“We have indeed erred in the past, but that doesn’t mean we can’t rectify now and do the right thing.” Imtiyaz Ahmed Mollah, one of the renowned activists protesting the National Register of Indian Citizens (NRIC/NRC) said during a Facebook Live in the eponymous group of Dalit Adivasi Minority Andolan League (DAMAL) on August 30th 2020. Mollah is one of the founders of DAMAL and has been advocating a rectification of the anti-NRC movement’s strategy vis-à-vis the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 (CAA 2019), which is a contentious law used by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to polarise the majority Hindu community, including the ostracised Dalit community. DAMAL is criticising the “No CAA” slogan and demanding a “humane CAA”, which has created an uproar in West Bengal’s anti-NRC movement.
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Mollah and other DAMAL members believe that the “No CAA” sloganeering is providing the BJP with an opportunity to sell its Islamophobia and dupe the non-Muslims, especially millions of refugees from Bangladesh, to step into a trap laid for them, which will not only snatch their existing citizenship but also prevent them to apply for citizenship in the future. The BJP had earlier shown the “anti-CAA” protests as citadels of Muslim resistance against Hindus getting citizenship and protection from the NRC. The strong demands for scrapping the CAA 2019 by millions of protesters, mostly Muslims, helped the BJP not only to polarise the Hindus but also successfully incite a communal pogrom, like the one in Delhi in February 2020. The projection of the “anti-CAA” protests as “anti-Hindu” protests helped the BJP and its parental body Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) reap benefits and demonise the Muslims.
DAMAL’s demand for a “humane CAA” has sparked controversy. Originally a brainchild of Manik Fakir, one of the conveners of the organisation and a writer-cum-activist, the demand has enraged few of the other organisations that have been opposing the NRC and demanding the repeal of CAA. These organisations are accusing Fakir and DAMAL of collaborating with the BJP. The dichotomy between “No CAA” and a “humane CAA” brought a split in the anti-NRC movement of West Bengal and on social media, this tirade is prominently visible. Despite facing an incessant volley of salvo fired by the prominent figures of the anti-NRC movement of West Bengal, Fakir, Mollah and others have been working untiringly to educate and unite the masses in favour of a demand for a new CAA.
Why DAMAL is demanding a new, “humane CAA”?
Talking about the need to bring a new CAA, Mollah said “how can we amend or repeal the anti-people sections from an existing law? Do we simply buy an Indian Constitution from College Street (Kolkata’s largest book market) and then tear off the pages that have such laws? To amend the law or repeal such sections a new law is needed.” According to DAMAL, the movement of “No CAA” is projected as a “Muslim-affair” by the BJP and has kept the majority Hindu community away from the movement as they are feeling themselves secure due to the CAA 2019. However, as non-Muslims are nearly 85% of the population, therefore, they will suffer the most due to the NRC as most can’t produce their proof of birth in India between January 26th 1950 and July 1st 1987, or any document proving their or their ancestors’ residence in the present Indian territory before July 1948, or that either of their parents was Indian if they were born between July 1987 and December 2004, or that one of them was Indian and the other wasn’t an “illegal migrant” if they were born after December 2004.
By making citizenship of India subject to the NRC exercise, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2003 (CAA 2003), has rendered millions of Indians, including millions of refugees from former East Pakistan and present-day Bangladesh, “illegal migrants” in the very land they have been living for years. The CAA 2003 necessitated the NRC, however, none of the anti-NRC movement organisers vociferously opposed the Act or educated the common people about the peril. “Even if they scrap the CAA 2019 through another Amendment, that won’t end the threat of NRC looming large on the people as it’s the CAA 2003 that brought the NRC and any government, whichever party may be steering it, will need to do the NRC as per the law. So, unless the CAA 2003 is repealed along with CAA 1986, which introduced condition to citizenship by birth, no real solution can be found to this peril,” Fakir said.
The “only solution”, Fakir stressed, is to make the demand for a “humane CAA” the principal demand of the movement. He said this will tell the common people, the poor working class, peasantry, the Dalits, tribals, backward classes, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, and all other communities that “the existing CAA isn’t saving them and for the permanent resolution they need a CAA that will provide citizenship to the last person, even a pauper on the street, and without hassles.” This CAA is also needed to provide a “humane solution” to the refugee problem in West Bengal, according to DAMAL.
Sukriti Ranjan Biswas, a veteran of refugee movement in West Bengal and a co-convenor of Nagorikotwo Surokkha O Songram Moncho [Citizenship Security and Struggle Forum (CSSF)], has also endorsed the demand for a new CAA, as his organisation has been demanding the same since 2004 to end the persecution of refugees from Bangladesh, who have migrated to India due to different difficulties. The CSSF demanded a permanent solution to the refugees’ plight, which, according to Biswas, was grossly neglected by politicians from all camps. He also trained his guns at those who mindlessly misled the people by demanding “No CAA”, without specifying how the CAA 2003 has disenfranchised millions and how their sloganeering helped the BJP to project the CAA 2019 as a pro-Hindu Act, which it’s not.
