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I’m ready to campaign in West Bengal on NRC: Sarbananda Sonowal

Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal says he is ready to campaign in West Bengal to counter Mamata Banerjee.

, ET Bureau|
Apr 20, 2019, 11.30 PM IST
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Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal says the recent protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, or CAB, will have no impact on the Lok Sabha elections in the state. In an interview with Shantanu Nandan Sharma in Guwahati, Sonowal also says he is ready to campaign in West Bengal to counter its CM Mamata Banerjee’s opposition to the implementation of NRC (National Register of Citizens) in the state. Edited excerpts:

The BJP is contesting in 10 out of 14 seats in Assam, leaving four to its allies. Will BJP increase its tally from seven last time?
I am confident that with our allies (Asom Gana Parishad and Bodoland People’s Front), we will win 12 seats this time. We are, however, trying our best to win all 14 seats.

Why are you so confident?
It’s because, the people of Assam are expressing their gratitude to Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his affection and respect shown to the state. People here want to see Modiji as prime minister once again. He is a role model in politics today, and people trust him.

How he popularised the Assamese gamosa (cotton towel) in the last five years has been unparalleled. For Assam, the gamosa is a precious piece of cloth that’s not only used for welcoming guests, but is also an indispensable part of our rituals.

The people of Assam are grateful that the prime minister wore it on International Yoga Day. Also, he welcomed each of the 10 ASEAN heads of state (in January 2018) by presenting the gamosa.

Assam witnessed massive protests against the tabling of the CAB. How much of that will be reflected in the election results?
It will have no impact on this poll. It was an issue raked up by the Congress, a few leftists and a section of intellectuals.

But didn’t the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), which you once headed, fiercely oppose the bill?
The environment was created in such a way that the AASU had no choice but to oppose it. Now, it has understood the reality. The Congress and a section of intellectuals started a propaganda against the bill, creating a fear psychosis in the people by saying that several million foreigners will come and grab our land. That is incorrect. The Citizenship Act has been amended nine times earlier. It's a routine matter. And one more point: it's not Assam- or Northeast-specific.

But rather than allaying fears, the BJP has hardened its position in the manifesto which says it is determined to pass the bill. Won't it have an effect on the election?

No, it won't. Yes, we have said that we are determined. But in our manifesto, we have also clearly mentioned that all stakeholders will be taken into confidence before the bill is passed. We will ensure that the identity of the indigenous people - cultural, linguistic or political - will be safeguarded.

What's your realistic estimate of the number of Bangladeshi Hindus who will be Indian citizens once the bill is passed?
One can't estimate the number right now, as the updating of the NRC is still on. As you know, the names of 40 lakh people were not in the draft NRC. We have learnt that 36 lakh of them filed claims and objections. A clarity (on the number of Hindu Bangladeshis in Assam) will come only after July 31 by when the final NRC draft will be ready, as per the deadlines set by the Supreme Court. So, the number could be 2 lakh or 4 lakh; we won't know till the NRC is ready. No new Hindu Bangladeshi will come because of the amendment, as the deadline set was December 2014. To apply for citizenship, one should have entered India six years before the deadline, by 2008, due to religious persecution.

Once the bill turns into act, one can apply for citizenship through the local district magistrate. After initial verification the application will reach the state headquarters which, in turn, will check it again before forwarding it to the Centre, which will verify it again. The central agencies will see whether there was any religious tension in the native country of the applicant at the time mentioned in the affidavit.

So, there will be many checks before Indian citizenship is granted to an applicant.

Your ally AGP left the alliance during the protests against the bill and then quickly returned to the fold ahead of the polls. Many say it was just political drama.
They returned to us because both the BJP and the AGP want a smooth journey in this election and win the maximum number of seats.

The AGP returned unconditionally, and it was strategic. The combination is already clicking on the ground.

Your party dropped five sitting MPs - from Nagaon, Tezpur, Jorhat, Guwahati and Mangaldoi - who played a key role in building the party in Assam. Won't you concede that a new brigade has now taken over the party, pushing the veterans out?
No. The very fact that none of those MPs (who were dropped) is rebelling means that they are all devoted and disciplined soldiers of the party. And we do recognise their contributions towards making our party stronger.

The Supreme Court has recently expressed unhappiness over the implementation of the NRC and has questioned the state government on why the elections and the updating of the NRC can't happen simultaneously...
The updating of the NRC is being done under the strict supervision of the Supreme Court. We have wholeheartedly extended our support to the process.

Imagine, 55,000 Assam government employees have been working day and night to prepare a correct NRC.

The NRC and the CAB have become election issues in West Bengal as well. Will you be campaigning there?
I am ready to campaign in West Bengal or anywhere else if my party directs me. Mamata didi (West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee) is losing ground, and that's why she has become a troublemaker on every issue, including NRC. At times, she is compromising our national interest.

It's well known that illegal immigrants have been residing in West Bengal. Isn't the NRC a matter of national interest? Every state in India should have an NRC.

In most parts of India, the RSS cadre silently helps the BJP during elections. Is that happening in Assam too this time?
We consider the RSS cadre as honest, devoted and disciplined citizens working selflessly for the betterment of the society. The RSS has a presence in Assam, but their cadre is apolitical.
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