Post-NRC, a catch-22 situation for BJP

People check their names on the final list of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) at a roadside shop in a village in Assam(AFP Photo)

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is in a fix in Assam with less than two years to go before the next Assembly election.

“The war isn't over,' said Himanta Biswa Sarma, the party’s heavyweight leader in the state, right after the gigantic exercise of updating the NRC (National Register of Citizens) in the north-eastern state was concluded on August 31, 2019. The exercise for identifying non-bona fide citizens deleted 19,06,657 names from a total 3,30,27,661 applicants. That is a whopping 5.77 per cent of the total population. But Biswa Sarma, an Assamese leader, was far from happy. He said the ruling BJP would approach the Supreme Court to seek re-verification in certain parts of the state.

So was Shiladitya Dev, a maverick Bengali MLA of the party in Assam. “It all seems (to be) a conspiracy to keep the Hindus out and give legitimacy to Muslim infiltrators,” he said, alleging the NRC software was bugged.

The BJP was the party that pushed the NRC since it came to power in May, 2016. So, why are they so unhappy now?

To understand why we need to go back 40 years. That brings us to 1979, the year All Assam Students Union (AASU) started its turbulent movement for deporting illegal immigrants. By then, the population of Assam had swelled by an unbelievable 82 per cent in the 20 years since 1951. Additionally, the Indira Gandhi government had decided to give citizenship to the refugees (40 lakh Bengali Hindus in Assam) of the Bangladesh War of 1971. So, the AASU movement got wide support as the fear of becoming a minority in their own state had gripped the Assamese by then. Soon the anti-Bangladeshi movement took the shape of a violent anti-Bengali movement. ULFA, the terrorist organisation was born, and a killing spree started. The culmination point of it was the massacre at Nelli in 1983, the official death toll of which stood at 2,191.

After becoming the Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi went forward to address the genuine concerns of the Assamese. The Accord (1985) he signed with the students led by Prafulla Kumar Mahanta and Bhrigu Phukan provided for ‘detection, deletion and deportation’ of illegal foreigners. Soon Mahanta came to power by forming a political party named Asom Gana Parishad (AGP). He returned power again in 1996. But no attempt to update the NRC (of 1951) was made. Finally, Abhijit Sharma of the NGO called Assam Public Works (APW) petitioned the Supreme Court in 2009, and the Supreme Court monitored enumeration of NRC began. But the cut-off date for identifying citizens (26th March, 1971) – every applicant was supposed to prove his or his father or grandfather was in India before that date – had become almost 40 year old by then.

The BJP, after it came to power in the state three and a half years ago, accelerated the pace of NRC. It hoped for deletion of the names of at least 40 lakhs, at least half which would be Bangladeshi Muslims (infiltrators), and the rest Bangladeshi Hindus (refugees). The hope was based on the unofficial figures almost everyone quoted. The buzz during the Assam Accord was that about 50 lakh Bangladeshis were in Assam. Indrajit Gupta, the only communist Home Minister (1996-1998) India ever had, stated in Parliament that his ministry’s estimate of infiltrators in India stood at one crore, and half of them were in Assam. So, the BJP leaders thought the deletion of 20 lakh would be enough to heal the Assamese wounds. It encouraged them to give a saffron tinge to the issue. The Hindu refugees, the party said, would be given citizenship. The idea of granting citizenship to Hindu Bangladeshi refugees was initially opposed by the Assamese sub-nationalists, but it died down gradually. The party swept the Lok Sabha elections in Assam by winning 9 out of 14 seats.

But the final figure of deletion came as a shocker for the BJP, and the Assamese people as well. It has led the people to wonder what the ten-year-long exercise at the cost of Rs. 1,200 crore and so much human distress was worth. Abhijit Sharma, the first applicant before Supreme Court too is disappointed with it, and will move the Apex court again. The same sentiment was echoed by AASU, the organisation that launched anti-foreigner movement in 1979. Its general secretary, Lurinjyoti Gogoi, said: “The final figure of exclusion did not reach near the figures officially announced by the authorities on various occasions.”

Under these circumstances, if the BJP goes forward with the idea of granting the Hindus citizenship as refugees, the number of exclusions may come down to about five lakhs (after those left out have approached the Foreigners' Tribunal and then moved the HIgh Court and then the Supreme court over the issue). A figure such as this will be unacceptable to the Assamese sentiments, and may hurt BJP’s prospect in the state. If the BJP backtracks, it will severely impact its prospects in Bengal. The state too, like Assam, will have Assembly election in April of 2021. This is so because, Bengal has a sizable Matua population, some of whom have still not got citizenship. A majority of this large community are from East Pakistan/Bangladesh. Traditionally, this community had supported the Left and then Trinamool Congress. But a large section of them shifted to BJP during the Lok Sabha election. The BJP won the Bangaon constituency and managed large pockets of Matua votes in other constituencies. The Matua support is crucial for any party in about 50 seats of Bengal assembly (having total 294 seats). A real catch-22 for the Saffron brigade, no doubt.

Even that is not all. Mamata Banerjee, the bête noire of BJP in Bengal, vehemently opposed the NRC exercise as she felt it was aimed at targeting the Bengalis. Though the Bengali card she played has not worked, a fear of the NRC process itself has taken root in Bengali minds thanks to her campaign. A large section of Bengalis will be happy if Bangladeshis are pushed back, but no one wants to go through the tedious process of proving bona fide citizenship. After the publication of final NRC, the Bengal CM has called for a movement against exclusion of Bengalis from the list. The campaign by Banerjee may take the steam out of Saffron plan of running the NRC in Bengal, something the BJP thought would target the Muslim infiltrators and consolidate their Hindu votes.

(Diptendra Raychaudhuri is a Kolkata-based journalist and author of books including, A Naxal Story. He is a deputy editor at the Bengali daily, Aajkal)


(The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH)

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