Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, the face of the Assam Movement, former chief minister, and an AGP MLA, was in Delhi last week as part of a delegation of 11 Northeast regional parties to lobby against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. The AGP earlier pulled out of an alliance with the ruling BJP on the issue. Excerpts from an interview:
What are you demanding in Delhi?
Our delegation has members from 11 regional parties. Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma is here. First, even if the Bill is introduced in the Rajya Sabha, we are urging parties to vote against it. The Bill cannot be allowed to become a law. Second, two notifications passed by the Home Ministry on September 7, 2015, should be scrapped. The Home Minister has told us he will try to look for a consensus among the Northeast parties.
If the Bill is not brought in this session, causing it to lapse, would you consider going back to the BJP?
That matter has not come up yet. That was not discussed in the party forum. It depends on what decision they (the government) take. The AGP wants the Bill struck down.
If it is not struck down before the polls, could the AGP consider aligning with the Congress, which has indicated its doors are open?
For the Congress, the doors are open. The AGP, strategically, cannot go with the Congress. We have to look at what shape the mahajot of Northeast regional parties takes.
And if the mahajot has the Congress?
That matter was not discussed. Morally, the AGP would have a problem.
You have accused the BJP of betrayal.
The AGP was born out of the Assam Movement, so implementation of the Assam Accord comes first. The BJP had said that should they form the government, they would implement the Accord. They had said immigrants from Bangladesh would have to leave after May 16, 2014. Instead, they have brought this Bill that will dilute the provisions of the Accord… They are trying to change the basic structure of the Constitution, the principle of secularism. On the basis of religion, they are trying to grant citizenship.
Didn’t the question of secularism arise when you decided to ally with the BJP?
The AGP and BJP reached an understanding for the Parliament and Assembly polls because of Congress misrule and corruption… But the assurances the BJP gave to Assam and to the AGP then, the present government is working against those.
Do you see a change in the character of Assam?
Yes, there is polarisation.
Among the Assamese?
Yes, they are trying to bring it among the Assamese… The AIUDF and Congress are trying to polarise Muslims. The BJP is trying to polarise Assamese Hindus. When we say Assamese, it includes Hindus, Muslims, everyone… Divisive feelings have arisen and they are trying to exploit those through this Bill… It is going to affect the unity of Assamese people. In society, the Assamese do not identify themselves as Hindus or Muslims or Christians. The Bill has brought in such feelings.
The government has offered to implement Clause 6 of the Assam Accord, which talks of constitutional safeguards for the Assamese.
Clause 6 is not easy. It will require discussion - on land reforms, reservation of seats…
Will the definition of "Assamese" be based on a cutoff of 1951?
The 1951 NRC (National Register of Citizens) is one of the proposals. And then Assembly Speaker Pranab Gogoi [Tarun Gogoi government] had proposed a formula in consultation with various organisations, which the Congress turned down.
Whom would you define as Assamese?
Whoever has been in Assam for a long time and has adopted the Assamese language and culture… Who will be defined as Bihari, who will be defined as Bengali? The Assamese will be defined the same way.
Suppose there is a correct NRC (National Register of Citizens) one day, and a formal definition for Assamese. Will the Assamese be able to co-exist with Bengali Muslims and Bengali Hindus?
If they are citizens of India, they can. Why can't they?
Could there be unrest again?
If their population grows and the Assamese become a minority, obviously. Whoever are covered under the Assam Accord until March 24, 1971, they will face no problems - Hindus or Muslims.
And if their population rises one day?
You cannot predict the future that way. If they adopt the Assamese language and culture, there should be no problem.
Have non-political groups upstaged the Opposition parties in the protests against the Bill?
No, it was first started by the AGP. They came later. During the Assam Movement, there was a platform called Assam Gana Sangram Parishad, a collective of non-political organisations; AASU was separate. There is no such platform now. So now everyone is coming out on the streets under its own banner.
When will you finally decide whether to fight the election alone?
That is obvious... The AGP is with neither the Congress nor the BJP. The AGP is a regional party, formed for solving regional problems, so we have to fight alone. Had there been an AGP MP in the House today, they would not have been able to pass the Bill without facing opposition.
When the Bill on the India-Bangladesh land agreement was to be introduced , the AGP had two Rajya Sabha MPs, Birendra Prasad Baishya and Kumar Deepak Das, who opposed the Bill as per party directions. The Congress could not bring the Bill. [The two MPs had snatched the copy of the Bill from the then external affairs minister]. The BJP government brought the Bill and passed it . They gave land of Assam to Bangladesh. The present Chief Minister was then the state BJP president. He and S S Ahluwalia had gone to the Karimganj border , hoisted the national flag and said they would not give an inch of land to Bangladesh. But they could not oppose the Bill.
(The interview was conducted in Assamese)