New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi today, February 6, tactically harnessed Jawaharlal Nehru – a man he has lost no love for – to hit back at the Congress and its opposition to the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).
Modi referred to a letter Nehru purportedly wrote to Assam’s first chief minister Gopinath Bordoloi in 1949, asking him to “absorb” refugees from East Pakistan on the argument that he would have to “differentiate” between Hindu refugees and Muslim migrants.
“Was Nehru communal?” asked Modi, in typical style.
But this clever reference to Nehru’s letter to take on Congress for opposing the CAA is a sharp U-turn from where he and the Bharatiya Janata Party have recurrently posited Bordoloi vis-à-vis Nehru.
The letter that Modi referred to, is most probably the one brought to the public domain in 2006 by then BJP president of Assam, Siddhartha Bhattacharjee.
As per a report in The Telegraph then, Bhattacharjee claimed to have found the letter “among documents belonging to his father, late Gauri Shankar Bhattacharjee.” A Left leader of significant stature in the state, Gauri Shankar Bhattacharjee was considered as having been close to Bordoloi.
The news report had said that Nehru’s “alleged sympathy towards the refugees shines through in his letter…”
[He writes:] “Therefore, we have to absorb them and make provisions for them so that they might be good citizens. In doing this, all provinces have to help and co-operate and it will do no good to a province to refuse co-operation in national work.”
Referring to a cabinet colleague of Bordoloi, who was firmly opposed to the idea of taking in migrants, [Nehru] adds and the newspaper quotes:
“I think he is wrong in this.”
Speaking to reporters then, Bhattacharjee, now a powerful cabinet minister in the Sarbananda Sonowal government, had said, “The letter was a reflection of the pro-migrant stand of the Congress since the days of Nehru.”
That statement by the BJP chief was aired to put Congress in the dock in a state where the issue of undocumented migration has captivated socio-political life since Independence. The Congress has ruled the state for most since freedom.
Modi himself has attempted to give Assamese people the idea that he believes that Bordoloi has been short changed by the Congress. Addressing a rally in Guwahati in February 2014 in the run-up to the parliamentary elections, Modi – then the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate – invoked Bordoloi to present to voters an example that the Congress party allegedly never cared for the state.
As per Modi’s eponymous website, he had said:
“So immersed was the Congress in the worship of one family that they forgot the contribution of others in the freedom struggle”.
In doing so, Modi was only following his party’s line in regard to Bordoloi. It was the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government that conferred on Bordoloi, a Congress leader, the Barat Ratna posthumously in 1990.
It is not difficult to find opinions in Assam that Bordoloi was left out of that honour by the central governments under Congress for taking on Nehru while Bordoloi’s contemporary – B.C. Roy – was bestowed the highest civilian award way back in 1961.
Placing Nehru as the villain of Assam and its problems by often invoking the letter/s to Bordoloi, the BJP has also long maintained that it was him – and him alone – who ‘left’ Assam (and what is Arunachal Pradesh today) to the Chinese during the 1962 aggression.
It is not difficult to find BJP leaders – be it Sarbananda Sonowal (from Assam) or Kiren Rijiju (from Arunachal) – to refer to a line carefully plucked out of a long speech of Nehru – “My heart goes out to the people of Assam” – to emphasise that Nehru had sacrificed Assam then.
However, on February 6, while speaking at parliament, Modi tried using the uneasy Nehru-Bordoloi relations – documented through multiple letters they wrote to each other and repeatedly used by BJP to attack Congress – to support Nehru’s pro-refugee stand on Assam.
Importantly, he did it to lend credence to an Act that Assam has been vociferously opposing, in spite of his party picking votes 2014 onwards in the Brahmaputra Valley with the promise of protecting the region’s ‘jati, mati, bheti’ (in order words, on an anti-migrant stand).
The massive opposition to the CAA in the border state is – by the way – in line with Bordoloi’s guarded stand on refugee or migrant settlement.
A close reading of his letters with Nehru and his cabinet colleague Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel makes it clear that Bordoloi was against haphazard settlement of refugees and migrants from East Pakistan. He cited British colonial history of settling migrants from East Bengal in Assam, leading to conflict on the ground over issues of protecting the rights of the local community.
Many Bengali Hindus in Assam, however, point out that Bordoloi’s statement in the state assembly soon after Independence – “Assam is for Assamese” – was non-inclusive of a set of people who migrated to British Assam after a large swathe of Sylhet went to East Pakistan during Partition.
By invoking Nehru’s words to Bordoloi in the Lok Sabha, Modi has, however, emphasised that be it the then central government, or now with his government bringing in an Act opposed by the people of Assam, the Centre’s stand on migration from East Pakistan or Bangladesh has remained unchanged. And that it may be forced upon people if the Centre so wishes.
Apart from letters with Nehru, Bordoloi also had epistolary run-ins with Patel, whom Modi celebrates, unlike Nehru.
In a letter to him on June 22, 1950, Bordoloi said that his government had already shouldered the responsibility of rehabilitating one lakh new refugees in addition to the 1.25 lakh who came one and a half years ago and some 10,000 of the earlier batch was already allotted land in the state. However, pressure from Nehru and Patel had continued on Bordoloi on the issue.
In a letter to Bordoloi on July 3, 1950, Patel said, “Priority should be given against local sentiment.”
Modi’s mention of Nehru curiously did not invoke Patel’s letter/s to Bordoloi. Indeed, Nehru was not alone in pressurising Assam to allow for the settlement of refugees in the state after Partition.