Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), which is an ally of BJP led government in Assam, has said it will walk out of the alliance, protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Bill 2016 which was approved by the cabinet earlier today. Party president Atul Bora informed the media about the decision to end the alliance today. The three ministers of the party in the state government will tender their resignations soon, the party sources have said.
The Citizenship Amendment Bill 2016 seeks to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955 to make illegal migrants who are Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, eligible for citizenship. The bill was sent to a Joint Parliamentary Committee, which returned the bill today without suggesting any modification.
Although AGP and several other organisations are opposing the bill for a long time, prime minister Narendra Modi’s speech in Silchar on 4th January has triggered a fresh round of agitations. Kickstarting the campaign for Lok Sabha elections in the state, Modi had declared that government is committed to passing the bill in parliament while addressing a rally.
Assam is facing massive protests against the bill since the NDA government in centre announced it. AGP was born out of Assam Agitation demanding the deportation of illegal Bangladeshis from the state. The agitation was led by All Assam Students Union (AASU), and after the end of the agitation following the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985, the leadership of the agitation had formed the political party, Asom Gana Parishad, contested the assembly elections a few months later and won a historic victory.
Many organisations in Assam, including AASU and AGP, are opposed to the bill since they feel that it will give citizenship to illegal Hindu immigrants from Bangladesh. They maintain that all illegal Bangladeshis should be deported from Assam, without any religious bias. The bill has been labelled as a pro-Bangladeshi bill by activists and local media in Assam. It has been feared that if Hindu Bangladeshis are allowed to settle in Assam, it will be a big threat to the cultural and linguistic identity of the state, which will be taken over by Bengali language and culture. The protesters point towards Tripura as a valid example of this fear, where a similar situation has already happened. The Southern Assam is already predominantly Bengali, and the AGP and other organisations believe the same will extend to the entire state if the bill is passed.
The political fortune of AGP is currently not very good at present, and breaking the alliance will harm it more than BJP. But there has been tremendous pressure on the party to ditch BJP, given its legacy. AASU still maintains considerable influence on the party. Although AASU is not a student wing of the party, many AASU leaders consider joining AGP as the next logical step in their political career. Given the ideological position of the party against all kinds of illegal immigrants, it had become untenable for them to continue in alliance with BJP after the bill was accepted by the cabinet.
Even if AGP finally ends the alliance in Assam, the Sarbananda Sonowal led government in the state does not face any trouble. Because it has another ally, the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF). In the 126 member house, BJP has 61 MLAs, AGP has 14, while BPF has 12 MLAs. This means even without AGP, the BJP will have comfortable majority.
Ahead of Panchayat elections in the state in December 2018, massive protests were organised against the bill. But interestingly, while BJP did well in the elections and Congress improved its position considerably compared to assembly elections, AGP’s result was much below expectations. Out of more than 20000 Gram Panchayat wards, BJP had won around 9000 wards, Congress had won around 7000, while AGP had won around 1,500 seats. AGP had decided to fight the election separately over the bill, which had indicated that the alliance may not last long. This points to the possibility that although organisations have been successful in organising large-scale protests against the bill, it actually may not be an election issue for the majority of the voters, at least in rural areas. While BJP is obviously supporting the bill, Congress party has maintained a largely neutral position.
Perhaps these results of the panchayat elections encouraged the government to go ahead with the bill, fully aware that it will trigger protests and AGP will break the alliance. While AGP has been threatening to end the alliance over the bill, the BJP state leadership is maintaining that it is free to do so, and it will not hamper BJP in Lok Sabha elections.
With the bill being approved by the cabinet, huge protests have already started in the state. Today various organisations conducted demonstrations with black flags, including in Delhi. Tomorrow a state-wide bandh has been called, which is expected to be a success given that as many as 70 organisations are protesting. Although BJP will not have any trouble in getting the bill passed in Lok Sabha, it may get stuck in Rajya Sabha, where the ruling alliance do not have a majority. But even if the bill is rejected by the upper house, the protests in the state are expected to continue till the Lok Sabha elections.