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Issue 11

Assam Assembly Election: Litmus Test for CAA and BJP

Out of the four poll-bound states, BJP is trying to put its best foot forward in the two states where its main battles are — Assam and West Bengal. In Assam, it is hoping to retain its power as it has paved its way towards gaining power in other northeastern states, while in Bengal, it’s aiming to consolidate its power to capture the “final frontier” after being on the sidelines for decades. In both states though, it has adopted different strategies around one issue — CAA-NRC.

On a roadshow in West Bengal’s Medinipur, Amit Shah said that “Once we are in power, the first meeting of our Cabinet will announce the implementation of the Citizenship Amendment Act.” Citizenship Amendment Act will allow citizenship to Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, Parsis and Jains who came to India from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. However, in Assam, the BJP is silent on implementing the Act.

Similarly, in Assam, BJP’s manifesto included “corrected National Register of Citizens (NRC)”  as a promise if it came to power, while in West Bengal, it was interestingly silent on implementing NRC, fearing that doing so could impact Hindu migrant voters from Bangladesh and Matuas of south Bengal who makes for a significant voter base. Today, as per a rough estimate, Bangladeshi Hindu immigrants are a significant presence in 75 Assembly constituencies – making up for a fourth of the state’s seats. These differing positions with regards to CAA-NRC to appeal to different voters further show that electoral politics and calculation is always a critical part of the NRC-CAA exercise.  It takes into account the voting potential of those who will be left in – especially the Hindus of the north, where the BJP has had support while excluding mainly Muslims through the instrument of CAA, who don’t traditionally vote for the party. 

However, in Assam, the only place so far where NRC exercise has been carried out, it led to an unintended outcome — of the 1.9 million people not in the Register, a vast majority were Hindu.  The BJP in an attempt to guard its predominant Hindu voter base is now set to revise the NRC, as evident from the electoral promise of “corrected NRC” to protect “genuine citizens.” This, along with the implementation of CAA, would mean that BJP could bring back Hindus in the ambit of its voters while excluding Muslims from the list. However, contrary to BJP’s expectation, the implementation of CAA in Assam led to a huge uproar as violent protests erupted in Assam in December 2019. 

CAA-Protest in Assam

Soon after the passing of the CAA bill, Assam saw massive and almost spontaneous protests against the CAA, especially in the upper region. These anxieties have been fueled by concerns regarding socio-political and cultural marginalisation and by the burden over state resources with the problem of language alienation, unemployment and limited job opportunities.

Source: https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Citizenship_Amendment_Act_protests

The Assam protest against CAA must be contextualised against the anti-foreigner sentiment that has been running consistently in the state. After the anti-foreigner movement in 1975-85, Assam Accord came about. It was a Memorandum of Settlement (MoS) signed by the All Assam Students Union and the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA).  Clause 6 of the Assam Accord asserts constitutional safeguards for the Assamese people and states that the “Constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards, as may be appropriate, shall be provided to protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people.” With the implementation of the CAA, the Assam Accord would be rendered ineffective, thereby, threatening the very linguistic, cultural and social identities of the Assamese people that were guaranteed by this very Clause.

Thus, this led to widespread discontentment as several indigenous groups took to protest the legislation. In spite of the huge electoral gain secured by the BJP in the previous election in 2016, they had not anticipated the intensity of public opposition against CAA. In an attempt to placate the protesting groups, BJP in a departure to its religious nationalism agenda recognised the long-awaited demand of ethnic groups for inclusion in the ST list. It led to the creation of autonomous councils for three of the six communities demanding ST status, in the aftermath of anti-CAA protests. However, will the fulfilment of demands of ethnic groups truly assuage the fears unleashed by CAA and will BJP be able to recover from the widely expressed discontentment in Assam?

Ongoing election in Assam

After less than 18 months of violent agitation against CAA, Assam is poll-bound again. In the ongoing election, while BJP has been tactfully silent about CAA, opposition parties like Congress have made it an issue to campaign against BJP. Releasing the manifesto that has a promise to nullify CAA legislation, Rahul Gandhi said, “We are aware that the RSS and BJP are attacking diverse cultures of this nation. Attacking our languages, history, our way to thinking, and our way of being. So this manifesto provides a guarantee that we will defend the idea of the state of Assam”. He also promised that Congress will uphold the Assam Accord, which was signed during his father Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure in 1985.

The anti-CAA agitation has also led to the birth of two regional parties: Assam Jatiya Parishad, led by All Assam Students’ Union leader Lurinjyoti Gogoi, and Raijor Dal, led by Akhil Gogoi, who was arrested in the agitation in December 2019.  It is reportedly backed by seventy ethnic groups — opposing the changes to the citizenship law.

This clearly indicates that despite BJP’s aversion to putting CAA as an agenda for election, CAA is already on agenda, as evidenced by opposition parties’ manifesto and mobilisation of voters based on anti-CAA sentiment. Thus, the outcome of the assembly election is set to not just decide the future of BJP in the entire northeast but could be a litmus test for CAA-NRC as policies. This particular election for the state is likely to have ramifications beyond who wins or loses. It might very well settle some of the issues that have come to dominate recent politics in the State.

Picture Credits: Live Mint

Author’s Bio: Ridhima Manocha is a final year English and Media Studies student at Ashoka University and has authored the book, The Sun and Shadow

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