In the days and months ahead, Bengal is set to walk a tight-rope between the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. Welded together, one can no longer be dissociated from the other. Both complement and strengthen the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) ideology of transforming India into a Hindu rashtra.
In the BJP’s political and ideological agenda, Bengal occupies a special place. It is the state where the party hopes to come to power in 2021, when assembly elections are scheduled. Partitioned twice in the past, Bengal has experienced the impact of communal politics from close quarters. Time and again, from 1947 to 1971, the state has also absorbed successive waves of refugees.
Now, after over five decades, people in Bengal are once again staring an impending human catastrophe, massive displacement, and dislocation in the face. Several questions arise at this moment: How will the people of this historically sensitive state respond to the crises generated by the NRC and Citizenship Act, threatening to deal yet another body blow to the state’s population? Will the Hindus bite the Citizenship Act bait and support the NRC? Will the Citizenship Act diminish their apprehensions about the NRC which, if implemented in Bengal, could strip tens of thousands of not just Muslims, but Hindus as well, of their citizenship?
Till recently, such apprehensions lurked in the minds of ordinary Hindus. The final NRC published in August, rendering 19 lakh people stateless – among them, at least five lakh displaced Bengali Hindus – triggered panic among inhabitants of the state. Union home minister Amit Shah’s aggressive posturing, his repeated declaration of intent to implement the NRC in Bengal and the rest of the country, only deepened these anxieties.
“Mamata Di is saying she will not allow NRC in Bengal. I’m telling you that we will not allow even a single intruder inside India. We will expel all of them,” Shah said at a rally in Kolkata on October 1, going on to add: “We are working towards changing Bengal.”
“Both Muslims and Hindus were becoming increasingly anxious about the NRC. They were afraid of being left out of the citizenship register,” says Abdul Halim (name changed), a Muslim scholar in Malda. The fear psychosis helped Mamata Banerjee gain rapidly shrinking political ground in last month’s three by-polls, with the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) riding to victory in all three constituencies.
The BJP’s resounding defeat, especially the loss of Kharagpur Sadar constituency, represented by the party’s Bengal president Dilip Ghosh prior to his becoming member of the Lok Sabha, rang the alarm bells for the party. This was the first electoral contest between the TMC and the BJP after the saffron party chalked up its tally from two to 18 seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. Aspiring to come to power in the assembly elections two years from now, Bengal’s BJP leaders were worried that Shah’s declarations about a nation-wide NRC were hurting the BJP’s poll prospects in the state.
The passage of the Citizenship Amendment Bill on December 12, however, could provide the BJP with a political shield. “Before the CAB was passed in parliament, it seemed we were ready to give the BJP a fight,” observes Halim. “We were hoping Hindus, too, would resist the NRC. But with Rajya Sabha passing the Bill, Muslims may now be left alone to their lonely fight,” he says. The Act promises citizenship to non-Muslim refugees from the Muslim majority countries of Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Aiming to pacify fears sparked by the large-scale exclusion of Hindus from the NRC in Assam, the Bill is a precursor to a nationwide push for the NRC.
Will the ploy work in Bengal?
Large sections of people from lower castes, who migrated from former East Pakistan to West Bengal, could find merit in CAB. The Matua community, the largest bloc among the Namasudras of Bengal, could welcome the CAB. Namasudra migration to Bengal has been going on since 1971. Their population, which stood at about 11% of Bengal’s total in 1971, went up to 17% in the 2001 Census.
The Citizenship Amendment Act, 2003, passed by the first NDA government, refused citizenship to those who migrated to West Bengal after March 25, 1971. “In one stroke a sizeable section of Matua community became stateless,” historian Sekhar Bandopadhyay said in an interview to The Wire earlier this year. “Their one major demand now is repealing the 2003 Citizenship Amendment Act. Mamata Banerjee is powerless to grant that demand,” he further pointed out.
In 2009, the Matua Mahasangha successfully mounted a legal defence for “illegal” migrants, arrested under the Act, and won the case. The new Act meets the citizenship demand made by this community. One also has to keep in mind the historical narrative of tension between lower castes and Muslims in Bengal.
Prior to the Assam NRC, large sections of Hindus in Bengal, cutting across class and caste lines, found nothing wrong or unethical in the BJP’s ploy to push Bangladeshi Muslims out of the state. Abetted by the party’s strident anti-Bangladesh campaign, sentiment against Bangladeshi Muslims ran high. At a broader level, anti-Muslim sentiment more generally gained ground in Bengal. The BJP’s agenda of welcoming Hindus as refugees while projecting Muslims/Bangladeshis as ‘infiltrators’ paid dividends in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
The Assam NRC punched holed in the security shield for Hindus. It drove Hindus and Muslims alike to scramble for citizenship documents. Halim talks about the tragic situation unfolding in his village in Malda: “Many among the poor and unlettered people in my village do not know their date of birth. I know a family, where all three sisters put the same year as their individual years of birth.” Or take the example of one Abdul Rahim whose name is registered differently in separate documents. “None of these will stand the NRC scrutiny,” he says. The Muslim community worries that CAB will further push them into a corner.
Civil society groups and non-political party collectives critical of the NRC are stepping up their campaign. Muslims in Bengal are anxious to know whether the state government will have the powers and the jurisdiction to stall the NRC. Can the Centre overrule the state government in this sphere? Then there’s the prospect of the BJP petitioning the Supreme Court.
From the outset, chief minister Mamata Banerjee has made it clear that her dispensation will not implement the NRC in Bengal. The passage of the CAB now lends urgency to that resolve. Besides planning a series of high-profile rallies against the CAB-NRC project, TMC leaders have started to campaign at the grassroots.
The TMC, as well as civil society organisations, are aware that the CAB could shift the ground beneath their feet, blunting opposition to NRC by giving Hindus a sense of security. They believe that the success of their campaign will hinge on how far they are able to convince Hindus that the law (CAB) will not help them achieve citizenship. They believe they have to inform the people about the Joint Parliamentary Committee’s depositions on the Bill. The home ministry’s Intelligence Bureau, in its deposition, clearly said that anyone applying for citizenship under the amended law will have to “prove that they came to India due to religious persecution.” The Bureau maintained that such a claim “would have had to be made at the time the person entered India”.
By giving virtually all non-Muslim communities a path to citizenship, the Citizenship Act ingeniously drives a wedge between people who otherwise should be allied because they are all equally vulnerable. This, in turn, makes any attempt to create a broad coalition against this terrifying law immensely difficult. In Bengal as elsewhere, it remains to be seen whether the opposition is up for the challenge.