Why Scheduled Caste Refugees of Bengal Are Resisting CAA and NRC

Namasudra refugee activists say that their disenfranchisement was caused by a 2003 amendment to the Citizenship Act, which was also under an NDA government.

BJP working president J.P. Nadda declared during the Abhinandan Yatra rally in West Bengal that the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) has bestowed citizenship upon Scheduled Caste refugees of the Namasudra community of Bengal. This is in keeping with the many instances when Prime Minister Narendra Modi and home minister Amit Shah have promised protection and citizenship to Hindu refugees.

However, a significant section of Namasudra refugee activists are wary of such a magnanimous gift. Many among them remember only too well that their disenfranchisement was caused by the 2003 amendment to the Citizenship Act passed by the BJP regime led by A.B. Vajpayee.

Sukriti Ranjan Biswas, a Namasudra community leader and president of the Joint Action Committee for Bengali Refugees (JACBR) pointed out that “three provisions of the CAA 2003 caused the problems for Hindu Refugees that the BJP apparently seeks to solve with CAA 2019”. Clause 2.1(b) and 3(c) of the 2003 Act had made it possible to first mark refugees as “illegal migrants” and secondly disenfranchise their children born on Indian soil. Section 14(a), created by the same amendment, nationalised the process of mandatory registration of citizens, which was till then limited to the state of Assam.

As with any policy, the bulk of the negative impact is often faced by the most vulnerable sections of the population. In 2005, the state government of Odisha, led by then-NDA ally BJD, attempted to deport 1,551 Bengali refugees from SC communities.

A protest against CAB and NRC in Howrah district of West Bengal on December 13, 2019. Photo: PTI

Biswas remembers joining protestors in Kendrapara only two weeks after the first hunger strike held by the Namasudra Matua community against CAA 2003, in Thakurnagar town of West Bengal. Over the next 15 years, the community has led several agitations demanding citizenship, including a hunger strike in Delhi in the winter of 2011 and another in Kolkata in 2015. In 2014, the JACBR had also filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court demanding full and unconditional citizenship. It is this long-standing demand for citizenship by a vulnerable group that BJP seeks to capitalise on by implementing CAA 2019.

BJP MP Shantanu Thakur, a scion of the family of Horichand Thakur, the founder of the Matua religion, praised the Act in the Lok Sabha and thanked the current regime for granting citizenship to his community. For other Namasudra refugee leaders like Mamatabala Thakur and Sukriti Ranjan Biswas however, the limitation of the 2019 amendment is that it does not directly confer citizenship.

Moreover, the Modi-Shah regime has ensured that the religious ideological nature of the Act undermines the social legitimacy of the genuine demands of the scheduled caste refugee organisations. The refugees have been accorded only the right to apply and that too is conditional upon proof of persecution in neighbouring Muslim majority countries. Members of the JACBR believe that furnishing such evidence will be impossible for the refugees.

While answering inquiries of the Joint Parliamentary Committee on the Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2016, officials from the Intelligence Bureau, R&AW and the Ministry of Home Affairs confirmed that the Bill was meant to help only 25,447 Hindu refugees residing in India. This number is based on existing applications and registrations scrutinised by government agencies. They farther clarified that all future claims will be verified by external and internal intelligence and security agencies. Such a process will not only be long-drawn but will render stateless already settled refugees who have been loyal citizens of India for all intents and purposes for half a century or more.

Adding insult to injury, the current leadership of the country is attempting to limit the rights of the refugees to settle in the Inner Line states, including Manipur. This may precipitate an internal displacement crisis for refugee families who had to contend against similar policies in the 1950s. Large numbers of SC refugees from East Pakistan were relocated from West Bengal to 17 different states and development areas, where they remained without access to reservations in education and employment. Over the past several decades, this population has had to combat political and economic adversity in order to establish a semblance of belonging. The current law may end up destroying their hard earned rights and entitlements by creating investigative hurdles to citizenship, along with internal displacement owing to the exemptions granted to the Northeastern states under the ILP system.

According to a report prepared for the home ministry in 1989 by the Estimates Committee of the Parliament, there were approximately 52.31 lakh refugees from East Pakistan. The committee had highlighted the fact that even with liberal policies for granting of citizenship; these displaced persons did not have the necessary documents to register for citizenship. Even by a conservative estimate, this population should by now stand at a minimum of 1.30 crore, dispersed over 20 states and union territories in contemporary India.

Other government reports say that around 70% of this population was made up of agriculturist communities and were mostly from scheduled castes. Approximately 13 lakh refugees had resisted dispersal policies or not received rehabilitation at all due to various reasons. They had fallen through the documentation net of the rehabilitation division. This population will be extremely adversely affected by exercises like the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the CAA. The amendment of 2003 was, therefore, made with full knowledge as to who it would primarily and adversely affect. The CAA of 2019 seems to go a step further in appropriating the pain caused by the earlier Act and recycling it as electoral capital.

Md Quamruzzaman, joint convener of the Nagorikotwo Surokkha O Songram Moncho [Citizenship Security and Struggle Forum (CSSF)], a joint Namasudra and Muslim forum protesting against the NRC and CAA, explained that the resistance is founded upon our support of the demand for immediate and unconditional citizenship of all refugees. “That does not require any discrimination on the basis of religion,” he said.

Sukriti Ranjan Biswas, also a joint convener of the CSSF, underlined the need for the new forum by stating that only rolling back the CAA and abandoning the proposed nationwide NRC will not see the demands of the SC refugees met. “Even if these policies are stalled, we will remain non-citizens under the provisions of the 2003 amendment. The government should roll back the three exclusionary provisions of the 2003 act and confer unconditional citizenship to all residents of the country,” he said.

By doing so, the CAA of 2019 will become unnecessary, he said. “Rolling back 14(a) will ensure that exclusionary exercises like the NRC will not take place. This way, we can secure the existing citizenship and entitlements of minority communities in India, while extending citizenship to the scheduled caste Hindu victims of Partition,” Biswas said. At the core of the politics of such organisations is the idea of co-operative rather than competitive claims to citizenship.

Modi-Shah’s regime is trying to appropriate the pain caused by the 2003 amendment and recycle it as electoral capital. Credit: PTI

Protecting refugees of persecuted minority communities is certainly a noble aim. Such an attempt should have cemented India’s status as a protector of refugee rights. But, far from receiving international applause, the Indian government has earned the suspicion of its own vulnerable and minority communities and the criticism of global human rights agencies. In fact, the implementation of CAA 2019 may derail India’s relationship with other booming economies and regional allies like Bangladesh during an economic slowdown.

The current political acrimony over CAA-NRC stems from the fact that these policies and laws are false solutions to a real issue. It is the finest contemporary example of the Brahminical method of inclusion, where the rights of a person are founded upon his will to exclude others from society. The Modi-Shah regime is offering the SC refugees citizenship conditional upon the demonisation of the Muslim community as religious persecutors. The choice before Indian citizenry is between two models of citizenship – the inclusive cooperative model proposed by organisations like the CSSF or the Brahminical competitive model proposed by the Modi-Shah regime. This may very well be one of the most significant choices for the future of Indian polity.

Himadri Chatterjee is assistant professor, political science at Kazi Nazrul University, West Bengal.