As West Bengal’s assembly elections approach, there is increasing speculation about how the Citizenship Amendment Act will impact Dalit votes in the state. In this interview with the All India President of the Joint Action Committee for Bengali Refugees (JACBR) Sukriti Ranjan Biswas, Dwaipayan Sen explores various aspects of this significant issue.
Even though the CAA and NRC have been widely acknowledged as discriminatory towards Muslims in particular, there is an assumption that it will serve the interests of Hindus. Do you think this is true with respect to Dalits in West Bengal? Why, or why not?
It’s commonly known that the BJP is a party driven by Hindutva ideology. In the Indian context, this means that the party is naturally anti-Muslim. But I’d like to begin this discussion with a reminder that the party is in equal measure anti-Dalit Hindu. If we forget this fact, then any discussion of CAA and NRC will be misleading, as in fact we can already see. We must not forget how the BJP’s wishes to deceive Dalit Hindus by their calls for Hindu unity.
The CAA 2019 is a useless and innocuous law. It is useless in the sense that it cannot give Indian citizenship to immigrants residing in India illegally. Especially Bengali immigrants who have been displaced from their original homeland in East Pakistan or Bangladesh…they cannot acquire citizenship by fulfilling the conditions of this Act. In fact, the issue of citizenship applies mostly to Bengali immigrants. It applies to Hindu or Sikh immigrants from (West) Pakistan or Afghanistan too, but their numbers are insignificant, and they can acquire Indian citizenship under this law. It can be said that this law was designed with these numerically insignificant people in mind.
The CAA 2019 is also an innocuous law in the sense that it does not actually harm anyone directly. It is not possible even for Muslims to lose any of their rights, now or in the future, under this law. It’s not possible for the CAA to break the limitation of the earlier 2014 deadline. Hence it’s incorrect to infer that this law is a significant step on the way to creating Hindu Raj in India.
I believe the reason for the failure to appreciate the nature of the CAA is that a number of ill-intentioned political parties have succeeded in confusing people about it. As a result of this confusion, some Hindu (Dalit) refugees have come to believe that they will be granted Indian citizenship on the strength of this Act. Some others, particularly Muslims, believe that many among them will be denied citizenship on the basis of the CAA, and will either be imprisoned in detention camps or be expelled from the country.
In this manner, both the BJP and the opposition parties have been deceiving people for their own partisan interests, and creating confusion among them. And among the people who I claim are being deceived and confused, I especially include students, teachers, as well as intellectuals among ordinary people. Even educated people have become victims of this deception.
Why do you think certain sections of Bengali Dalits are in favour of these measures?
Many Dalit refugees (among other refugees) believe – despite many hesitations and dilemmas – that the CAA makes it possible for them to acquire Indian citizenship. In fact, no other party or government is saying anything about solving the problem of citizenship for refugees. The opposition is only asking for the repeal of the CAA, and don’t even have an alternative proposal.
The only hope the refugees have – however tenuous – is in the BJP. Section 2(1)(b) of the Citizenship Act identifies the refugees as illegal immigrants. But the CAA frees them of this label. Many of them believe – correctly – that the CAA saves them from arrest or being sent to a detention camp. Many refugees view this positively, and hence support the CAA.
To the refugees, any demand by the opposition to repeal the CAA sounds as if the opposition is agitating for the refugees to be confirmed as illegal immigrants again, as required by Section 2(1)(b) of the original (unamended) CAA. It is for this reason that the refugees see no alternative to supporting the BJP. Moreover, the refugees are irritated by the opposition parties demanding the repeal of the CAA only on the basis of the exclusion of Muslims. The opposition is, therefore, losing the support of the refugees, and the BJP’s strategy of polarisation between Hindus and Muslims is thus proving to be successful.
What do you think is the true agenda behind the passage of the NRC and CAA? If they proceed as intended, what could be the consequences for West Bengal in particular?
The NRC should have been implemented nation-wide much earlier, but wasn’t. It’s not an argument that it can’t be introduced now because it wasn’t earlier. A necessary process that should have been started earlier needs to start. BJP now claims to have started it.
In our country, and perhaps in others too, whenever those in power introduce certain necessary measures for the people, they keep in mind the interests and advantages of both the state and the nation, but do not neglect the interests of their own political parties. The BJP does this too.
Through the NRC process, they would like to disenfranchise a certain number of Muslims and Dalit Hindus by denying them citizenship, because neither of these two groups are their natural allies. The NRC process offers the BJP a legal and documented means of denying citizenship to the poor, the illiterate, the politically unaware and weak. Disenfranchising 1-2% of the population is enough to intimidate many others. Especially because Dalits across the country are raising the slogan “Vote hamara, raj tumhara, nahin chalega!” (‘We won’t accept an order where we have the vote and you have the power!’), it becomes necessary for the BJP and other upper casteists to find a way to threaten them. That’s why they wish to destroy the Dalit’s incipient desire for power at its very root.
The NRC and CAA also offer a process for religious polarisation. They have started to disrupt plans of Dalit-Muslim unity that were gradually gaining ground. Creating a cheap source of labour may also be an economic motivation behind such measures. The ability to negotiate better working conditions for a disenfranchised working class will be weakened, as will the ability of the regular working class (with citizenship rights) as they compete with the disenfranchised. It is in the BJP’s interest to keep the people of the country in a permanent state of pressure, as it helps to distract their attention from real economic issues.
