The Joint Forum Against NRC (National Register of Citizens), a non-political civil society group, protesting against the contentious citizenship law, on Friday alleged that the Union home minister Amit Shah was “bluffing and misleading” the Matua community when he announced at a public meeting in Thakurnagar that the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) would be implemented in Bengal after the completion of the COVID-19 vaccination drive.
“The Modi government at the Centre is deliberately issuing these rules now so that they can garner the support of Dalit refugees like Matua, Namasudras, Rajbangshis by hanging on to the roots of “unconditional citizenship” before the assembly elections,” the forum said.
Speaking at a rally in West Bengal on Thursday, Shah said that implementation of the law had to be kept in abeyance “after the country was hit by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020”.
“As soon as the COVID vaccination process ends the process of granting citizenship under CAA will begin. All of you [Matua community] will be respected citizens of this country,” he said, addressing a rally in Thakurnagar, the bastion of the Matua community.
The Matuas are a closely-knit group in the state belonging to the Namashudra (Dalit/SC) community, who migrated from Bangladesh during and after partition. They are heavily dependent on the CAA. The community sided with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the last Lok Sabha elections which resulted in a win for the saffron party in the seats of Bongaon and Ranaghat – which have the highest concentration of Matuas.
Citizenship as a political tool?
Fourteen months after the passage of the citizenship bill in parliament, the central government has failed in framing, ruling and implementing the law.
“The law clearly states that “certificate of naturalisation” or “certificate of registration” would be issued only after one files an application and meets certain conditions. Whereas the Matuas want unconditional citizenship, but no such provisions contained in the law that has been passed. This is the reason why framing of rules is being delayed. Union home minister is telling lies to the people of Bengal and bluffing the Matuas,” said Prasenjit Bose, convenor of the forum.
Attacking the Centre, Bose said, “[The] Centre passed two farm bills on September 20, 2020, and notified the rule in one month. If the government can frame the rules for farm laws in a month, why does it take them more than 14 months to frame the rules for CAA?”
So why has the Centre flip-flopped on the implementation of CAA? One possible explanation stems from the crucial upcoming state assembly elections, especially in the states of West Bengal and Assam.
A top BJP leader from Bengal, who didn’t wish to be named, earlier told The Wire, “The party has done an internal survey on CAA and NRC, and after a critical assessment the leaders decided to not make this an issue for the upcoming polls.”
In Bengal, a section of Matua wants CAA to be implemented, while in the northern part of the state, Rajbongshis (a Scheduled Caste group) are against the implementation of CAA.
The TMC has also exploited the NRC/CAA issue, as it has induced fear among Muslims in the state. This strategy has helped the TMC electorally as well. In the 2019 bypolls, held in November in three assembly segments, TMC won all three. Riding on the NRC issue, TMC managed to reverse the Lok Sabha’s trend.
BJP’s Bengal unit is certainly fraught with divisions with respect to the implementation of the CAA, said Shantanu Thakur, the BJP MP from Bongaon, who belongs to the Matua community. On November 22, Thakur openly expressed his disappointment with the party’s position on the roll-out of the CAA and said, “No political party should play with the Matuas. I am not talking about Mamata Banerjee alone. The Matuas are not begging. The CAA must be implemented at the earliest.”
Recently, Thakur and his brother were also not allowed to attend an event organised by a section of Matuas. BJP’s repeated attempts to assure the community on the issue of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act have been unsuccessful so far and resentment against the party and its leaders has only grown.
Biswajit Das, MLA from Bongaon North, who switched to BJP from TMC after the 2019 elections, criticised Thakur and said, “Completion of vaccination drive may take five to ten years, will Matua have to wait till then?”
The forum has decided to organise a march against the CAA to raise awareness against the false promise of giving citizenship to the refugees and to demand the repeal of the two laws CAA 2003 and CAA 2019. The “Citizenship Protection Yatra” will start on February 26 from the border village of Betai and run for a week in the refugee-concentrated areas of Nadia and North 24 Parganas and end on March 5.
“Ordinary people are being fooled in the name of citizenship… We will reach out to them and will try to convince them that BJP is using them just as a political tool,” said Bose.
“The Atal Bihari Vajpayee government created the biggest problem for refugees in 2003 by amending the original Citizenship Act of 1955 as the concept of “doubtful citizen” got woven into the Act. The seed of today’s problem was sowed by BJP back in 2003 by the BJP. It is unfortunate that a section of the leadership of the Matua community, in agreement with the BJP, has now accepted that 2003 law. We demand to repeal both CAA 2003 and CAA 2019,” said Mazar Jameel of the Forum.