NRC: BJP’s new ‘Ram Mandir’

Polarising Effect: The NRC exercise has come in handy for BJP, but it involves lives of millions

Looking at the unusual enthusiasm displayed by BJP-RSS leaders over the updating of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam, there is no doubt that the saffron brigade sees it as an issue it can milch for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. But here again, there’s considerable doublespeak. On the one hand, top BJP and RSS leaders are demonising Bangladesh every day as the source of illegal migrants and demanding that the NRC process should be replicated in West Bengal and the rest of the country. But, facing a demand for NRC from its tribal parties, Tripura’s BJP Chief Minister Biplab Deb has ruled out NRC for his state, saying everyone in Tripura is an Indian citizen.  A powerful Assam BJP minister, during a visit to Tripura, assured the Bengali majority in Tripura that “not many people ultimately will be left out of the NRC in Assam.”

But in West Bengal, the BJP is seeking to push Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) on the backfoot by raising the demand for NRC because it feels millions of Bangladeshi illegals (Muslims, because the BJP sees Hindu migrants as refugees) have settled in the state over the three decades of Left rule. The BJP accuses Mamata of minority appeasement and feels the religious divide thus created would help it consolidate Hindu vote against TMC.  But in Tripura, where almost the entire Bengali population is of East Bengali origin, NRC is not needed because the BJP is already in power!

If ‘Ram Mandir’ served to polarise voters on religious lines in the 1990s and later, the NRC is seen having similar potential now. Which is why the BJP-RSS has not merely defended the process in Assam, despite no apparent thought over the endgame after 40  lakh people came to face the danger of becoming stateless, but are pitching for NRC in West Bengal and the rest of the country, too.

The BJP suffered a setback, though, when almost half of the 40 lakh people excluded from the NRC draft in Assam were found to be Hindus, mostly Bengalis but also many Nepali-speaking Gorkhas or Hindi-speaking Biharis and Rajasthanis as well, not to speak of even some tribals and Assamese like BJP MLA Ramakant Deori of Morigaon. The hurry and haste introduced in the process by an enthusiastic Supreme Court bench with an Assamese judge in it has been blamed for the huge amount of obvious errors in the NRC. From the nephew of former President Fakruddin Ali Ahmed , an Assamese Muslim, to the wife of Assam’s BJP deputy speaker Dilip Pal to Kargil War veteran Bir Bahadur Thapa to the nephew of another Kargil War hero who died fighting to scores of former army and air force veterans to some from families living in Assam for 5-6 decades or more -- the list of exclusions that should not have happened is very long. At least two sitting MLAs and many former ones have been excluded.

Home Minister Rajnath Singh and Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal have appealed for calm, pointing to the fact that the updated NRC draft is not a final document and that those excluded still have an opportunity to file claims and get their names included. That most of those excluded have taken the assurance seriously explains the lack of turmoil that the Assam administration had originally anticipated (which explains the huge deployment of central para-military forces in the state before the publication of the draft NRC).  But is the time for the claims–objections process sufficient enough to handle the four million people excluded? Assam NRC coordinator Prateek Hajela had desperately sought more time at all stages of the exercise, only to be told by the top court that his job was to make the “impossible possible!”

Apart from the obvious injustice in the case of genuine Indian citizens left out of the NRC, who would then be left to run from pillar to post-filing appeals in courts, what happens to the huge body of stateless people who fail to make it. Has the government thought about what to do if even one-fourth or half of the four million excluded from the NRC draft finally fail to make it! BJP leaders have said they must be thrown out of the country, while Assamese groups like AASU have made it clear they have to be taken off the voter’s list.  Thrown out where? Into the Bay of Bengal? The Indian envoy in Dhaka, on instructions from Delhi, assured the Sheikh Hasina government that the NRC is an “internal exercise” and Bangladesh had nothing to fear from it. That means Bangladesh has been assured that none of these people will be sent back. Is it possible to put lakhs of people in detention camps? Where is the space and money for that?

Former Assam police chief HK Deka has proposed giving those excluded a status similar to that accorded to Tibetan refugees. Some argue for work permits for them but no voting rights and no access to healthcare and education. Will the world’s most populous democracy like to create a situation similar to Myanmar’s Rakhine state where the million-plus Rohingyas were deprived of citizenship after a 1982 legislation? That, too, in a year when the UN has pitched for resolving the global problem of statelessness! 

There has been much migration to Assam and the rest of India after 1971 when Bangladesh was a basket case, but with our eastern neighbour growing at 6%-plus in this decade, that may be a thing of the past. Hasina has streamlined the country’s labour export system to make foreign remittance the second largest contributor to the Bangladesh economy after garment exports. Illegals don’t send back remittances, she reasons.

The ethnic Assamese and the tribals have good reasons to fume and fret over the demographic change, which is why they oppose the Citizenship Amendment bill through which the BJP seeks to give Hindus coming to India after 1971 citizenship.

But the BJP has handed Mamata a chance to play the ‘Bengali card’ by raking up the NRC beyond Assam, because the exercise clearly gives the impression that it is directed against Bengalis, irrespective of their religion. She is playing on the Bengali self-perception that they suffered the most for India’s freedom (British repression and Partition), only for their Indian citizenship to be questioned now, 70 years after Independence. She is not off the mark when she challenges the legacy data requirement for NRC inclusion by asking, “Can (BJP president) Amit Shah produce his father’s birth certificate.”  

(The writer is a veteran BBC journalist and author) 

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NRC: BJP’s new ‘Ram Mandir’

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