According to Biswas, a new “humane CAA” must be demanded so that it can repeal the anti-people clauses of the previous CAAs and recognise citizenship by birth and provide citizenship to everyone based on a cut-off date. He said, “without a realistic demand no movement can succeed” and emphasised on educating the people, especially the Bengali Dalits and indigenous people. Biswas’s demands and his scathing analysis of the refugee situation did help many to see the citizenship issue from a different perspective.
Why DAMAL’s demand for a “humane CAA” is opposed?
Since DAMAL raised the demand for a “humane CAA”, Fakir and Mollah, who have united 46 organisations of Dalits, tribals and Muslims to fight the CAA 2019, 2003 and 1986, came under the flak from the chieftains of Kolkata-based organisers of anti-NRC movements. The No NRC Movement group and Joint Action Forum, two major organisers of anti-NRC movements in Kolkata and neighbourhood, who have largely withdrawn their movements since the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak, have started a social media campaign against DAMAL, Fakir and Mollah. They have called them “BJP agents” trying to “destroy the people’s movement”.
Countering Fakir’s assertion that without a new CAA the anti-people clauses of the existing Citizenship Act can’t be repealed and new clauses to ease the process of citizenship for the poor masses can’t be added, the top leaders of these groups have been saying that the demand for a new CAA is actually a betrayal of “people’s sentiments”. However, none of the top leaders of the No NRC Movement or Joint Action Forum clarified how they want their “No CAA” demand to materialise in repealing of the anti-people clauses in the Citizenship Act and enforce citizenship by birth or resolve the citizenship issue of millions of refugees from Bangladesh. None of them was available for an official byte, however, through a plethora of social media posts they have clarified that they don’t support any new law but repealing of past amendments, including CAA 2003 and CAA 1986.
This ambiguous demand with zero clarity on how to achieve it and how to provide citizenship to everyone born in India and those who want to be Indian citizens caused an ignominious moment for these organisations. Moreover, to validate their opposition to DAMAL’s “humane CAA” demand, they have equated the new CAA with CAA 2019, to bamboozle their supporters. Through an incessant bush telegraph campaign, many of those associated with the No NRC Movement or Joint Action Forum are misleading the people into believing that Fakir and DAMAL have demanded the CAA––the CAA 2019 is implied––and that this is a conspiracy by the BJP.
Countering them, Fakir, who has been inviting these groups to unite for the larger struggle against the CAA 2003 and NRC, has shown how Prosenjit Bose, a former Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader close to the Congress party, has spread fake news that all non-Muslim “refugees are regularised and can apply for citizenship after a stay of six years in India” under the CAA 2019. This misleading information, Fakir claims, will throw millions of refugees under the bus, as they will apply for citizenship without knowing that the CAA 2019 has only freed those from the “illegal migrant” category who are exempted by the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1950 rules and Foreigners Act, 1946, amended by the Modi regime in 2015, and who have registered themselves as victims of religious persecution in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, upon arrival at the Foreigners Regional Registration Offices (FRRO). Mostly refugees from Pakistan, who come with a regular visa and passport, have registered themselves at the FRRO, for the rest, there is no scope of relief.
How the future looks like for “humane CAA”?
As much the Joint Action Forum and No NRC Movement have been castigating Fakir, DAMAL and Biswas’s CSSF for demanding the “humane CAA”, the more curiosity is generated among the common public regarding the issue. Many Matua sect members, former pro-BJP tribal and Dalit organisations, and a large number of Muslim organisations have come together for the first time to counter the BJP and puncture its communal polarization drive.
Many of those, like Delhi-based Chandan Chatterjee, a veteran refugee rights activist, who had earlier thought that the BJP’s CAA 2019 will provide real relief to Hindu refugees from Pakistan, have realised how a nefarious conspiracy has been hatched by the Hindutva fascist camp and decided to support the endeavour of DAMAL. Other Dalit, tribal and Muslim organisations are also showing their eagerness to fight back the assault of all CAAs on their lives by raising a common demand for a “humane CAA”, which will seriously threaten the BJP’s hitherto political-electoral gains in West Bengal and also disrupt its “social-engineering” project.
If the demand for a “humane CAA”, which will not only repeal the anti-people CAAs of 1986, 2003 and 2019 but also help to secure the rights of the migrants and millions of poor living without proper papers in India, without discrimination, then it will be the best way to secure people’s rights as citizens and curb the state’s powers to disenfranchise the poor. However, as it looks, despite facing opposition from those who have vested interests in communally dividing the anti-NRC movement, organisations like DAMAL must fight a strong battle with the Modi regime by providing leadership to the large bloc of poor masses from all oppressed and marginalised sections. The start of this movement is promising under Fakir, Mollah, Biswas and others. Only time will show how effectively it can win the people their right to citizenship.