Guwahati, Assam – Three months ago, Jadav Das was among the men from the northeastern state of Assam who staged a naked protest in front of the parliament building in New Delhi.
They stood, holding a banner that read, “No citizenship on the basis of religion. Scrap the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB), 2016”, referring to the contentious bill pushed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi‘s government.
The bill that would grant citizenship rights to undocumented non-Muslim immigrants, sparked protests in the country’s northeast region that is home to a large immigrant population. Last year, nearly four million people were left out of the draft National Register of Citizens in Assam.
But critics say that Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – which runs the government both at the centre as well as in Assam state – wants to amend the citizenship law to accommodate Hindu immigrants.
Das, who runs a cloth business in Narayanpur, a town in Lakhimpur district in upper Assam, said the protest was so effective that the bill could not be passed in the Rajya Sabha (the upper house of parliament).
There’s no trace today of the anger that made him strip in the New Delhi winter. He is now an enthusiastic campaigner for the BJP. He left his organisation, the Anusuchit Jati Yuba Chatra Parishad (AJCP), which represents Dalit or Scheduled Caste students, and formally joined the Hindu nationalist party on April 6.
“We were brainwashed back then about the havoc of foreigners that CAB will wreak on Assam,” Das told Al Jazeera.
“But Bhaskar Gogoi [a senior state BJP leader], explained how CAB will not affect our jaati [community], bhasha [language] and sanskriti [culture],” he said.
The contentious bill
The contentious bill, which is one of the main promises in the BJP’s manifesto, seeks to provide citizenship through naturalisation to “persecuted” Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Jains and Buddhists fleeing Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
But Assam’s indigenous population fear that the new bill will encourage more Hindu immigrants to come to India.
Political observers believe the CAB may backfire on the BJP but a sizable section of Hindu immigrants will back the right-wing party.
Bengali-origin Muslims, on the other hand, who form over one-third of the state’s 32 million population, have been dubbed “infiltrators” by supporters of the bill and more recently “termites” by the BJP National President Amit Shah.
Activists and opposition leaders say that citizenship based on religion contravenes the 1985 Assam Accord aimed at restricting the entry of undocumented immigrants from Bangladesh.
The Assam Accord was a culmination of a six-year-long state-wide agitation between 1979 and 1985 against immigrants, both Hindus and Muslims, who fled civil war in Bangladesh.
The Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), once a powerful regional party born out of the anti-foreigner agitation of the 1970s and 1980s, recently walked out of a coalition government headed by the BJP in the state over the contentious bill.
But it walked right back into the alliance within two months, for the national elections. The AGP is now straddling the seemingly contradictory positions of being both pro-BJP and anti-CAB even as it faces internal rebellion.
One of the AGP’s most senior leaders and former chief minister, Prafulla Mahanta, said that the alliance is important for the BJP, not the AGP.
“People believe only the AGP can protect them, not any other regional or national party as Shah’s statement has proven. They can’t trust the BJP,” he told Al Jazeera.
During the agitations for the Assam accord, many of the AGP’s leaders were young activists of the All Assam Students Union (AASU), which spearheaded the movement.
The AASU is one of the strongest critics of the BJP’s CAB and it wants all undocumented immigrants to be deported from the state, not just Muslims.
It led 70 civil society organisations against the citizenship bill earlier this year. Along with the All Assam Minority Students’ Union (AAMSU), AASU activists have conducted door-to-door campaigns urging people to defeat the BJP and vote for parties opposed to the CAB.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, AASU leader Samujal Bhattacharya said that the BJP’s proposal that only Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and Christians will be granted citizenship, dilutes clause five of the Assam Accord which says that all those who migrated after 1971 should be left out of the citizenship register.
Bhattacharya insisted that basic life and livelihood issues would influence voter behaviour and contested the claim that this election is a referendum on the CAB.
“In [a] democracy, it is [the] people’s right to vote who they want but they’re also observing the situation minutely. If anyone plays politics with us, we know how to react,” he said.
The growth of the right-wing BJP in the state has coincided with increased attacks on Muslims in the state, the latest being the incident where a Muslim “rice hotel” owner in Assam was beaten by a mob for allegedly selling beef and was forced to eat pork.
“Conscientious voters will vote against CAB but many voters here are being bought over by the sea of money that BJP is pumping into this election,” Dilower Hussain, Central Organisation Secretary of the AAMSU told Al Jazeera.
But Bhaskar Papukan Gogoi, a BJP worker, rejected the allegation saying that meetings and discussions with local community leaders have helped clear apprehensions about the bill. “Money may be able to buy one or two people but not the free-spirited people of Assam,” he said.
The BJP’s main rival in the state as well at the national level, the Indian National Congress, is looking to capitalise on the polarisation caused by the CAB to stage a revival in the state.
The Congress, which held power in Assam until it was defeated by the BJP in 2016, is hoping its promise to scrap the CAB will earn it favour not just from the state’s sizable Muslim population but also indigenous groups that hold the Assam Accord to be sacrosanct.
For Ujjwal Bhowmick, a pharmacist in the Bengali-dominated Maligaon area of Guwahati, all parties are capitalising on the fears and paranoia of different communities, whether Hindu Bengalis, Muslim Bengalis or Assamese.
“It’s not like Congress is offering any concrete solution to the problem of foreigners in Assam,” he told Al Jazeera.