10 JANUARY 2019
The BJP is recklessly reinforcing ethnic and religious fault lines in the Northeast
Protests in the Northeast, especially in Assam and Tripura, over the Centre’s move to push through the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in Parliament highlight the dangerous pre-election adventurism of the BJP. The Bill seeks to confer Indian citizenship to persecuted migrants from the Hindu, Jain, Sikh, Parsi, Christian and Buddhist communities from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh who came to India before 2014. The Bill, contentious in itself for its exclusion of Muslims, is seen by many as a ploy to legitimise the presence of Hindu Bengalis who had reached the Northeast in the aftermath of the birth of Bangladesh in 1971. The BJP’s ally in the Assam government, the Asom Gana Parishad, an ethnic party at its core, called it quits on Monday when the Union Cabinet cleared the redrafted Bill for introduction in the Lok Sabha. It was passed on Tuesday. While the BJP-led governments at the Centre and in Assam have often given the assurance that the extra burden of people is not solely the State’s, the Rajendra Agrawal-led Joint Parliamentary Committee’s report is categorical: “The Assam Government should help settle migrants especially in places which are not densely populated, thus, causing lesser impact on the demographic changes and providing succour to the indigenous Assamese people.” Thus, an alliance with the BJP became politically impossible for the nativist AGP.
The blowback from the Bill in the Brahmaputra valley is not lost on the BJP either. It has tried to offset the impact with two decisions aimed at appealing to the Assamese electorate. These, the constitution of a committee to resurrect and operationalise the crucial Clause 6 of the 1985 Assam Accord stipulating “constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards for the Assamese people”, and the proposal to accord Scheduled Tribe status to six major communities that are currently classified as OBCs, are of a piece. They are intended to assuage and assure Assamese speakers that the party can merge Hindutva obligations with local interests. The ST status could turn Assam, which has a 34% Muslim population, into a tribal State with a majority of seats reserved. The panel could recommend reservation of seats in the Assembly and local bodies and in jobs for the indigenous populace. The point, however, is that for now the measures count as messaging. The Citizenship Bill and the ST Bill have yet to be passed in the Rajya Sabha. And the panel on Clause 6 has until July 6 to submit its report. The BJP knows that with reverses expected in the rest of the country in the Lok Sabha elections, it needs to retain, if not augment, its seats from Assam to come anywhere close to its 2014 haul. It is doing all it can ensure that, but with little thought to the ethnic and communal fault lines it is aiding.
Kim Jong-un’s visit to China is likely to force next steps after the Singapore summit
The visit to China of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, at the invitation of President Xi Jinping, is significant for two distinct reasons. It is evidence of the continuing calm in the Korean peninsula for nearly a year since the thaw between Pyongyang and Washington that culminated in the Singapore summit in June 2018. The meeting also coincides with the resumption of trade negotiations this week between U.S. and Chinese delegations in Beijing. Expectations are that the dialogue between the regional neighbours could impact the trade dispute between the world’s two largest economies. Whereas Mr. Xi is keen on securing sanctions relief for Mr. Kim, U.S. President Donald Trump will be equally eager that his peace deal continues to resonate in the region and beyond, notwithstanding the practical hurdles it has encountered. The Xi-Kim meeting cannot have overlooked the stalled progress on the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula that Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump agreed on in Singapore. The American and North Korean leaders have in recent days reiterated their willingness to schedule another bilateral summit, a hope they have held out for months. But unlike the ambiguous promises issued in the Singapore declaration, Mr. Kim now wants to talk specifics. This could raise the stakes beyond diplomatic niceties and sound bites. In his New Year address, he emphasised the easing of economic sanctions as a priority, on which Beijing’s diplomatic clout could prove critical despite the lack of movement on the nuclear question. In that speech, Mr. Kim also insisted on a permanent end to the annual joint military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea. Another demand was for multilateral negotiations to declare a formal end to the Korean war in place of the truce that has obtained since 1953. The latter issues have acquired greater weight in view of the ongoing rapprochement between Seoul and Pyongyang. This is exemplified by their decision to convert the Demilitarised Zone that separates the two countries into a peace park, and to disarm the joint security area.
Formal negotiations between North Korea and the U.S. have made little headway since the Singapore summit. Access to North Korea’s nuclear installations has proved elusive to U.S. officials. The sudden cancellation of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Pyongyang last August was an indication of the stalemate. A North Korean test of a new tactical weapon in November was seen as a way to pressure Washington for concessions, if not a return to the hostile posturing of previous years. The uneasy calm that has been sustained on the peninsula for over a year now is no doubt a respite from Pyongyang’s successive nuclear tests to rattle the U.S. mainland. But Washington is impatient for information on the North Korean weapons stockpile. Pyongyang is anxious about sanctions relief. Something has to give.