Protests during PM visit underline what the northeast needs and what it doesn’t
Acommon complaint in India is the inadequacy of infrastructure. In the northeast particularly, given its geography, it is widely recognised that better connectivity will boost economic activity, including tourism. And yet Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s trip to three northeast states – Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Tripura – was greeted with widespread protests, even as he was dedicating a slew of development projects there. The protests were against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill and they point to the anger that now prevails against BJP in a region where it had made major political inroads over the last few years and where it had been hoping to increase its Lok Sabha tally from 8 to 20 in the coming elections.
The Citizenship Bill presents two serious problems. It is inherently discriminatory as it seeks to dilute filters in the grant of citizenship to Hindus and other minorities from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, but excludes Muslims. In addition, it ignores the long standing anxiety in the northeast about the loss of linguistic and cultural identity in the wake of waves of immigration. BJP’s allies in the region are opposing the bill and even the party’s chief minister in Manipur, N Biren Singh, has called for its review.
This issue overwhelmed the positive dimension of Modi’s visit. For example in Agartala he inaugurated the Garjee-Belonia railway line, in Hollangi he laid the foundation stone for a greenfield airport, he also laid the foundation stone for an all-weather tunnel under Se La. This is a critical mountain pass connecting Tawang to the rest of Arunachal, which will allow faster troop mobility along the border with China, and amounts to a belated recognition of the strategic significance of the region. Separately, in Assam there were announcements about a new bridge across the Brahmaputra and creation of a gas grid.
Modi said the Citizenship Bill will not adversely impact the northeast. But that is unlikely to soothe anxieties in a region which has seen violent conflict over migration. Assam has in the past been challenged by violence and long spells of student agitations over this issue. Other states in the northeast too share Assam’s anxieties. In Manipur, for example, even vendors protested against the bill during Modi’s visit to the region. This bill should be allowed to lapse, more so because NDA doesn’t have the necessary support for its passage in Rajya Sabha.