K.L. Chishi, Nagaland’s Congress candidate. (Utpal Bhaskar/Mint)
K.L. Chishi, Nagaland’s Congress candidate. (Utpal Bhaskar/Mint)

Citizenship bill puts a lot at stake in the only Lok Sabha seat in Nagaland

  • Chishi said the bill was at cross purposes with NRC, which seeks to wean out illegal Bangladeshi immigrants
  • Rahul Gandhi said that if the Congress were voted to power, it would not pass the controversial citizenship amendment bill

With only one seat at stake, the contentious citizenship amendment bill has emerged as one of the major issues in Nagaland.

On the one hand, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is part of the ruling alliance at both the centre and in the state, supports the citizenship amendment bill. On the other, its main ruling partner, the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP), doesn’t believe that the bill is an issue for the polls. The bill seeks to grant citizenship to immigrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, who face religious persecution in their countries.

While releasing its manifesto on Monday, BJP reiterated its commitment to enact the bill.

NDPP’s Tokheho Yepthomi, the alliance’s candidate for the sole Lok Sabha seat in Nagaland, however, dismisses the bill being an issue. “The citizenship amendment bill was passed in the Lok Sabha but it was not introduced in the Rajya Sabha because of widespread protests across the states of the North-East. Although individuals talk about the citizenship amendment bill, it will lapse in the Rajya Sabha," he told Mint on Friday.

“The next government will decide whether to move it or leave it," said Yepthomi.

After “the government is formed, the NDA (National Democratic Alliance) partners will meet and discuss. And what will be best for all the stakeholders, it will be decided on that basis only," he said.

Yepthomi is seeking re-election, having won the February 2018 bypoll after chief minister Neiphiu Rio vacated the seat to contest the state elections. Rio formed NDPP in 2017 after a coup against him in the Naga People’s Front (NPF). He came to power with BJP’s support, despite NPF emerging as the largest political party in the state, with the highest representation in the assembly. Yepthomi’s main opposition is Congress candidate K.L. Chishi, a former BJP member and chief minister, and a veteran in Nagaland’s political arena who rejoined the Congress earlier this year.

In Nagaland’s 60-member state legislature, NPF has 27 seats, while NDPP has 17 seats and BJP 12. On 11 April, there will also be a byelection to the Aonglenden assembly constituency, with NDPP and Congress in the fray.

While the Nagas are wary of BJP’s Hindutva agenda, they are equally resentful of Bangladeshi Muslims, who are referred to as “miya" or illegal Bangladeshi immigrants (IBIs).

There has been a history of violence against IBIs, a case in point being the 2007 riots in Mokokchung district, which is home to the Ao tribe.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not campaigned in the state and Yepthomi said it was because he was confident of winning.

Congress president Rahul Gandhi held a rally last week, reportedly drawing a crowd of about 25,000 people.

Gandhi said that if the Congress were voted to power, it would not pass the controversial citizenship amendment bill.

“One of the main issues is the citizenship amendment bill, which was passed in the Lok Sabha. It will again come back," said Congress’ Chishi. Political parties from the North-East believe that the bill was at cross purposes with the National Register of Citizens, which seeks to wean out illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. “Further, the BJP government wants to introduce a uniform civil code. It is dangerous. Once it is enshrined in the Constitution, the special protection to Nagas that Article 371 (A) provides will go. During British rule, the Naga hills under Assam were left as an excluded area. They wanted Nagas to remain on their own, without interference. They didn’t want outsiders to dilute the Naga way of life."

Few in the clergy in the Christian-majority state have backed the Congress, while terming BJP as anti-secular. Warning against the BJP for its support to a uniform civil code, the anti-conversion bill and the citizenship bill, they ask Nagas—in WhatsApp messages and forwards—to be bold “in faith, not in money".

“I don’t know what kind of speeches they give in the mainland. Here, as per the atmosphere that prevails in each state, the leaders speak on those lines only," said NDPP’s Yepthomi.

“This citizenship amendment bill is not an issue at the moment. Since opposition parties don’t have any other point, they are raising this issue," he added.