There was a surge in people’s movements against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s regime after the contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 (CAA 2019), was passed in the Indian Parliament by his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Fearing losing citizenship due to an imminent National Register of Indian Citizens (NRIC or NRC) exercise, millions––mostly Muslims who are in perpetual fear of getting disenfranchised––hit the streets despite macabre police atrocities. However, while these movements have died down throughout India due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown, the anti-NRC movement of West Bengal underwent a paradigm shift. It’s reappearing with a renewed zeal and a clear objective.
Recently, 46 organisations representing Namasudra (ostracised Bengali Dalits), tribal people and Muslims, that have been steering the anti-NRC movement of West Bengal, have united to intensify resistance against the NRC. Some of these organisations were earlier under the influence of the BJP and its parental body Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The Hindutva fascist camp hoodwinked them with the bait of citizenship through the CAA 2019. However, after understanding the nuances and fine lines of both CAA 2019 and its precursor, the notorious Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2003 (CAA 2003), which introduced the term “illegal migrant” in the citizenship lexicon and provisioned the NRC, these organisations have taken a decisive step to up the ante against the BJP-RSS and the Modi regime.
The anti-NRC movement of West Bengal dates to 2004 when the CAA 2003 was enacted. The harassment faced by millions of refugees in Assam, Chhattisgarh, Tripura, West Bengal, etc, due to state repression invigorated them to demand a humanitarian solution to their plight. The 107th report on the CAA 2003 (at Bill stage) by the Parliamentary Committee on Home Affairs, chaired by former Congress party veteran and former Indian president Pranab Mukherjee, didn’t allow any humanitarian measures for the refugees, pushing them to an abysmal crisis.
The CAA 2003 was brought and passed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led BJP government in December 2003, however, it was enacted by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in December 2004. None of the mainstream political parties opposed the Act or stalled the Bill through any movement, despite having the capacity to do so at that point in time. Apart from the aggrieved refugees who came to India at different points in time, most of the population didn’t even know that they have lost their citizenship and their citizenship is subject to an NRC exercise that will be done as per stringent rules that will prevent any poor person from getting citizenship.
India got acquainted with the traumatic NRC exercise only after a similar exercise was done as per a Supreme Court order in Assam to weed out “foreigners” following the Assam Accord, 1985. Out of 32.9m people, 31.1m made it to the list published in August 2019; 1.9m didn’t make it. Around 1.7m of the excluded are Bengalis by origin and 1.2m are Bengali Hindus, especially from the ostracised Namasudra (Dalit) community, the rest 500,000 are Bengali Muslims. However, West Bengal, or a majority of its Namasudra refugees, got acquainted with this ordeal and opposed it since its inception.
The CAA 2019 carrot
To encash the Namasudra and other Hindu refugee sentiments, the BJP brought the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, which became the CAA 2019 after excluding the Sixth Schedule Areas of the Constitution from its purview due to intense movements against the Bill in northeastern states. The BJP propagated a series of lies regarding the Bill and its benefits. Home Minister Amit Shah, Modi’s chief lieutenant, said during election campaigning in April 2019: “First the CAB will come. All refugees will get citizenship. Then NRC will come. This is why refugees should not worry, but infiltrators should. Understand the chronology—CAB will come and then NRC. NRC is not just for Bengal, it’s for the entire country.”
Following this, while the Muslims, who are not eligible for applying for citizenship under the CAA 2019, feared the most as they thought, and quite rightly so, that they will be losing their citizenship due to an NRC. However, a large section of Hindus and other non-Muslim refugees believed that the CAA would prevent them from losing citizenship, as it will give them citizenship even if they lose it due to the NRC. The BJP also duped many tribal communities like the Rajbanshis, Santhals and others with the misrepresentation of the Act and its features and benefits.
These developments deceived the masses and split the anti-NRC movement of West Bengal, as a section of it vehemently opposed the CAA 2019, calling it an attack on India’s secular character, while the others considered it helpful for the aggrieved refugees who have been tagged as “illegal migrant” by the CAA 2003. The anti-CAA movements and slogans like “No CAA” helped the BJP to consolidate the frightened refugees behind its back, projecting those opposing the new citizenship matrix as enemies of the non-Muslim refugees. To the non-refugee, upper-caste Hindu elites and middle class, the BJP portrayed these movements as muscle-flexing by the Muslims to coax the Modi regime to provide citizenship to Muslim “infiltrators”.
Contrary to the BJP’s propaganda, the CAA 2019 has a very narrow scope of providing citizenship. Clause 2 of the CAA 2019 provides the criteria to modify the definition of the “illegal migrant” in the main Act by saying:
“Provided that any person belonging to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian community from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan, who entered into India on or before the 31st day of December, 2014 and who has been exempted by the Central Government by or under clause (c) of sub-section (2) of section 3 of the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920 or from the application of the provisions of the Foreigners Act, 1946 or any rule or order made thereunder, shall not be treated as illegal migrant for the purposes of this Act;”
Quite surreptitiously and slyly, the Modi regime had earlier amended the Passport (Entry into India) Rules, 1950, through an MHA notification GSR 685 (E) dated September 7th 2015, and the Foreigners Act, 1946. Through these amendments, it provided an exemption to “persons belonging to minority communities in Bangladesh and Pakistan, namely, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians who were compelled to seek shelter in India due to religious persecution or fear of religious persecution and entered into India on or before the 31st December, 2014”, with or without passport and visa.
