OPINION: Politics, verbal duel hot up again over NRC
DHAKA (The Daily Star/ANN) - The final National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam, which may potentially leave 1.9 million people of the Indian state stateless, has paved a new battle field between the ruling BJP and West Bengal state’s ruling party Trinamool Congress.
The fortnight after the August 31 publication of the final National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam has seen politics over the issue hotting up in neighbouring West Bengal, and the war of words between Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress is becoming increasingly shriller.
It is Mamata who began the latest round of attrition on August 31. Since then, she has progressively raised the pitch on the NRC by launching strident attacks on the BJP, piloting a resolution in the state assembly against an Assam-type exercise in West Bengal and finally leading a street march in Kolkata on September 12. Mamata has made her intention clear to take on the BJP on the NRC issue, which fits so well into the saffron party’s Hindutva narrative, as was evident in the run-up to the national election earlier this year. On the other hand, BJP President and Indian Home Minister Amit Shah chose to visit Guwahati on September 7-8—in his first trip to Assam since the publication of the final NRC—and articulate the position of the party’s central leadership on the issue. Until Shah’s visit, it had been the local BJP leaders, notably Assam Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma and the party’s state chief Ranjit Kumar Das, who had been doing the talking criticising the exclusion of lakhs of “genuine” Indian citizens, a euphemism for Hindus, from the final NRC and the inclusion of “illegal immigrants” in it.
Amit Shah spoke at two separate platforms in Guwahati: 1) a purely administrative one provided by North Eastern Council comprising chief ministers of eight states in the region, and 2) a political forum comprising top leaders of the BJP’s regional allies under the umbrella of North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA). It should be noted that the BJP and its allies are ruling all the north-eastern states, where the Congress party has been over the years squeezed out of power. Shah was high on rhetoric on the NRC issue declaring that not a single illegal immigrant would be allowed to stay back, not only in Assam but in any other part of India. He also indicated that the BJP-led central government would bring back the Citizen Amendment Bill to help non-Muslims left out of the final NRC. His remarks were aimed at assuring the key ideological constituency of the BJP in Assam, where Hindus had backed the BJP in the state assembly elections in 2016, and where there is now concern among its support base after lakhs of Hindus were excluded from the final NRC.
BJP has taken every opportunity to point out “irregularities” in the inclusion and exclusion of names in the document. According to Indian media reports, a majority of those excluded from the final NRC are Hindus, and according to Mamata, their number stands at 11 lakh (out of the total of 19.6 lakh). The exclusion of Hindus also elicited concerns at a meeting of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the BJP’s ideological mentor, and its 35 affiliated bodies in Pushkar, Rajasthan, on September 8-9, when the BJP General Secretary Ram Madhav made a presentation on the NRC in Assam. What is unmistakable in BJP’s criticism of the final NRC is that the party is not opposed to it as a concept per se but rather the manner in which the enumeration was conducted.
While seeking to assuage its Hindutva constituency on the final NRC, Shah had also taken care to address another important constituency of the BJP—the regional parties of the north east—during his Guwahati visit. At the NEDA meeting, he sought to dispel apprehensions that the Citizen Amendment Bill would override Article 371 of the Indian constitution that gives special protection to Nagaland and Mizoram in terms of land ownership and transfer rights, their religion, social customs, administration of civil and criminal justice according to their customary laws and procedures. These are matters on which the Indian parliament cannot legislate at present. The apprehensions had been sparked by Congress leaders and civil society groups in the north east after Article 370—which gave special status to Jammu and Kashmir—was abrogated in August. At the NEDA meeting, after Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma brought up the question if the Citizen Amendment Bill would take precedence over Article 371, Shah’s assurance was that the bill would “not hurt” the relevant article.
The advantage for the BJP in the north eastern states is that all regional parties there want the NRC. But the BJP’s main challenge is that the opposition to “illegal immigrants” in the entire north east is religion-neutral. This is also true for the agitation against immigrants in Assam. What appears to have prompted Mamata to play up the final NRC issue now is the fact that so many Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims have been left out of the document. This is evident from her speeches in the assembly during the debate over the resolution against the NRC in West Bengal, and at her protest march-cum-rally in Kolkata on September 12. She has given enough indications that her party’s anti-NRC posture will become sharper in the coming days. The assessment in the Trinamool Congress is that the “flawed” results of the NRC in Assam, over which the BJP has developed cold feet, have provided Mamata with an opportunity to counter the saffron party’s oft-repeated charge of Muslim appeasement against her.
Mamata, at the September 12 rally, made it a point to mention that a large number of non-Muslims too have been excluded from the final NRC. By doing this, she wants to turn the table on the BJP, which favours the NRC in West Bengal, in the run-up to the 2021 assembly polls in her own state. However, in doing so, Mamata, on the face of it, may also run the risk of playing into the hands of the BJP which benefited immensely from its polarising nationalist plank during the parliamentary election in West Bengal, with Trinamool Congress suffering major losses in terms of seats and its saffron rival making huge strides. So, for Mamata, the question is: will the political risk be worth taking?
Amit Shah had repeatedly made it clear that the NRC would happen across India. That is not unlikely with the BJP having a commanding majority in the Lok Sabha and the political acumen of turning the numbers game in its favour in the Rajya Sabha. As far as West Bengal is concerned, much will depend on the verdict of the next assembly polls due in 2021 and how ahead of it Mamata frames the Trinamool Congress’ narrative on the NRC.
(Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent for The Daily Star)