Interview: BJP Is on the Backfoot in Bengal, Says Activist Campaigning for Awareness on CAA-NRC

"I have reason to believe that the BJP feels unsettled by the growing consensus in our neighbourhood to boycott the NPR.," said Kasturi Basu from the ‘Humans of Patuli’ project.

Unlike most other states, the campaign against CAA/NRC/NPR in Bengal, is playing out at various levels. Alongside the protest sit-ins by women, citizens’ groups have launched full-fledged campaigns to raise awareness amongst people about the implications of the Citizenship Amendment Act and how the CAA-NRC will impact their lives.

The Wire spoke to Kasturi Basu, an activist in the unique ‘Humans of Patuli’ project, running a door-to-door campaign in the area. Kasturi, who is also a founding member of the People’s Film Collective, tells us about the political and civil society intersections in Bengal and the challenges posed by the RSS/BJP in the state.

There is a lot of confusion amongst people about the two laws – one already notified, and the other proposed (CAA and NRC respectively,) – coupled with NPR that threaten to disenfranchise millions of people. Bengal, perhaps, is the only state where civil society organisations have launched a door to door campaign to create awareness about these laws. You are closely associated with this movement, at the centre of which is the Humans of Patuli project. How did the idea come into being?

The ‘Humans of Patuli’ initiative was formed in December 2019 by nearly fifty residents of the Basihnabghata Patuli Township and surrounding neighbourhood. We held several rounds of meetings among conscientious neighbours. Knowing what we knew, we strongly felt that the ordinary citizen could no longer sit passive. We knew that the need of the hour was run locality-specific sustained micro-level campaigns, taking every local resident into confidence.

A campaign that will bust lies being peddled by the government. If one were serious about stopping the NPR-NRC exercise in its tracks through direct democracy, there is no other alternative. Accordingly, the “NRC-r biruddhe Patuli Nagarik Udyog” (Patuli Citizens’ Initiative against NRC), a mass awareness and local action committee against the NPR-NRC-CAA citizenship matrix, was launched publicly in January 2020.

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Let me also clarify that the NRC is not just proposed, but notified too, in the form of the gazette notification of NPR which has been announced to happen anytime between April and September 2020. The budget allocation for NPR has also been made and the NPR manual 2020 already published by the central government. So, in effect, the all India NRC notification has already been made. That the NPR is unambiguously the first step of the NRC is now known to everyone in Bengal. The NPR has no other legal basis outside of the NRC (also known as NRIC), as per the Citizenship Amendment Rules of 2003 and the recently issued gazette notification, read together. So, the NRC is already thrust upon us, and we have another month’s time left to reach out to every resident of Bengal with the all call of “Boycott NPR” given by almost every group and forum that is part of the movement.

Photo: Humans of Patuli

Are other independent groups doing such micro-level political work? Have political parties in Bengal reacted to the campaigns?

Our local initiative is among a whole spectrum of big and small citizen-led civil society initiatives that have been functioning in villages, towns, suburbs and cities of Bengal ever since the first draft of the Assam NRC came out in August 2018. The “Assam Sanhati Abhijan” was one of the earliest groups from Bengal in this movement.

Then the “Joint Forum Against NRC”, the “No NRC Movement” has come up as umbrella forums and networks of many smaller and localised groups. There are many local groups working specifically in districts of North Bengal. Besides these conglomerate groups, organisations like the Association for the Protection of Democratic Rights, the Bangla Sanskriti Mancha, the Park Circus Swadhinata Andolon 2.0, and several other new and old groups have done sustained and conspicuous work since 2018 and 2019.

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So, I would say that it is truly a mass movement led by a spectrum of civil society organisations working in Bengal. Together, they have done crucial work in bringing mass awareness and clarity, helped formulate demands and educated and mobilised people of the state against the NRC-NPR-CAA regime. In fact, groups in Bengal have been pioneers of the ant-NRC movement in the whole country, much before the CAB became the CAA and the rest of India woke up to respond to the horror of it. This is only natural, because Bengal as a partition-surviving state with a huge refugee and Muslim population has the most to lose (along with Assam). We have highest stakes to avert a large scale displacement and disenfranchisement of our Bengali people. Bengal is next in the line of fire of the Modi-Shah regime.

Photo: Humans of Patuli

Before becoming a part of the Humans of Patuli group, another civil society group I am associated with, the People’s Study Circle, has been working since 2018 on developing movement literature – resulting in three popular Bangla booklets which have been used fairly widely by the movement – to clarify concepts and facts relating to the NPR, NRC and CAA and address concerns about the citizenship tangle in Bengal and Assam, and the Refugee question specific to Bengal. Many other little magazines and reading groups have likewise worked hard in preparing movement literature.

The political parties in Bengal have had their own campaigns which have learnt much from the clarity brought about by the civil society groups. There is reason for optimism in Bengal, since much everyone except the BJP and Sangh Parivar, are a part of the movement against the NRC. There have been many differences and debates which still persist in the movement. The TMC was initially declaring the NPR to be harmless, but later the mass movement built up clarity on the NPR, and now the TMC has changed its stance and opposes NPR.

The CPIM and other Left parties have had to face questions from the civil society led mass movement on their vacillations when it came to taking a principled stand vis-à-vis the Assam NRC, and after that, we have seen less justifications about the Assam NRC from them too. The civil society groups have played an effective rule to keep vigilance alive, and to be campaign pressure groups of sorts from below to influence the political parties.

