Guwahati: With just days to go before the final National Register of Citizens (NRC) is published in Assam, the ruling BJP has changed tack.
In July 2018, the party’s national president Amit Shah called all the 40,07,007 applicants left out of the final draft NRC ‘ghuspetia’ (infiltrators) in July 2018. But on August 27, the party’s state unit president, Ranjit Dass, reportedly expressed “unhappiness” and “concern” over the updating of the NRC at a presser this past August 27, just days before the process comes to an official close.
Dass was flanked by BJP state general secretary Phanindranath Sarma and the president and vice president of the BJP minority morcha Muktar Hussain Khan and Toufik Rahman. Shiladitya Deb, a party MLA who has been particularly vocal for a long while about people from his community – Bengali Hindus – being left out of the final draft NRC, was by Dass’s side at the press conference.
Dass told reporters, “We don’t believe that the NRC is going to be an error-free document”. He contended that “names of genuine Indian citizens” would be left out of when it will be published on August 31. This was a significant development because Dass and other top BJP leaders in Assam had previously insisted that Deb’s opposition to the NRC update process was at “an individual level”.
Political observers, opposition leaders and prominent civil society groups in Assam opine that the clear paradigm shift in the ruling party’s stand – from taking credit for the NRC as a mechanism to sieve out “infiltrators” to running it down for excluding “genuine citizens” – is a strategic move.
BJP’s Bengali Hindu voter base
Ajit Bhuyan, a Guwahati-based journalist and political commentator, said, “A section of the national and international press has been running a one-sided campaign that those who would be left stateless by the NRC would only be Muslims. But those with ground knowledge are aware that a large number of Hindus are also likely to be left out of the final NRC. There is a strong likelihood that most of them will be Bengali Hindus, who have been voting for the ruling party.”
Bhuyan’s assessment of the BJP’s considerable base among the Bengali Hindus of the state is not far from the truth. Though the party supported Assam’s anti-foreigner agitation, most BJP candidates lost their electoral deposits in the 1985 assembly polls. The party’s maiden entry into the Assam assembly in 1991 banked on the Hindu Bengali voter base. The support was also because of the BJP/RSS’s established stand that Bengali Hindus migrating from East Pakistan/Bangladesh are “refugees” and only the Muslims are “infiltrators”.
The party’s 2016 win in Assam also marked a significant development because it signified a breakthrough in the Assamese heartland, the Brahmaputra Valley. This was possible through clever use of the slogan to protect the community’s jati, mati, bheti (home, hearth and identity) from “illegal Bangladeshis”.
Congress leader and Nagaon MP Pradyut Bordoloi, when asked about the possible reasons behind the BJP’s sudden change of tack, agreed that it could be concerned about the Bengali Hindu voter base. “The BJP has been polarising the NRC update process on the basis of religion. However, after the final draft was published, they realised that a large chunk of their supposed vote bank, mainly Bengali Hindus, was also excluded. They were initially subdued about it and tried their best to delay the process by creating hurdles,” he said.
He continued, “In the run-up to the general elections, the party tried to bring the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (to give relief to the affected people from the Hindu Bengali community). But it couldn’t get it passed by parliament. However, it did send out a message of reassurance to voters in West Bengal, Assam and Tripura that, ‘rest assured, we will take care of it’.”
Bordoloi said the BJP reaped the electoral benefit of this move. “Then we saw Assam’s advocate general, as the state government’s representative, and the solicitor general, as the Centre’s representative, seeking sample re-verification at the Supreme Court to delay the process. But the honourable court refused to entertain it.”
“Genuine citizens’ being left out”
A top state BJP source who refused to be named said that the party is “questioning” the NRC based on its ground reports that “several of our voters don’t have documents even if they are genuine citizens”. “In some cases, even old documents were rejected by the NRC officers, which was injustice, particularly when we are hearing from the ground that legacy codes were misused by some members of minority (Muslim) community,” the source claimed. “Our party state president also raised these points in the August 27 press meet.”
He added, “But we will do everything to redress such injustice. We will not allow the exclusion of any genuine citizens, be it Hindu, Muslim or Christian. All our party workers have been instructed to help such people get legal aid.”
Aside from the state government announcing on August 27 that it would provide free legal aid through the district legal services authorities to “needy” people (who earn less than Rs 3 lakh per year), Dass also reiterated it.
The Congress too has activated its legal cell to help those left out of the final NRC. Bordoloi defended his party’s move, “There is every likelihood that many genuine citizens would be left out of the final NRC due to technical reasons. Many from religious minority communities, Muslims and Hindus, may be left out for even an anomaly in their names in different electoral rolls or documents.”
He said it is the duty of a responsible political party, be it the BJP or Congress, to help them. “It can be a traumatic experience for those left out for such reasons; it is a human tragedy, so we want to provide support.” He also said, “The BJP is providing legal aid for sectarian interest, but Congress will reach out to all.”
District-wise data released
Several senior reporters and political observers that The Wire spoke to in Guwahati said the clear shift in the BJP’s strategy on NRC could first be gauged from the state minister Chandra Mohan Patowary’s statement in the assembly on August 1. Patowary, the minister for implementation of Assam Accord, disclosed on the floor of the house district-wise break-up of the final draft NRC. This was kept secret by the registrar general of India’s office until then and was only shared in a sealed envelope with the Supreme Court by the NRC coordinator Prateek Hajela.
To seemingly discredit the NRC update process, Patowary tried evoking an old contention among many in the state – that the districts bordering Bangladesh, which are Muslim-majority, hoard “illegal immigrants” and demanded 20% sample re-verification in those areas.
In the August 27 press meet, Dass also accused NRC coordinator Hajela of “carrying out the revision work based on his own opinion and those of two to three organisations, after the SC asked chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal not to interfere in the process.” Though Dass didn’t name the “two to three organisations”, the general contention in the state is that he meant the All Assam Students Union (AASU).
