As the entire region broke into celebration as the Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2019 could not be introduced in the Rajya Sabha, one name that echoed across the region was of Conrad Sangma. The chief minister of Meghalaya leading the Meghalaya Democratic Front and working as the president of the National People’s Party (NPP) played a crucial role in coordinating and ensuring that Northeast unitedly rejected the bill.
Conrad Sangma’s party is a part of the BJP-led North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA). Despite this, his government was the first one to pass a resolution opposing the bill. From the very beginning Sangma has been clear that if the bill is passed, he will not hesitate to quit the NEDA. Sangma’s stand cannot be dismissed as political populism.
Sangma was quick to raise above the narrow concerns of his own state and took it upon himself to coordinate a concerted opposition to the bill. He made it clear that his party, which backs governments in Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur, will walk out of the governments if the centre goes ahead with passing the bill.
While Assam’s political leaders, who were once the torch bearers of Assamese subnationalism, bowed down to majoritarian rhetoric of the central government, Conrad Sangma rose to the occasion. He quickly convened a meeting of 11 Northeast political parties to strategise about how to protest against the bill. Interestingly seven out of the 11 parties are NDA alliances. Conrad still succeeded in getting them on board.
Conrad Sangma in a way paved the way for other chief ministers of the region to clearly stand that they will oppose the bill tooth and nail. Sangma did not quaver even after the prime minister and home minister assured that as this bill was not specific to the northeast, the burden of these new citizens will be shared by other states as well. This did not convince Sangma and others as grappling with the problem of illegal immigration, these state leaders are aware of the fact that people coming from Bangladesh would undoubtedly settle in the Northeast region.
Kiren Rijiju’s assurances also sounded hollow. Rijiju’s own state government under Pema Khandu also came out against the bill. So did Mizoram’s Zoramthanga, Manipur’s Biren Singh and Nagaland’s Neiphiu Rio. While Tripura government did not go against the central government, its ally the IPFT (Indigenous Peoples’ Front of Tripura) not only opposed the bill alongside other political parties, but also staged massive protests against the government. The Tripura police opened fire injuring a number of IPFT members. The Tripura government went one step ahead and charged the tribal leaders who protested against the bill with sedition.
Conrad Sangma in such a scenario stood by his people. The region witnessed unprecedented solidarity cutting across political spectrum. And Sangma played a crucial role in making it happen. The meeting that he convened was attended by Mizo National Front from Mizoram, Nationalist Democratic Progress Party (NDPP) from Nagaland, IPFT from Tripura, Sikkim Democratic Front from Sikkim, Asom Gana Parishad along with NPP leaders from Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Manipur. Leaders from JD (U) also attended the meeting, assuring to vote against the bill.
The big brother BJP failed miserably to browbeat Conrad. Conrad Sangma ensured that he succeeded in uniting the regional parties of the Northeast states and create a unanimous voice among the leaders of the Northeast states against the bill. He emerged as a leader amid all this.
For many, he carried forward the legacy of his father Purno Agito Sangma, a veteran political leader who served as the chief minister of Meghalaya from 1988 to 1990 and the speaker of Lok Sabha from 1996 to 1998. Like PA Sangma, Conrad also gave top priority to the people of the region.
When the bill lapsed and is bound to die a natural death as the session of the Parliament comes to an end, many applauded Conrad Sangma for his role. He on his part however humbly stated that it was not a single person’s work but a team effort. He took cognisance of the role of various student organisations, civil society groups in ensuring that the bill is thwarted.
He was so committed to see to it that the bill is not passed that in the last days of the Parliament session, he stayed in Delhi and met with other political leaders and MPs. With Conrad Sangma, the NPP also emerged as a powerful regional force. Conrad Sangma has stated that as a political party NPP wants to have a greater presence in the region. As such it aims to contest in all 25 seats in the Northeast in 2019 elections and all 60 seats in Arunachal Pradesh Assembly elections. NPP led by Conrad aims at playing a crucial role in voicing the concerns of the people of the region and provide them a common platform to champion the cause of the Northeast.
This entire episode saw the rise and decline of two leaders. While Assam’s chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal faced large-scale criticism for bowing to the wishes of the centre, Conrad Sangma looked BJP straight in the eye and opposed the bill. He made it clear that he does not want to be just a junior partner in the alliance and laid down his terms. He minced no words when he said that if the bill is passed, not only in Meghalaya but BJP government will be destabilised in Manipur as well. Biren Singh’s government in Manipur is dependent on the 4 NPP MLAs for the magic number of majority.
Conrad Sangma stepped in when our own leaders in Assam failed us. He is the new age leader. He has the guts to move beyond political rhetoric and do what needs to be done. He also played a crucial role in maintaining a bridge of connection with leaders of mainland India. He ensured that they were aware about the region’s stand on the bill. He gave the much needed lead and momentum to the northeastern states’ opposition to the bill. People in mainland India and the region should take note – a leader has arrived.