For former Assam Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, life appears to have come full circle. He is back in agitation mode that arguably made him — to the world beyond — the most talked-about and recognisable regional political face in the northeastern India since 1979. Behind the rejuvenation of the revolutionary, albeit mellowed, in him is the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, that the BJP at the Centre wants to push through. The Bill seeks to fast-track the process of citizenship to non-Muslim migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
Why has he hit the streets?
Mr. Mahanta, 67, was one of the first to “foresee the demographic damage” the Bill is expected to bring about in Assam, where politics has revolved around the issue of illegal immigrants, primarily from Bangladesh, for almost five decades now. In 2017, he formed a platform of Assam agitation veterans for rallying support against the Bill. The Asom Andolan Sangrami Mancha, mostly comprising leaders loyal to Mr. Mahanta, is nowhere near the All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad that was formed on August 26, 1979, to lay the foundation for a violent anti-foreigners’ movement that ended with the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985. But the Mancha has been staging rallies, demanding the scrapping of the Bill that seeks to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955. Mr. Mahanta and his team have also taken the fight to New Delhi for building consensus among all parties before the July session of Parliament.
Are people listening?
The All Assam Students’ Union that Mr. Mahanta led during the six-year Assam agitation has been leading the anti-Citizenship Bill movement too. There are other sub-nationalist groups, such as the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti, opposed to the ‘jaatidhwongshi’ or anti-Assamese Bill. The Mancha, too, is playing a role in generating opinions, though it is seen as Mr. Mahanta’s fight for relevance in the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) that he co-founded in 1985 and extracting his pound of flesh from the BJP that he helped gain a foothold in Assam through a suicidal alliance in 2001. As someone who graduated from an allegedly parochial student leader to an inclusive political entity, he has been trying to ensure his crusade against the Bill does not paint him as insular again. Apart from speaking against the BJP and the “dangerous Bill,” he has been trashing the “propaganda” to label him and his movement as anti-Bengali or anti-Hindu. “One must understand Assam has no space for people from other countries, Hindus or Muslims, who came after March 24, 1971, the cut-off date for detecting and deporting illegal migrants,” he says.
Is this a comeback for him?
Emotions associated with the Assam agitation saw the AGP sweep the 1985 elections, and Mr. Mahanta becoming one of India’s youngest Chief Ministers at 33 years. After the initial euphoria, the people realised they had given power to political novices. And Mr. Mahanta soon learned that running a State was not the same as running a students’ body. His first term ended in November 1990, with the imposition of President’s Rule because of the rise of the extremist United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA). Power had also led to an ego war between him and other AGP leaders, leading to a split in the party. The factions reunited for Mr. Mahanta to become Chief Minister again in 1996. This time, he cracked down on the ULFA, but the devil within the AGP struck again as other top leaders formed three factions. Despite allying with the BJP, the AGP lost the 2001 elections and Mr. Mahanta was forced to quit as president of the party he had been heading since its birth. He returned 10 years later to become its president again. He stepped down in 2014 owning responsibility for the party’s Lok Sabha election debacle, but found himself sidelined since the BJP-AGP came to power in May 2016 along with the Bodoland People’s Front.