Cabinet okays citizenship bill

With the central government set to bring the Citizenship Amendment Bill to the Lok Sabha on Tuesday, Asom Gana Parishad, one of the three constituents of the BJP-led government in Assam, left the alliance in protest against the proposed legislation.

The proposed amendments will offer a path to citizenship to minorities such as Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists, Jains and Parsis from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan on grounds of religious persecution. The AGP’s exit coincided with the Union Cabinet approving the introduction of the bill in Parliament.

The AGP has contended that the bill is in contradiction to the Assam accord that has set March 25, 1971, as the cut-off date for migrants, and this includes Bengali-speaking Hindus. The terms of the accord, forged after the Assam agitation, are a red-line for the party and also reflect a significant section of public opinion in the state.

For BJP, however, the amendments are an ideological position with strong political message. The party argues that with the population of minorities in neighbouring countries, especially Hindus, dwindling since Partition, there is a need to provide them a home and safe harbour. With Hindus and other minorities often subject to discriminatory laws and violence, India is the natural saviour.

But BJP distinguishes this approach when it comes to “economic migrants”, largely Muslims settled in the northeast, Bengal and Bihar. Here, the party points to the “threat” of demographic invasion that changes the religious and social balance and says such people are illegals who must not enjoy state benefits.

While BJP is under fire in Assam for “violating” the Assam accord, its leaders like Himanta Biswa Sarma have warned that rejecting the citizenship bill will mean making Assamese Hindus a minority in five years.

BJP is hoping to drive home the argument that giving Bengali- speaking Hindus citizenship will be worth it as it will help counter unwelcome demographic change, hoping its support to the national register of citizens embellishes its credentials.

Like most Assam and northeast-based organizations, AGP has been opposing the proposed amendment to the Citizenship Act tooth and nail. On many occasions in the past, it issued warnings to BJP.

AGP’s exit will not pose any threat to the BJP, which has 61 MLAs of its own in the 126-member assembly and still has the support of the Bodoland People’s Front (12 seats) and one Independent. AGP, born out of almost a decade of anti-foreigners agitation in the 1970s and ’80s, quit the ruling alliance immediately after its representatives led by its president, Atul Bora, met home minister Rajnath Singh in New Delhi.

Two AGP ministers, Phani Bhushan Choudhury and Keshab Mahanta, are likely to resign along with Bora soon. Many AGP leaders serving as chairpersons and managing directors of state-run PSUs are likely to quit by Tuesday.

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