Has Prime Minister Narendra Modi‘s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) concocted new lies to retain its eroding refugee Matua vote bank in West Bengal before the Lok Sabha elections? Recently, Union Minister of State (MoS) for Home Affairs Ajay Kumar Mishra, alias Teni, made a controversial comment on the citizenship of Matua refugees. His comments hint that the BJP will try to communally polarise refugee voters in West Bengal with a flood of false promises of citizenship to the Matuas.
Teni said that the Matua refugees can now live and work anywhere in India using the identity card of the Matua Mahasangha led by Union MoS for Shipping and Bangaon’s Member of the Parliament (MP) Shantanu Thakur. Along with this, he said that the Modi government is determined to grant Indian citizenship to the Matua community using the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 (CAA 2019) passed by the Parliament in December 2019, which was enacted on January 10, 2020.
However, Teni’s comments on the citizenship of Matua refugees opened a Pandora’s box, which will only raise questions that are inconvenient for the BJP.
What did Teni say about the citizenship of Matua refugees?
On Sunday, November 26, on the occasion of the Ras Purnima festival, Teni arrived at Matua Thakurbari in Thakurnagar, Gaighata, North 24 Parganas. There he said, “CAA (2019) has been implemented on January 10th, 2020. Rules are being made. Some complications have arisen. We (the Union government) are trying to solve all that. Apart from that, opposition parties and people with opposing views have challenged the CAA in the Supreme Court. The hearing is on December 6th. You don’t need to worry, soon we will start the process of granting citizenship”.
Now there are many layers of lies hidden in this comment of Teni. Since 2019, Union Home Minister Amit Shah, Teni’s boss, continuously lied on the same topic that Teni—accused of saving his son Ashish Mishra, the main accused in the killing of the protesting farmers of Uttar Pradesh‘s Lakhimpur Kheri, from the law by using his influence—uttered on Sunday. After suffering an ignominious defeat in the 2021 West Bengal Assembly elections, Shah no longer promises Matuas himself. Rather, it appears Teni has been subcontracted the task.
Here are a few important points on Teni’s claims regarding the citizenship of Matua refugees:
First of all, if the Union government is committed to the citizenship of Matua refugees, then why has it not publicised the Rules of the CAA 2019? And if the government is afraid to publish the Rules in four years, it is clear that the CAA 2019 does not provide for citizenship of Matua refugees.
Secondly, if the MoS blames the Opposition’s purported plea in the apex court, then the fact is that the Supreme Court has not created any kind of obstruction or issued any stay order on the Union law. As a result, it is a lie to say that the Rules of the CAA 2019 couldn’t be drafted in four years when those of the CAA 2003 were tabled before the law was even enacted.
Finally, he said the process of granting citizenship to Matuas will begin soon. Shah had also reiterated this for a long time. But nothing has been done to give citizenship to Matuas. But with the 2015 amendments to the Passport (Entry into India) Rules, 1950, and Foreigners Order, 1948, several legally recognised refugee families from northern and western India have been protected from being singled out as “illegal migrants”. As a result, if the government had any intention to grant citizenship to the Matuas, then an unconditional citizenship law could have been enacted for them by now.
The Matua Mahasangha identity card
The Matua Mahasangha, led by Thakur for a long time, is handing out an identity card to the Matuas for Rs 85, bearing the Union MoS’s signature as the head of the organisation. Ever since becoming a BJP MP and Union MoS, Thakur has been claiming that this identity card will help resolve the impasse around the citizenship of Matuas. This time Teni gave air to this campaign.
“You neither have an Aadhaar card due to non-citizenship nor the Centre’s Ayushman card for the health system. You are deprived of the facilities of many projects of the Centre. I hear you are worried about travelling. I want to tell you, that no fingers will be pointed at you. The card that Shantanu Thakur is giving you, you can go wherever you want (using it), that card is enough to travel all over the country”, Teni said.
In support of Teni’s statement, Thakur said, “The purpose of the minister’s speech is that until we get citizenship, Matuas are losing their identity. GRP (State Government Railway Police), and DIB (Investigation Department) are harassing (them). Matuas are facing problems in many places. Identity cards are being given to Matuas through Matua Mahasangha. Seeing the card, everyone will understand that CAA has been implemented for them.”
Thakur also blamed the state government for not implementing the CAA. “The state government is not allowing the CAA to come into force, so the minister of state for home has to approve this card.”
Statements regarding Matua Mahasangha’s identity card and the CAA of two Union MoSs are full of lies on the one hand and ridiculous on the other. We will see one by one how these two state ministers lied about the citizenship of Matuas while aiming at the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.
First, how does an identity card issued by a non-governmental organisation fill a person’s lack of citizenship documents? How can the identity card given by Matua Mahasangha be an interim alternative to the National Register of Citizens (NRC) programme that aims at creating uniform identity cards for all those who qualify as citizens? If by showing this card all Matuas can travel across the country without fear, stay in hotels, and show it in trains, then why the Union government doesn’t recognise this card as an officially valid identity card in India through a gazette notification? Even if the promises made by ministers and politicians in rallies are worthless, the written orders/directives or laws enacted by the government are always valid. If the BJP is so keen to give citizenship to Matuas, then who is stopping them from bringing the relevant amendments to endorse the Matua Mahasangha’s identity card?
