations, the Northeast has been a vague location on the map of India beyond Kolkata. For most of India, the Northeast has been a lump of land inhabited by people who look Mongoloid, speak English, eat momos, and play the guitar. The BJP is no different. Still learning coalition politics the hard way and evidently struggling to understand the challenges of being a party that plays the length and breadth of the country, the BJP is guilty of wilful ignorance as well.

The reason why the BJP can never shake off its “outsider” tag in states beyond the Hindi belt is this – its monolithic view of ethno-cultural identity. Diversity is not something that you dress up in costumes and parade down Rajpath on Republic Day every year. It is about knowing that the taste of sambhar and the stuffing of momo and the texture of rice grains changes every 50 km in our country. It is how the same song is sung differently in different homes and the same air smells different when you walk from one neighbourhood to another. Most Indians would struggle to identify even one ingredient in a traditional Manipuri meal.

Under the BJP’s watch, cow vigilantes are running wild in the rest of the country while the party is busy assuring its electorate in the Northeast that it will not interfere with their food habits. The party seems to have extrapolated that the anti-minority sentiment that has seen it reap dividends in the rest of India would work in the Northeast. Problem is, in the Northeast, tribal kinship often trumps any other divide. Even within the tribes there are deep divides. For example, the Nagas of Nagaland do not consider the Tankhul Nagas of Manipur as Nagas.

The Citizenship Amendment Bill and the NRC are aimed at Muslim migrants, who have been clashing with the indigenous communities over the decades over livelihood and political power. The fact that they were Muslims, is now perhaps secondary to the fact that they are simply immigrants who have taken up their land, resources, and power. The Northeast does not want migrants. Period.

The big BJP strategy to win the East, has backfired spectacularly because of opening gambit with the bill.

Some time back, Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee faced one of the biggest challenges in the hills of Darjeeling when her bid to impose Bengali as a compulsory language backfired – for once Didi was caught on the back foot in the game of competitive identity politics. For months, the hills were on fire, as she pulled out all the stops to ensure Darjeeling stayed with Bengal. Posters and graffiti sprang up all over Kolkata as she called upon her people to rise against the efforts to “Divide Bengal” all over again. She appealed to Bengali pride in the plains, and convinced the hills that she is with them. As long as they did not jump ship. The BJP, that hoped to fish in the roiled waters, had to beat a retreat.

The big BJP strategy to win the East, has backfired spectacularly because of opening gambit with the bill. All its alliance partners are unhappy. The Meghalaya government – which has all of one BJP member – wants to rethink NDA ties, as does Zoramthanga of Mizoram. The Asom Gana Parishad, the BJP’s biggest ally in Assam, has already walked out of the coalition. This might not impact the BJP’s position in the Assam Legislative Assembly but will affect the party’s popularity in a state that believes it has been the worst-affected by the influx of migrants. Ahead of the 2019 polls, the Citizenship Bill could be a big blow for the BJP, which had managed to make inroads into the Northeast only in the last four years.

The BJP must learn that it is one thing to buy your way into a coalition government. But it takes finesse, patience, and most importantly, flexibility to make one work. What is sauce for the goose is not sauce for the gander.