Do you believe the BJP’s Hindutva programme has proved, and will prove, successful in West Bengal?
Contrary to widespread belief, of all the states in India, the Hindutva ideology has its greatest influence in WB. This is an unprecedented success for the Manuvadi system of education and for the media. The practice of the Hindutva agenda has for a long time had its most successful practice in Bengal. Here, the ideological strategy of Hindutva and the manifestations of casteism are quite separate.
For example, when the Abolition of Untouchability Bill was proposed in the Central Legislative Assembly in 1933, it was Bengal that led with the most opposition, much to the surprise of even the British.
Now the question is: will the BJP meet with electoral success in West Bengal? It doesn’t appear as if the upper-class Bengalis would accept the kind of direct confrontation that Hindutva supporters would favour. But the BJP does favour such an approach. To spread Hindutva ideology, upper-class Bengalis would prefer to continue the current strategy of hiding behind the curtain of progressivism, even if it means that the BJP does not come to power in the state.
Adopting the BJP’s hard-line Hindutva in West Bengal runs the risk of precipitating a rebellion against it, which might be difficult to control. This is because unlike in other states, the upper caste population in WB is relatively insignificant, far exceeded by the combined Muslim and Dalit populations (around 65%). Despite this, it can be said that Hindutva strategy has meanwhile succeeded in WB. It has achieved complete polarisation between Hindus and Muslims. Which party remains in power, now or in the future, is a secondary concern.
How successful has the BJP been in earning the support of Bengali Dalits?
The ordinary Dalit in the state supports the BJP. In the past, this was because of the Hindutva agendas of the Congress, the Left Front and the TMC, and because of the discipline demanded by the respective parties. Dalits have never received justice in the past. They have been discriminated against in all fields – whether sharing power within the party, participation in government, opportunities in education, in the administration of justice, in propaganda and in questions of political power. In every single field, the BJP has succeeded in deceiving them by raising their hopes with promises of progress and dreams of revenge. Many Dalits have thus been entrapped by the BJP. I don’t know if this too is a new strategy of the Brahminists.
What do you see as the main prospects for resisting the BJP’s efforts to make inroads into West Bengal?
In West Bengal, the medicine itself is poisoned. How can the BJP be stopped when every party shows crypto-Hindutva tendencies? The INC, the CPI(M), the TMC all believe that Kashmir is an integral part of India, they are all happy at the passing of the triple talaq law, they all believe and propagate the myth that the 1946 riots were a criminal conspiracy by Suhrawardy to massacre Hindus, they all believe that Muslims and the Muslim League were responsible for the partition of India and Bengal, that it’s the oppression of Muslims that’s driving Hindus out of hearth and home, that Muslims are evil.
All parties believe that Muslims are terrorists, that Swami Vivekananda represented the ideal man, that (caste-based) reservation is a bad policy. They all believe that the bhadralok class are the bearers of Indian civilisation, and that others are inferior and uncivilised. So how do they differ from the BJP? How can these parties fight the BJP? They are effectively all silent because whatever weapon they bring against the BJP boomerangs against them. It’s a walkover for the BJP. The past activities and decisions of the opposition parties are obstacles in their own path.
The only way to stop Hindutva or the BJP in Bengal or in India is to forge a political alliance and unity between Muslims and Dalits. But this is a very difficult task. Because the Brahminists in every opposition party recognise the threat from that one source, all parties and the media actively and collectively seek ways to do everything in their power to concoct conflicts between Dalits and Muslims, and disrupt any move towards their unity.
Despite this, in the present circumstances, the struggle to stop the BJP must continue. If the opposition parties cannot unite to achieve this aim, it’s for the people to put up candidates strongly opposed to the BJP, and cast their votes in their favour. 32% of the electorate in WB is Muslim. While this makes it difficult for the BJP to seize power in WB, it also leaves an opening for the BJP to harp on Muslim strength, movement and organisation, thus stoking fear among Hindu voters to win their votes.
Do you see any promise in the long-awaited hope for Dalit and Muslim political unity and/or cooperation in the state?
Conditions are not favourable for forging political unity among Dalits and Muslims. Whatever little there was has now disappeared. But changes in political situations and contexts do not follow mathematical laws. Hence the efforts to that end should continue. We may find light if we can pierce through the depths of the surrounding darkness. But let there be no doubt that a deep darkness has descended on both the country and the state [of WB].
What, in your view, are the best strategies to undo the NRC and CAA?
I think the demand to repeal the CAA and the NRC is mistaken. In the present circumstances, we need a movement to declare 2014 as the base year for the issuance of identity cards and completing the NRC. In other words, another CAB should be introduced to pass a CAA that will provide citizenship and identity cards to all those – both original Indians as well as displaced refugees – who can furnish satisfactory documentary proof that they have lived in India since before 2014. I believe such a demand will have the support both of popular opinion as well as the force of logic. Both the BJP and the Opposition will have no alternative but to lend their support to the proposal.
Dwaipayan Sen is a historian of modern South Asia.