Protests broke out in Assam over the row on the Citizenship Bill (PTI)
The Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), a regional ally of the BJP, has exited the BJP-led coalition in Assam over the centre's stand on the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016, just a few months before the country votes for a new government. While the break-up will have little impact on Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal's government, the development sends out a strong message at a time when several allies are upset with the party over a host of issues.
The bill is likely to be debated in the Lok Sabha on Tuesday.
"We have made our best efforts to convince the BJP leadership about the negative impact of the bill and the stand of the people of Assam. But the BJP has decided to go ahead with the bill leaving us with no option but to quit the alliance," AGP president Atul Bora said after meeting Home Minister Rajnath Singh.
Former Chief Minister of Assam Prafulla Kumar Mahanta and leader of the AGP had been threatening to part ways with the BJP if the government went ahead with the bill that aims to grant citizenship to minority communities from neighbouring countries.
"Our alliance with the BJP is a pre-poll alliance, so the BJP should have the morality to face the verdict of the people," Mr Mahanta had said.
The AGP had allied with the BJP before the 2016 state elections, in which the BJP had won 61 of the 126 assembly seats, and the AGP got 14. Along with Bodo People's Front's 12, the BJP-led alliance's tally went up to 87, well above the half-way mark. The ruling alliance would still have a majority after the AGP's withdrawal.
"Assam had voted for AGP and BJP combine. However, the BJP failed to keep the promises of the alliance partner. Being a regional party, we have to respect the wishes and sentiments of the people of Assam," Mr Bora added.
The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 seeks to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955, to grant nationality to people belonging to minority communities — Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians — in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan after six years of stay in India.
Opposition parties as well as the civil society have objected to the bill saying it would allow citizenship to illegal Hindu migrants from Bangladesh, who came to the state after March 1971, in violation of the agreement of the Assam Accord, 1985, which sought to identify illegal migrants into Assam and prepare a list of Indian citizens.
The opposition parties allege that the bill links religion to citizenship and want it to be "religion and country neutral". "Delink religion from citizenship issue. This is against the spirit of our civilisation, culture and of our Constitution. Citizenship can't be linked with state, religion, caste, creed and be country specific. It should be universal," said an opposition leader.
After Prime Minister Narendra Modi said his government was going forward with the controversial bill, protests were witnessed across Assam.
While speaking in Silchar, Assam on Friday, PM Modi had said, "The Citizenship Bill is an atonement of the wrong that was done during India's partition. I hope this bill is passed soon in parliament. India will safeguard all who had been victims of partition," he said.
The agitators burnt effigies of PM Modi in lower Assam and Dibrugarh, even as Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal assured the people that he would protect the interests of the state.
The protests intensified after Assam minister and BJP's key strategist in northeast Himanta Biswa Sarma's statement that "without the bill, we are surrendering to the philosophy of Jinnah (Pakistan's founding father Mohammad Ali Jinnah)".
If the bill is not brought in, at least 17 districts in Assam will go the "Jinnah way", he said on Sunday and added that the updation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) is being done to "drive out the Jinnahs", in an apparent reference to the Muslims of Bengali origin residing in Assam.
Protesters observed ''Black Day'' today, waved black flags and burnt replicas of the bill. Certain members of a group even stripped themselves in Assam's Tinsukia. Similar protests were witnessed in front of Parliament Complex in Delhi.