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Despite large-scale exclusion of Hindus from Assam’s final NRC, there seems to be a perception that the citizenship laws will not affect Hindus. What has been your experience in Kolkata?

This is one of the biggest bluffs. Put bluntly, Namashudras and other Hindu refugees in Bengal have nothing to gain and everything to lose from the CAA, if you carefully go through the fine print of the Act and its preceding legalese. The BJP pretends to be a friend of the Hindu refugees, whereas the fact is that the 2003 Citizenship Amendment Act passed by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee led NDA government was the biggest body blow to Hindu refugees in the history of India.

In one clean sweep of the law, a whole generation of Hindu refugee children born in India were made into potential “illegal immigrants”. That law is the mother of all woes we are seeing today. The CAA 2019 sprinkles more salt on the wound of Hindu refugees. It tries to lure legitimate citizens into becoming asylum seekers with begging bowls. The BJP must be really demented to think that Hindu refugees who have once legally declared themselves to be Indian citizens under NPR, would, later on, revise their stand and declare themselves as asylum-seeking foreigners under CAA, if they happen to find that their names excluded from the NRC? And then they would run from pillar to post to prove their Bangladesh origins and proof of persecution and perceived fear leading to their migration?

This is the biggest insult and a cruel joke on the wounds of refugees. The BJP state president Dilip Ghosh has gone on record stating that Matuas and Gorkhas of Bengal are not citizens and need saving by the BJP – can you believe their audacity? The fact of the matter is that by the NDA governments own admission in the JPC report on CAB/CAA, only 25,447 Hindu refugees who already have long term visa may get benefits of the CAA, and the rest of the Hindus are just being bluffed and insulted.

Photo: Humans of Patuli

Our experience has been that no Hindus are enticed by the CAA. We haven’t met a single Hindu so far who is personally ready to apply via the CAA. We must understand the CAA for what it is – a communal dog-whistle ensconced in a fake refugee-friendly mask that falls off on the slightest prod.

Recently, your campaign was attacked by the BJP. Can you tell us what happened and how you countered their aggression?

Our local campaign has been attacked twice thus far. Just before our campaign went public, a woman student protester from our group, Sudeshna Dutta Gupta, was assaulted by BJP party workers and threatened with sexual and physical violence by BJP state president Dilip Ghosh, when she held a protest sign at his pro-CAA rally in Patuli. She filed an FIR against him.

On February 23, a gang of BJP men barged into my apartment, threatening me for my participation in the local anti-CAA protests. They had the audacity to bring in outsiders to come looking for me inside my apartment to teach me a lesson and threatened repeatedly to skin me alive. After they barged into our building, they tried to create a situation of confrontation on the road outside, but our neighbours, including elderly residents, told off the BJP workers and warned them not to provoke tensions. I have filed an FIR against the group of men who first trespassed into my apartment and then assaulted and threatened me.

Why did they attack me? I have reason to believe that the BJP feels unsettled by the growing consensus in our neighbourhood to boycott the NPR. We counter their aggression through the unity of our neighbours, through a sustained and informed campaign. Hindus and Muslims, we neighbours are in this fight to save our citizenship together.

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Can there be a convergence between sit-in protests like the Park Circus protest, for instance, and campaigns like Humans of Patuli?

Most definitely. Many of our team members have already been regular participants in the Park Circus sit-in. The Park Circus organisers have also invited us to do a film screening in their sit-in, which will happen soon. I believe the way forward would be to boycott NPR committees in every neighbourhood of Bengal, which will be decentralised and yet closely coordinated to give out a single unified message to our fellow citizens. This way we can surely implement and ensure a boycott of the NPR. The spectrum of mass organisations in the movement must work together to ensure this coordination.

How deep is Bengal’s communal polarisation and the threat of communal violence?

The RSS and its many wings have been working overtime to create and sustain communal polarisation. They have been trying to pop up new gods, change traditional rituals and attack the pluralist religious cultures of Bengal. They pathetically try to communalise everything – by selectively projecting cases of gender violence, or attacking Muslim artists and writers who paint and write about Hindu scriptures and deities. It is their full-time job.

Kasturi Basu at a meet. Photo: Humans of Patuli

We all know about the deadly riots they engineered in Asansol and communal violence in the Naihati-Bhatpara-Halisahar jute belt area. The RSS has been trying to target Adivasi and Namashudra areas, with the schools like the informal Ekal Vidyalayas and more formal Saraswati Vidya Mandirs. Their IT cell and “intellectual cell” has been given the task of creating demographic anxiety among Hindus by peddling false and fake propaganda which has been busted time and again. So, they are preparing the ground for communal violence, at the drop of any excuse later on.

The ordinary people of Bengal at large have played a stellar role in thwarting and containing acts of communal violence. There has been increased communal polarisation if you look at the vote results of the 2019 general elections. But beyond electoral politics, they have not managed to create very deep polarisation. In our campaigns, we found out that ordinary people are overall disgusted with and sick of communal rhetoric overshadowing vital issues of lives and livelihoods.

We need to be eternally vigilant though, as we know the riots are often engineered before elections, to reap electoral dividends. After the CAA-NRC tangle, the BJP is on a backfoot in Bengal, and hence more desperate. The government and the police must play a vigilant role to thwart any such designs in the bud. Bengal needs a strong enforceable law to bring accountability for any kind of communal violence that threatens to damage our social fabric.