This gave an immense hope to many; however, it didn’t serve the purpose of the refugees because to get such an exemption, a refugee must register with any of the concerned Foreigner Regional Registration Offices (FRRO). Unless they have registered with the FRRO upon their arrival, seeking a long-term visa or refugee status, the exemption will not apply to them. This means they are not eligible to get freedom from the “illegal migrant” tag as per the conditions laid by the CAA 2019. This means they can’t apply for citizenship under this Act.
The Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) report on CAB 2016 mentions:
2.17 The Committee then queried about the number of persons belonging to minority communities who would benefit from the proposed Amendment on the basis of religious persecution. In response, the Intelligence Bureau (IB) informed as follows:
“As per our records, there are 31,313 persons belonging to minority communities (Hindus – 25447, Sikhs – 5807, Christians – 55, Buddhists – 2 and Parsis – 2) who have been given Long Term Visa on the basis of their claim of religious persecution in their respective countries and want Indian Citizenship. Hence, these persons will be immediate beneficiaries.(sic)”
This was followed by the questioning by the JPC on how others can apply and how their claims will be verified by the IB, to which the IB representative responded (2.18):
“For other to apply for Indian Citizenship under this category, they will have to prove that they came to India due to religious persecution. If they had not declared so at that time of their arrival in India, it would be difficult for them to make such a claim now. Any future claim will be enquired into, including through R&AW before a decision is taken. (sic)”
Though such evidence is available, yet the Bill, and later the Act, was marketed incessantly by the BJP and the RSS as Modi’s generous gift for the refugees, especially the Namasudras, to get citizenship. But there has been no such provision that can even free the majority of Indian poor from the status of “illegal migrant”, leave alone giving them citizenship after the NRC.
Without focusing on these crucial loopholes, which could expose the BJP, most of the constituents of the anti-NRC movement of West Bengal, following the lead of similar movements around the country, raised the demand for scrapping the CAA 2019, frightening the aggrieved communities. It provided ammo to the BJP and the RSS to encash upon the fear and insecurities of the refugees and polarise them against the Muslims.
Turning the spearhead towards the real enemy
This vehement opposition to the CAA 2019 and raising only the question of the Muslim community’s citizenship status, while there have been a very few Muslim refugees from these Muslim-majority countries, isolated the democratic and secular forces, including the fractured anti-NRC movement of West Bengal from the vast majority of Namasudras, and tribal people.
Understanding this issue and the threat of National Population Register (NPR), the precursor to the NRC as per the rules of the CAA 2003, looming large, it was gauged by a few that the spearhead must be turned against the real enemy, ie, CAA 2003, to prevent the Namasudras and tribal people from participating in the NPR. In case the Hindus, tribal masses and Namasudras, who constitute 80% of the Indian population, participate in the NPR, then it will become a successful operation for the Modi regime, and the boycott by the Muslims, who are merely 15% of the population, won’t make any difference.
This publication has been presenting the facts to the readers much before the CAA 2019 was enacted. Former radical left student leader Soumo Mondal, a regular author at the People’s Review and the People’s Review Bangla, has been raising the importance of combating the menace of CAA 2003 since 2019. The CAA 2003 remained layered in the rhetoric over CAA 2019 and by demanding “Repeal CAA”, the organisers of the anti-NRC movement of West Bengal started sending the message that they want to throw the refugees under the bus for the sake of the Muslims.
Mondal wrote a letter to the principal organisers of anti-NRC movement of West Bengal, asking them to change the direction of their movement so that the truth about CAA 2003, regarding which not much is known by the public due to the Indian mainstream press’s conspicuous silence over its notorious clauses like 14(a), is made public and NPR updation is boycotted. Mondal’s letter created a stir since March 2020, and different stakeholders of the anti-NRC movement of West Bengal discussed the issue with him.
With the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown, the anti-NRC movement of West Bengal, along with that of other parts of India, suffered a setback, but it also got a breathing space as the Modi regime postponed the NPR exercise. Mondal’s letter to different organisers of the anti-NRC movement of West Bengal intensified the debate over what should be the movement’s objective.
The renewed anti-NRC movement of West Bengal against CAA 2003
After Mondal’s letter, a lot of qualitative changes started taking place at the grassroots as well as at the leadership levels. Many of the prominent leaders of the anti-NRC movement of West Bengal, who have earlier raised voice against CAA 2003 but were silenced due to the cacophony over CAA 2019, started asserting the need to oppose the CAA 2003 to save the people from the NRC and the NPR.
