After Assam, the politics over the issue of illegal immigrants and the National Register of Citizens is in focus in West Bengal. In fact, the subject is getting more and more traction since the final NRC was published in Assam on August 31 leaving 19.6 lakh people out of it with West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee turning it into a major plank and ruling out its introduction in Bengal.
Mamata has been on the offensive on the NRC issue not only by issuing strident statements against the Bharatiya Janata Party’s alleged divisive agenda but also by having a resolution passed in the state legislative assembly against replicating an Assam-type exercise in West Bengal and herself leading a street march in Kolkata against the NRC.
Just a week after the march, Mamata travelled to Delhi and took up the issue with Indian Home Minister Amit Shah pointing out that “genuine” Indian citizens have been excluded from the NRC in Assam and it has created panic in West Bengal. She also ruled out NRC in her state in remarks that came just a day after Shah, speaking at a function in Jharkhand, stated that NRC would be implemented across India and those not found genuine citizens of India would have to leave India. Shah had made such statements in the past too and termed these illegal immigrants as “termites.”
Mamata’s belligerent approach on the NRC issue comes in the backdrop of the BJP finding itself on the backfoot in Assam over the exclusion of lakhs of Hindus, including Bangla-speaking Hindus. The BJP has been over the years rooting for the NRC in Assam to weed out illegal immigrants but the exclusion of so many Hindus from the NRC in that state has given a jolt to the BJP’s espousal of Hindutva. There is concern within the BJP over how the exclusion of so many Hindus from the NRC in Assam would affect its vote base in Assam where Hindus comprise 18 per cent of the population. The Hindus had backed the saffron party in the 2016 assembly polls in Assam which helped it assume power there for the first time.
There is consternation among Hindus both in Assam and West Bengal and there is anxiety in the BJP that Trinamool Congress’ stand on the issue seems to be gaining traction on the ground in West Bengal. The fact that the names of so many Hindus did not figure in the final NRC in Assam has caused anxiety among Hindus in West Bengal about a similar programme. And Mamata is trying to tape into anxiety of Hindus in West Bengal about NRC.
Mamata also made it a point to mention that Hindus in Assam were kept out of the NRC despite having valid refugee cards issued by the state government. It is precisely for this reason that the BJP and its ideological fountainhead the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the latter’s youth, women and students fronts are being mobilized across West Bengal to counter Mamata’s efforts to woo back Bangla-speaking Hindus ahead of fresh assembly polls due in the state in 2021. A large number of Hindus in West Bengal had backed the BJP in the parliamentary elections earlier this year which saw the saffron party getting an unprecedented number of 18 seats in the state.
As part of the BJP’s campaign effort in West Bengal , the party has decided to scale up its outreach activities in the next few months with the two main aims: first, to convince the Hindus in the state that the party was not against Hindu immigrants and secondly any NRC exercise in West Bengal would take place only after the Citizenship Amendment Bill is passed in parliament to give Indian citizenship to Hindus who came from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. The Bill seeks to amend the Citizenship Act of 1955 to give
citizenship to Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Jains, Sikhs and
Parsis from the three neighbouring countries.
The BJP’s keenness to have the Bill passed largely stems from an assessment that the Trinamool Congress’ getting a resolution passed in the state assembly against the NRC in West Bengal and Mamata’s street march aimed at expressing solidarity with Bangla-speaking Hindus as well as Muslims appears to having an effect on the ground and has the potential to damage the saffron party’s efforts to keep the Hindu voters behind it in the next elections.
Pallab Bhattacharya is a
journalist based in India