Secondly, Union MoS Teni mentioned the lack of an Aadhaar card in his speech. However, he did not say that an Aadhaar is not an official citizenship ID, but anyone who has lived in India for more than six months can create an Aadhaar. Aadhaar is the first step in creating NRC, i.e. part of the National Population Register (NPR). On the other hand, he also did not say that voter ID cards, PAN cards, etc, are not proof of Indian citizenship as per the Guwahati High Court’s order. As a result, those Matuas who have these identity cards and who vote in elections—and vote for the BJP—are not guaranteed citizenship and will also be subject to the NRC.
Thirdly, Thakur’s statement, identical to the BJP’s, accuses the state government led by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee of not implementing the so-called CAA 2019 to grant citizenship to Matua refugees living in West Bengal, for political reasons. Now the question is while the granting or taking away citizenship is within the purview of the Union constitutionally, how can the States have a say in it? The States have nothing to do with the citizenship law. Yet there is a campaign going on, and for which Bandopadhyay has also been responsible, that Matua refugees are not getting citizenship under the CAA 2019 in West Bengal due to objections from the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC). So the question is, are Bengali Hindu refugees getting citizenship under CAA 2019 in BJP-ruled States like Assam, Tripura, etc.? If not, would Thakur clarify what is standing in the way of Matuas getting citizenship in those States?
For a long time, the BJP has been campaigning in various border districts, including North 24 Parganas, that citizenship of India—as per CAA 2019—can be obtained by producing Matua Mahasangha identity cards. Many people are getting this identity card by paying Rs 85 and the common people don’t know what data security arrangements are in place for the identity card.
What if the BJP uses the data to invalidate the Matua members after the NPR is finalised and the NRC programme starts? No one knows the answer to this question.
Meanwhile, BJP’s legislator and Matua leader Asim Sarkar said that the identity card of Matua Mahasangha cannot be proof of Indian citizenship. It can, at the most, act as proof of Hindu identity, Sarkar claimed. Sarkar informed the press that he won’t lie about this to the Matuas. Another member of the Thakurbari, Mamtabala Thakur, alleged that Teni has created an avenue for Thakur’s Matua Mahasangha to earn money by issuing these cards.
This Matua Mahasangha identity card has seen severe polarisation among the Matua community living in the vast stretches of North 24 Parganas and Nadia. Those who have made this identity card so far are sceptical about whether it will be of any use and whether their data will be used for the NRC, and those who have not made it are also in conflict about whether they will enrol for it.
Lies about the citizenship of Matuas
Even though the BJP won the 2019 Lok Sabha polls by promising to grant citizenship to the Matua refugees, it did not make any conscious effort to do so. Instead, critics allege that the CAA 2019 was introduced to cheat the Matuas, which did not provide any provision for citizenship. It’s nearly four years since the contentious law was enacted in January 2020, but the Union government has not framed the Rules of this Act but has repeatedly extended the period for its framing by citing various reasons.
According to the CAA 2019, Hindus and other non-Muslims who came to India as refugees before 2015 due to religious persecution from India’s Muslim-majority neighbours—Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh—will not be identified as illegal immigrants under the Citizenship Act and will be eligible for citizenship. Even though they said they could apply, before this law was passed, the Indian government amended the Foreigners Rule and Passport (Entry into India) Rules in 2015, which was again amended in 2016 to include Afghanistan.
These revised rules are in effect, rather than the CAA 2019, whereby people from the six non-Muslim communities who came to India by December 31st, 2014, from these three countries and are validly registered with the Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO) seeking refuge in India due to their religious persecution, will be exempted from being labelled as “illegal migrants” under the Citizenship Act’s provisions. Apart from this, they will also be saved from being excluded from the NRC exercise.
But the fact is that these revised rules, which led to the CAA 2019, will in no way help the millions of Bengali Hindu refugees, especially Matuas, from Bangladesh and former East Pakistan to get citizenship but will act as a trap to identify them as illegal migrants. Most of the Bengali Hindu and Namasudra refugees came to India, especially in West Bengal and the North East, without passport-visa following the partition of the country, also during and after the liberation war of Bangladesh.
They are neither registered in FRRO nor have evidence of religious persecution, which is mandatory for getting citizenship under the CAA 2019. They, therefore, remain illegal migrants in the eyes of the law, especially as a result of the amended regulations.
There are also non-Muslim refugees from Pakistan and Afghanistan, especially those who live in Modi’s state of Gujarat, or Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana, Delhi, Jammu and Uttar Pradesh. Since these refugees have crossed the border legally with passports and visas and registered themselves in FRRO, many of them can get Indian citizenship.
As per the figures provided by the Intelligence Bureau (IB) on behalf of the Union Home Ministry during the debate on the CAA 2019 bill in Parliament, the Act will grant citizenship to 31,313 people in India, all of whom have already been granted long-term visas by the Union government.
As a result, CAA 2019 has no scope to resolve the limbo of citizenship of Matuas. But to keep the Matua vote bank intact, Thakur and the BJP are repeatedly making false promises of giving them citizenship. The fact is, as a large section of Matuas have lost faith in the BJP’s promises, and the 2021 West Bengal Assembly elections have seen the BJP’s support base among them dwindle, the Hindutva-incensed party is now believed to be on the hunt for a new strategy to dupe them.
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