Two days later, at a press meet in Guwahati, the AASU reacted, “Political parties seek to protect their vote banks involving both Hindus and Muslims and these criticisms are just a ploy to confuse people.”
“Amit Shah, who is also BJP national president, and chief minister Sonowal had earlier hailed the publication of the draft NRC but suddenly they started criticising the process,” AASU advisor Samujjal Bhattacharjee told reporters.
Aside from AASU, Akhil Gogoi of the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti and Upamanyu Hazarika of the Prabajan Virodhi Manch also accused the BJP of playing vote bank politics by trying to “discredit” the NRC before it is published.
Bordoloi added, “Now, the latest strategy is to question the credibility of the NRC coordinator Hajela, pass the blame to him.” By doing this, he claimed, “The BJP is only trying to pre-empt any backlash from its vote bank post-August 31.”
Bhuyan asked, “Hajela is just a court-appointed officer, why blame him? He is following court orders. Earlier, the Congress called him a BJP/RSS man, and now the BJP accusing him of being biased.” He added, “The final NRC is yet to be published. I ask the BJP, how did you know that so many genuine citizens will be out? Let’s wait for August 31. I agree that people have suffered, there is a lot of harassment, but it is also across communities. Not fair to say only one community has suffered.”
Interestingly, Sonowal, on August 15, called the final NRC a “historic document”. A senior Guwahati-based journalist associated with a prominent Assamese newspaper told this correspondent, “I see the BJP embarking on a three-pronged strategy on the issue. One, the party’s state leadership is sending a message to its voter base, mainly Bengali Hindus and Hindi speaking communities, that we are concerned about you; secondly, the chief minister, often termed Jatiyo Nayak (hero of the community) by the Assamese, is reaching out to the majority Assamese community by calling it a ‘historic document’. He said this a day or two after meeting Amit Shah in New Delhi. This is to try and keep the party’s Assamese voter base intact and lay claim over the NRC. Sonowal also said that a law would be brought to protect genuine citizens. So, he too sent a message to the non-Assamese voter base of the party, that ‘we are working towards a solution’. Thirdly, the Centre, by extending the period of appeal from 60 to 120 days, seems to be buying time to bring some sort of legal relief to the people.”
He said, “I think when Parliament meets in early December, the BJP will try to introduce the Bill and get it passed or try bringing an ordinance to this effect. But it looks like the decision will be taken only after seeing how much damage has the final NRC caused to its voter base in Assam.”
Bhuyan, fresh from a meeting of Asom Nagarik Samaj (Citizens community of Assam) in Guwahati on the NRC issue on August 29, added, “I have stated this in today’s meeting. The BJP’s rejection of the NRC even before it was published is only a design to keep its Hindu Bangladeshi base intact. It is a conspiracy. There is a legal process in place for all those left out of the final NRC, which many others will also go through. What is the harm of everyone availing it, Hindus and Muslims? The Assam Accord doesn’t differentiate anyone based on religion.”
He said, “It is also an attempt to create confusion among the Assamese community and ensure that there is no social acceptance of the NRC by stating that a large number of foreigners (seemingly meaning Muslims) are included in it.”
Bengali Hindu leaders express concern
Shantanu Mukherjee of the All Assam Bengali Hindu Association (AABHA) told The Wire, “We are closely watching the scenario. Let’s see what happens on August 31. Though the national media has been covering stories only about Muslims affected by the NRC update process, we are equally affected. Even our people with pacemakers have been kept in detention centres. We are sure that lakhs of people who voted for the BJP will be excluded on August 31; one of the most affected communities will be Bengali Hindus, aside from some Assamese and tribals.”
Amrit Lal from the Sara Asam Bengali Jatiya Parishad added, “The Bengali Hindu community in Assam is feeling dejected at the moment. They have been supporting the BJP and Narendra Modi. One of the most disappointed lot are those who came from Bangladesh post-1971 due to anti-Hindu riots in that country and banked on the BJP for relief. Not many such people are in Assam because of the 1971 citizenship cut-off date, but a few thousands are. They were hoping to get relief from the party they supported. Now they are told, go through the legal process of the Foreigners’ Tribunals. They don’t know what is awaiting them.”
Some Bengali Hindu leaders from the Barak Valley that this correspondent spoke to also pointed out that Modi, during his 2014 general election campaign, said at a rally that he would close down all the detention centres of the state. “People voted for the party. Instead, ten more are going to be made under his government,” one such leader said.
Mukherjee added, “We also demand that the conditions put in the earlier Citizenship Bill about proving cases of religious persecution in Bangladesh to be eligible for Indian citizenship be removed. How can they prove it? Were they supposed to look for safety first or go collecting proof of persecution?”
The Bengali Hindu leader, however, said, he didn’t support foreigners settling on Assam’s soil. “Assam is a small state, can’t take so much burden. The Centre has full majority. Why can’t it settle such people in different states?” The AASU has also been of the same view since the agitation days about those who might have entered the state after March 24, 1971.
On September 5, the AABHA will stage a dharna at New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar demanding justice for the affected people. “We are getting an overwhelming response to it already. People not just from Assam but other states will join us that day,” Mukherjee said.
Lal, from the Sara Asam Bengali Jatiya Parishad, added, “Politics aside, the biggest issue due to the NRC is at the social level; the delicate relationship between the Assamese and Bengali Hindus has come under threat. The opposition to the Citizenship Bill led to some unfortunate incidents. Over the last few decades, people from the two communities have developed good relations, have inter-married, mainly in the Brahmaputra Valley, where there are more Bengali Hindus than in the state’s Barak Valley. Now, the question is, how much can we allow that to be affected due to the NRC?”