Tahedul Islam, from “NRC Birodhi Sanhati” (Anti-NRC Solidarity or ANS), while speaking to the author in April, informed that his group has thought about fighting against not just the CAA 2019 or CAA 2003, as suggested by Mondal, but also against CAA 1986, which, for the first time, imposed condition on citizenship by birth. He emphasised on reverting to unconditional citizenship through birth as per the original Act.
Islam also stressed on repealing the Foreigners Act, 1946, which the British colonial rulers had enacted. He said to have a “real rescue from the fear of NRC”, the “Foreigners Tribunals Act must be also repealed”.
“We had earlier joined CAA 2003 along with our demands regarding the repealing of CAA 2019, scrapping NPR and NRC programmes, etc. It was somewhere at the end of the list or middle. However, right now we are bringing the CAA 2003 at the top of our demands,” Islam added.
Jiban Sarkar, who has been a key organiser of refugee movement in West Bengal, tore into the BJP’s propaganda over the CAA 2019. He said the movement for citizenship rights has considered the CAA 2019 as a subterfuge and agreed that the main struggle should be waged against the CAA 2003. Talking to People’s Review in April, Sarkar criticised the random demand of scrapping the CAA and the NRC, without providing an alternative solution to the people.
“These organisations, most of them, are saying ‘No NRC, No CAA’, but why will the people believe?”, Sarkar asked. He said, “efforts should be taken to explain the law, clause by clause, to the common people to make them realise the peril.” He added, once the people will realise the threat posed by the CAA 2003, they will “fight to save themselves rather than looking at party colours”.
Sarkar said that the BJP’s two leaflets on citizenship in Bengali have exposed the truth on the CAA 2019. He said that the BJP has mentioned in its propaganda leaflet that citizenship will be provided to “special” refugees of religious persecution, which means not all refugees are getting citizenship. Also, one of the leaflets talks about why the refugees fleeing religious persecution should get citizenship, which, he said, is ambiguous as “should” isn’t equivalent to “shall”, which was cleverly omitted by the Party to avoid legal complications.
He also said that there “will be an unsalvageable loss for the Bengali national identity. We are estimating in West Bengal itself around 35m to 40m people’s names may be excluded.” He added that “refugees mean 100% Bengali (Bengali Hindus). The Muslims didn’t come (to India) due to partition, rather went from here…Those who came are just Bengalis (Bengali Hindus), they didn’t come to only West Bengal, but also went to other states… The Bengali nationality will be destroyed and that will provide leverage to the Hindi aggression.”
Manik Fakir has been associated with the anti-NRC movement of West Bengal. He agreed to the content of the letter and informed People’s Review in April about the formation of Dalit Adivasi Minority Andolan League (DAMAL), an organisation to fight for citizenship of all people residing in India irrespective of their religion or caste. He compared the CAA 2019 and the gimmicks surrounding it as “launching of products by corporate houses; incessantly they are bringing one or the other thing to bamboozle the audience!”, Fakir said.
Later, reiterating the need to bring a comprehensive citizenship law that will provide citizenship to everyone sans any discrimination, Fakir’s DAMAL has demanded a “humanitarian amendment to the Citizenship Act” so that everyone born in India can be its citizens by default. His organisation is also raising the demand for providing citizenship to each refugee, irrespective of their religion.
The unity of 46 organisations and the road ahead
Mondal said that for the number of organisations joining the initiative to oppose the CAA 2003 to ensure a total boycott of the NPR by the Hindus and other non-Muslims, especially the Namasudras, the Matua sect, the tribal people and others, is constantly increasing. Fakir, Sarkar and Islam are working closely as well on the issue of explaining the threat posed by the CAA 2003.
With them, Sukriti Ranjan Biswas, the renowned pioneer of the anti-NRC movement of West Bengal and a joint convener of Nagorikotwo Surokkha O Songram Moncho [Citizenship Security and Struggle Forum (CSSF)], along with Md Quamruzzaman, another joint convener, are opposing the CAA 2003 bitterly, as they have been demanding an amendment to the Citizenship Act, 1955, that can provide citizenship to all refugees. “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,” The Wire quoted Biswas on the CAA 2019 and the condition of the Namasudra refugees, especially the Matua community that has become a big voter base for the BJP.
As some of the crucial Matua organisations have joined this struggle, it has seriously impacted the BJP. The BJP is trying to disrupt the unity initiative by allaying the fear around CAA 2003 using falsification. This frantic attempt by the BJP to stall this renewed and re-energised version of anti-NRC movement of West Bengal is proving that the movement is taking the wind out of the party’s xenophobic, utmost divisive and bigoted agenda. Hitting the BJP hard, where it hurts, can change the realpolitik of West Bengal and, in turn, that of India. How soon the unity of these 46 organisations will expand and how intensified the movement for an inclusive citizenship law gets will decide whether the Hindutva fascist Modi regime can be defeated or not in the battleground of West Bengal.